Next year, 2009, will be the thirtieth anniversary of the Erebus Antarctic air tragedy which ranks as New Zealand’s worst ever transport accident.
The public has a right to know why transport accidents have occurred and the State has a reciprocal obligation to provide an authoritative, scientifically based analysis of the causes of a transport accident. The ancient office of the Coroner illustrates this principle of reciprocity. For centuries in England the King appointed local officials as coroners to establish the causes of an accidental death. It is essential for any community to know why an accidental death occurred in order to prevent future avoidable deaths by accident.
Since 1944 the State, as a contracting party to the Chicago Convention governing the development of civil aviation, has been obliged to provide facilities for independent investigation of aviation accidents. From 1945 to 1990 the Office of Air Accidents, a Division of the former Department of Civil Aviation, which later merged into the Ministry of Transport, met New Zealand’s responsibilities under what is known as Annex 13 to the Chicago Convention.
After Erebus the New Zealand public witnessed the confusion created by two separate inquiries into the accident. Both inquiries made a major contribution to accident investigation. The first, the ‘Chippindale Report’, was completed by one of New Zealand’s great accident investigators, the late Ron Chippindale. The Chippindale report followed an exhaustive and testing site investigation and an examination of the more immediate circumstances surrounding the flight of the aircraft. Mr Chippindale died tragically early this year, paradoxically in a transport-related accident. The second inquiry, a Royal Commission completed by a High Court Judge, Justice Peter Mahon, made a systemic analysis of the accident in its contextual complexities. This meant analysing the whole of the operational environment, including the administrative practices of the operator to the extent that these affected the actual operation. The Mahon inquiry also examined the interrelationship between pilots and the relatively-new computer-based on board navigational systems.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their different approaches, the two inquiries reached different conclusions, causing considerable controversy which persists to this day.
In the 1980’s the then-Government commissioned the Swedavia – McGregor Report to advise it on reforming civil aviation in New Zealand. One of the outcomes of the subsequent restructuring of the Ministry of Transport was to create the independent Transport Accident Investigation Commission, to give better effect to Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention and to avoid the confusion caused by the two inquiries into the Erebus disaster. Accordingly, Parliament passed the Transport Accident Investigation Commission Act in 1990.
The Commission, unlike the Mahon Royal Commission, operates on an inquisitorial basis, taking full charge of the investigation and itself securing all necessary evidence. In contrast, an adversarial hearing involving opposing parties, such as the Mahon Royal Commission, leaves the evidence with interested parties and can fall prey to embryonic contests concerning possible civil liability. Because of the immunity provisions of the TAIC Act and the Commission’s mandate to establish cause without reference to any form of liability, the public is better served in securing the answer to the question ‘why?’
The Commission is pleased to acknowledge that in the 2008 Annual Budget the Government has provided significant additional funds to the Commission. Over the next year, the Commission will implement a strategy to use state of the art information technology and to develop the expertise of its human resources. It will also examine appropriate ways to increase public participation in its investigative processes - while preserving the need to protect some evidential sources.
In a larger sense, the Commission pays homage to the direct and indirect victims of transport accidents in New Zealand through the effort and effectiveness it brings to its mission of discovering the truth about the causes of transport accidents in order to help avoid their repetition.
This Annual Report to Parliament, and through Parliament to the people of New Zealand, evidences the progress of the Commission in achieving its goals over the past year.
Hon Bill Jeffries