Opinion: People are right to be angry about the CTV disaster

Political scientist Bryce Edwards argues that the whole aftermath of the CTV building collapse, including the decision made by the Police not to prosecute anyone, should reduce public confidence in both New Zealand’s buildings and political system.

There is a protest planned this weekend in Christchurch over the Police decision not to prosecute over the CTV building collapse that killed 115 people. It’s hard not to have sympathy for those who will assemble on Sunday near the site of the tragedy. The crowd will include friends and relatives of those killed by the collapse of a building that should never have been built, and should have been declared unsafe at numerous points in its existence. The protest will include many others outraged at a system that has been shown to be broken. They will speak of a lack of justice, and they will be right about that.

Authorities to blame

Those protestors will essentially be politicising a tragedy. And that is only right – disasters are, to varying extents, always political. The CTV tragedy certainly serves as a reminder of just how much politics, law and government impacts on our lives. When politicians create rules and systems, they are building the bedrock on which all our lives operate. The public have a right to demand that this bedrock is solid.

When preventable catastrophes such as the CTV building collapse occur, authorities deserve to have some serious heat applied to them. We should expect accountability and justice. And there should be public confidence that the system has been fixed to prevent future events like this. The system should especially hold accountable those who contributed to such tragedies. In this case, it hasn’t.

Therefore, the public are right to have reduced confidence in the political and legal systems, and the Police. None of these institutions have come out of this tragedy with their reputations bolstered.

A Systemic problem

No one is being held accountable for the CTV building collapse, essentially because so many were at fault. This is one way of reading the Police decision not to prosecute. The Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission of Inquiry reported that numerous failings occurred in the decades prior to the building’s collapse. Yes, the design of the building was highly deficient. But it was approved by the city council, and then constructed poorly. Then the building inspectors and property manager failed to properly examine the building after the first Canterbury earthquake. There were numerous other failings.

Given these systemic failings it might therefore be unfair to just point the finger at the building’s designers. And, in fact, the Police decision not to prosecute them was directly based on the worry that in a court case they would be able to point to other contributing factors in the unsafe building’s collapse.

This doesn’t mean that the designers of the building were innocent, simply that their guilt might be shared with others. Hence, no prosecution. This is hardly a situation that should make anyone confident that justice has been served and accountability achieved.

A Conservative Police decision

The decision by the Police not to prosecute has met with a lot of criticism. Certainly, there were different perspectives within the Police about taking a prosecution. The history of the case shows that numerous experts, including local Christchurch Crown Solicitor, Mark Zarifeh, wanted to press charges and believed enough evidence existed to do so. His opinion was backed up by other reports produced in the Police investigation. It was only the Crown Law Office, which took a more conservative position, which managed to convince Police to announce there would be no prosecution attempt.

Police had to weigh up two main factors in making their decision: whether enough evidence existed, and whether there was a “public interest” in prosecution. Officially, the Police pointed to the first factor, saying they weren’t confident that the evidence was strong enough to achieve a conviction.

Most critics would agree that the evidence didn’t present an “open and shut” case for the prosecution. Even lawyers for the families of the victims seem to have acknowledged that a successful prosecution was far from certain. But given the very high level of public interest in finding accountability and answers to a tragedy in which 115 people unnecessarily died, there was surely an argument for going ahead with a prosecution without much certainly of success. Critics argue that the public interest in having this case go to trial was essential, so that the full facts and arguments could be seen in public, and justice could be seen to be done.

Could it have been that the Police put a lot of weight on the likely cost of a prosecution attempt, especially if the trial was unsuccessful? Comments from Police suggest it was a factor.

New Zealand has an accountability problem

Without any obvious accountability over the CTV tragedy, it will now be difficult for the public to trust that any lessons have been learnt, or that other systemic problems with buildings don’t exist. Certainly, the public would be wise to have increased suspicions about the safety of buildings everywhere. We have been too trusting.

So, for example, it is not only alarming to have discovered that the Christchurch City Council approved the unsafe CTV building to go ahead, but also that the Council still doesn’t have a standard practice of undertaking thorough structural checks of building designs. How prevalent is this in other councils around the country?

And of course, everyone is rightly pointing out that this latest chapter in the CTV saga, comes just after the Supreme Court ruled that the decision not to prosecute over the Pike River disaster was unlawful. Surely this must be ringing alarm bells for the public.

What happens next?

The question turns to what will happen next. There might still be a chance of a successful attempt to get a judicial review of the Police decision, and that would be progress.

But what will happen at the higher levels? Will the new Government do anything substantial to increase public confidence in the state of buildings or the legal system? Justice Minister Andrew Little has voiced his unhappiness that the decision not to prosecute meant that those responsible get to walk away “scot-free”, and “That's not right and I think we do have to do better”. But we haven’t heard much from the Minister for Building and Construction, Jenny Salesa.

Although these politicians did not cause this situation, it’s now their job to fix things. They shouldn’t be allowed to fail or to take this issue too lightly. It has dented public confidence in authorities and government regulation. So, they would be wise not to just hope that this episode will soon be forgotten.