The Government’s preferred location for a national Erebus memorial in an inner-city Auckland park has passed its final hurdle today after a three-year saga.

It came after five hours of emotionally-charged debate.

Tears filled the Auckland Town Hall shed by both opposers and supporters of the memorial as the vote was handed down.

The Waitematā Local Board this afternoon voted in favour of granting land owner approval to the $3.5 million memorial Sky Song in Dove-Myer Robinson Park in the suburb of Parnell.

The resolution was passed four votes to three with chair Richard Northey and members Kerrin Leoni, Graeme Gunthorp and Julie Sandilands giving their support. Members Alexandra Bonham, Adriana Avendano Christie and Sarah Trotman voted no.

The decision will greatly anger hundreds of Parnell residents who have vigorously opposed the memorial in the busy inner-city park since it was first proposed in 2018, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

But the decision means Erebus families will finally have a national memorial to commemorate their lost loved ones – four decades after the disaster.

On November 28, 1979, Air New Zealand flight TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 passengers and crew. It remains the worst civil accident in New Zealand’s history.

An emotional meeting

In an Auckland Town Hall conference room filled with about 100 occupants, the Waitematā Local Board heard from representatives from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Auckland Council, and 16 public speakers largely made up of Parnell locals and Erebus family members.

Many of those speakers had to pause at times overcome with emotion as they attempted to convince the local board to either support or reject the Parnell memorial location.

The 16 speakers were fairly evenly divided in opposition and support for the memorial location.

Many of the Erebus family members cited the 41 years it has been without a national memorial for the disaster.

Erebus family member David Allan said he would be “gutted” if the local board were to refuse land owner consent today, and there would be several Erebus families who would be “significantly traumatised” by that decision.

Allan said he was not consulted on a location for the park and did not recall any “specific” questions on whether he would like the memorial in one place vs another. However, he said the MCH consultation was comprehensive.

Simon Stokes, whose father died in Erebus, said while it was very difficult to tell what his father would think of the memorial process by the ministry, he suspects he would be “appalled”.

Stokes, who also lived in the local area, urged the board to refuse land owner approval for the memorial.

Perhaps the most controversial speaker this afternoon was Epsom MP David Seymour who was added to the public speaking list at the last minute.

Seymour said this would undoubtedly be a “zero-sum decision” where some people in the room were going to be very unhappy.

Seymour gave a convincing speech on the dubious nature of citing public consultation that had only 250 respondents and believing that it was representative of the entire Waitematā population.

Seymour cited the cannabis referendum which got tens of thousands of petition signatures in support, yet two-thirds of the population opposed in a national vote.

The MP for Epsom asked the local board to “do the right thing” and grant land owner approval.

When questioned further on the aspects of the memorial which he admitted were not perfect, Seymour could not name any.

Following speaking, Seymour abruptly left and his presence was objected to by local board member Sarah Trotman as “just swanning in”.

“He basically came in, threw a grenade and buggered off,” Trotman said.

The MP left the room to chants from one local member that he “should be ashamed of yourself”.

Auckland Council’s Parks and Places team leader David Barker said “there is no perfect site” for the Erebus memorial but Dove-Myer Robinson Park fits many of the main criteria.

Waitematā Local Board chairman Richard Northey accepted that the majority of locals in his area were against the memorial but that was not the only consideration.

He said the local board were elected to give their honest judgement and not merely appease the number of witnesses that were presented on one side of an issue.

Northey described his pride in his local board area being chosen as the site for such an important national memorial.

Representing the Erebus National Memorial Group, Dr Rev Waugh said in their consultation with Erebus families that there was a desire that the memorial should be “accessible, attractive and not in the cemetery”.

Waugh’s assertion that the memorial design was “unobtrusive” drew loud scoffs and laughs from the public gallery.

Waugh said that the memorial “was a long time coming” and it was a sentiment agreed with by members of the local board, who added that it has taken 40 years too long.

Much of the presentation focused on the accessibility of the Auckland location: that many of the passengers on the flight were from the Auckland region and international visitors would be flying into Auckland first.

When questioned by Trotman as to the number of Erebus families Waugh’s group has been in touch with and represented, he said he could not be precise, beyond saying they were in touch with “many”.

Save Robbies Park leader Jo Malcolm opened her presentation to the board by saying that “far too many decisions have been made behind closed doors” in the memorial proposal.

She said she was from an Erebus family, as her father-in-law died in the crash, and “the Rev does not speak for us”.

Dove-Myer Robinson Park was “vibrant, noisy, happy place” and they were characteristics that did not suit that kind of a memorial.

Malcolm said the ministry had “pre-determined” Dove-Myer Robinson Park as the location of the memorial before public consultation begun and had buried the MCH commissioned

A Boffa Miskell report that found the Auckland Domain as the best site for the memorial.

Malcolm said “we are not NIMBYs” and went on to describe the design as a “monstrous dominant structure” which is “entirely out of place on this precious and historic piece of land”.

Malcolm addressed the board saying that by refusing land owner consent, “you are not saying no to us as an Erebus family you are simply saying not today”.

Malcolm said if it were not for a local government officials information report they would probably have never know about the Boffa Miskell report.

Ministry of Culture and Heritage CEO Bernadette Cavanagh and Erebus Memorial project leader Brodie Stubbs also made a presentation pointing out modifications to the design had been made from feedback from the local community.

Stubbs admitted the Auckland Domain committee were not consulted on the possibility of the memorial being placed there.

Instead, the ministry consulted with Auckland Council on the Domain being a location and were told it was not consistent with another memorial in the park.

Stubbs said council did not convey to the MCH that decluttering parks was a priority for the Waitematā Local Board, and they did not want more memorials and statues in public parks.

Cavanagh said appreciation for the memorial could be simultaneously for the adventurous spirit of the occupants of original flight in 1979, and both one of quite reflection for past terrible events.

“I do not think they are mutually exclusive,” Cavanagh said.

The three-year fight

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage has already spent more than $1m of the budget for the memorial, and has been strongly pushing for the Parnell location against fierce opposition from local residents’ groups.

Efforts to influence the local board members continued right up to the final minute. Yesterday, official invitations from an Auckland Council local government staffer were sent to board members asking them to meet with Erebus families in private before the public board meeting.

This final push has been described as “underhand” by Trotman, who said any meeting with the whole local board should be done in a public forum.

“I’m really opposed to it, I think it’s really unfair. What I’ve found is the Waitematā Local Board runs out the red carpet to some constituents and makes it very difficult for others,” Trotman said.

“It’s not equitable. Has the same opportunity been offered to the Waitematā community? No. I really object to this ‘meeting behind closed doors’ business.”

Northey said he had agreed to the meeting requested by some Erebus families, but he and other local board members had similarly agreed to meet opponents of the memorial in private at Sunday’s Parnell Festival of Roses.

“The meeting was arranged by Auckland Council at my request in response to a request from Rev Waugh on behalf of some Erebus relatives who stated that they felt intimidated by the offer of speaking in public forum with the intense emotions being felt by some opponents and some supporters of the Erebus Memorial Proposal,” Northey said.

“I had some time ago communicated to representatives of both the relatives who supported the proposal and also Parnell residents who opposed it to have the opportunity if they chose to speak directly to the board were they to be intimidated by the public forum situation.”

Local board member Julie Sandilands conceded that the private meeting with the Erebus families would likely be an effort to convince them to approve the Dove-Myer Robinson site.

“I imagine that is what they are going to be trying to do, but I don’t imagine that will be any different from the public meeting at 2pm where people will publicly try to convince us,” Sandilands said.

“I guess part of the reason for that is some of the families don’t feel comfortable meeting in public. I think it was a request on behalf of the families to meet with us.

“But I’m keeping an open mind right up to the meeting.”

The local resident group Friends of Erebus Memorial Park (formerly Save Robbies Park) has been one of the most vehement objectors to the Parnell location.

This week, they presented a 30-page report citing dozens of official information documents outlining their objections to the Waitematā Local Board.

The group accused the MCH of attempting to “discredit and undermine” the local board’s consultation with their own residents – 77 per cent of whom opposed the memorial’s location.

The group has also sent the report to the Ombudsman requesting a full independent inquiry into the handling of the memorial by both MCH and Auckland Council staff.

Last month, the group also presented two alternative locations for the memorial, along with architectural designs, to the Waitematā Local Board.

One new location was at the Museum of Transport and Technology Western Springs and another in Hillsborough.

However, the Weekend Herald was contacted by several Erebus families who were strongly in favour of the location at Dove-Myer Robinson Park.

Northland resident David Ling was one of them. His mother, Alison, died in the 1979 Erebus disaster.

“It is distressing to see a small, self-appointed group of Parnell residents yet again selfishly and vociferously objecting to an Erebus memorial in their neighbourhood,” Ling told the Weekend Herald.

“This group should be honest and admit that their objections are based purely on self-interest, false fears and not wanting any changes to what they see as their private park. Forty years is too long already.

“I was 30 when my mother died and my mother never met my children and hence our grandchildren. Now in my early 70s, I think we’ve all waited long enough. And the site in Parnell is after all only 179sq m out of 55,000sq m.”

The MCH continues to cite that in November 2018, the Waitematā Local Board granted land owner approval in principle, but much discussion has occurred since then.

In May, one local board member told the Herald the local board was six to one against the Parnell location, and local board chair Northey said it was “disappointing” the resource consent for the memorial wasn’t publicly notified.

But this week, board members maintained they were still keeping an open mind.

“With more and more people contacting for both sides, I’m not comfortable commenting which way I’m feeling,” Waitematā local board member Graeme Gunthorp said.

“I’m still open to all views and I won’t be making my decision until I’ve heard all parties. The public consultation, we’ve all seen what those figures are, and I’m sure they will be at the top of people’s mind when it comes to voting.”

Ministry for Culture and Heritage deputy chief executive delivery Tamsin Evans said they respect “the views of all people who have a connection to Dove-Myer Robinson Park” but there were other considerations beyond locals’ disapproval.

“We were fully supportive of the public consultation process carried out last year by Auckland Council, which was conducted so Waitematā Local Board members could consider it in their decision-making,” Evans said.

“Because the proposal relates to a national memorial to appropriately acknowledge the Erebus accident, the views of local residents do need to be considered alongside those of a range of other stakeholders.

“The ministry is confident in the merits of the proposal. We believe it will be an asset for all of Auckland and New Zealand.”

In December 2019, the ministry’s Stubbs confirmed the 95sq m structure, entitled Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song, was specifically designed for Dove-Myer Robinson park.

The memorial incorporates a stainless steel walkway projecting out to the horizon on a lawn overlooking Judges Bay. The memorial acknowledges the loss to the families and the nation arising from the Erebus disaster.


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