Cabinet extends the deadline for the Royal Commission into the March 15 attack’s final report. David Williams reports

The Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack has until July 31 to submit its final report, after Cabinet agreed to its second extension.

It’s now uncertain whether the report will be made public before the general election – if, that is, the country goes to the polls on the announced date of September 19.

Given the terrorist’s shock change of plea last month, questions are now being asked if the commission can broaden its inquiry, or at least make more of its report public now a trial’s not necessary.

The commission was established on April 8 last year, less than a month after an armed Australian man murdered 51 Muslims, and injured about as many more, who were praying at two city mosques. Headed by Supreme Court Justice Sir William Young, the commission’s job is to investigate the causes of the attack and if it was preventable.

The original deadline for reporting back to the Government was December 10 but that proved unrealistic.

In November, Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin extended that until April 30 – Thursday of next week. But with commission staff working from home during the Covid-19 national lockdown, another extension seemed inevitable.

Martin confirms the Royal Commission wrote to her office formally requesting an extension on March 31, although she wouldn’t release the letter yesterday.

“Cabinet considered this request this week and agreed to an extension until July 31,” Martin says in an emailed statement. The extension will be “gazetted” tomorrow.

Royal Commission and agencies can’t access “secure physical environments” to review sensitive information, the Minister says, and timely responses aren’t possible with key state sector agencies dealing with Covid-19.

“This has affected the commission’s ability to finalise sensitive elements of its report, and for it to follow natural justice processes to ensure the integrity of the final report.”

Further delays might disappoint and concern some people in the Muslim community, Martin says. “However, I am confident those communities will understand the impact of the Covid-19 state of emergency on both the Royal Commission and on relevant agencies.”

“What we should be concentrating on is making sure that this doesn’t happen in our country again.” – Mustafa Farouk

Aliya Danzeisen, of the Islamic Women’s Council, says an extension was inevitable, given the circumstances. “I would prefer the Royal Commission to do a thorough job, and have time, so that whatever report is issued is as comprehensive as it can be.”

She presumes the terrorist’s change of plea means more of the commission’s report can be made public, as information doesn’t have to be withheld to protect the integrity of a trial. However, she wonders if the final report will be “shelved” by the Government until after the election.

The first part of the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission report was delivered in June 2012 but wasn’t released until August. The Pike River Royal Commission report that same year was delivered faster. The report was presented to the Governor-General on October 30, and released publicly on November 5.

Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations, says it’s appropriate for the commission to have more time to finalise its report.

“What we should be concentrating on is making sure that this doesn’t happen in our country again.”

The Muslim community is pleased with access to the commission and the time they’ve had to make submissions, he says. “Maybe the commission can use the time to talk to more people that they haven’t spoken to.”

Answers still needed

The terrorist will get to see sections of the commission’s draft report, RNZ reported in January.

Farouk says it’s important the commission talk to him, hear his side, and establish what drove him to do what he did. “And then maybe, from the information that they glean from talking to him, they may be able to make sure that our country’s buffered from any of these acts again in the future.”

Not having a trial means the survivors of the terrorist attack and the families of the victims will not have to relive the horror of March 15. “But there are still some questions that will need to be answered, and now it is really the commission’s role.”

Royal Commission spokeswoman Sia Aston couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday. The commission issued a statement on Wednesday morning, which was silent on Newsroom’s questions of whether the extension would allow more interviews to be done, and if it has interviewed the terrorist.

“While everyone at the Royal Commission is very much committed to getting the job done, there are considerable limitations to what can be achieved remotely,” lead commissioner Young says in the statement. “One of the main limitations we face is that we cannot access some parts of our draft report which are currently stored on a secure and classified network.”

Last month, the commission said it couldn’t inquire into guilt or innocence, so the gunman’s guilty pleas wouldn’t directly affect its work.

Danzeisen expresses confidence in the commissioners. But with submitters unable to challenge evidence, some of it classified information from intelligence agencies, she wonders how much of the full report will be released.

“I would assume that they would try to write it so that the public could be informed as much as possible.”

(A year ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Justice Young would deal with classified information, “but there will also be a public expectation around there being a public-facing report”.)

Danzeisen hopes the commission’s recommendations will improve how the public service interacts with communities – “regardless of ethnicity, just how they work with the public.”

A sentencing date for the terrorist won’t be confirmed until the country’s Covid-19 lockdown is over.

* This story was updated with comments from the Royal Commission, issued on Wednesday morning.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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