Live updates, November 30: Two government agencies charged over Whakaari disaster

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for November 30. Reach us on info@thespinoff.co.nz

7.00pm: The day in sum

Worksafe has laid charges against 13 organisations and individuals in relation to last year’s Whakaari/White Island eruption. Two of those charged have been confirmed as government agencies.

The government revealed its plan to double sick leave from five to 10 days a year. A bill will be introduced to parliament on Tuesday.

Four new cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation were announced. A seventh member of the Pakistan cricket group has also now tested positive.

New figures showed that job numbers increased by over 27,000 in October, compared with September, largely boosted by the general election.

There was a big increase in the number of young people and Māori turning out to vote at this year’s election, according to numbers from the Electoral Commission.

5.30pm: Youth voter turnout up more than 18% – Electoral Commission

There was a big increase in the number of young people turning out to vote at the general election this year. According to numbers released by the Electoral Commission, 18.8% more voters aged between 18-24 voted in 2020 compared to 2017, while 18.7% more voters aged between 25-29 voted in 2020 compared to 2017. The biggest increase was among voters aged 30-34 which had a 20.7% increase from the previous election.

Official turnout including all votes was 82.2%, the highest since 1999, and the final enrolment rate was 94.1%, the highest since 2008.

“This election we saw more people enrolling across the general and Māori rolls and more people voting,” said chief electoral officer Alicia Wright.

“The younger people are when they start voting, the more likely they are to be voters for life, which is important if we are to continue to have high participation rates in future elections.”

Source: Electoral Commission

There were also significant increases in the numbers of Māori enrolling and voting this election. In 2020, there were 58,674 more voters of Māori descent enrolled on the Māori and general rolls (up 12.3% from 2017) and 51,326 more voters of Māori descent who voted (up 15.1% from 2017).

Source: Electoral Commission

4.40pm: Two government agencies charged over Whakaari disaster

Two government agencies – GNS Science and the National Emergency Management Agency (Nema) – have today acknowledged they are among the 10 organisations charged over the Whakaari/White Island eruption that claimed 22 lives (see 3.00pm).

In a press release, GNS Science said it had “not yet been advised of the nature of those charges. “We will take some time to consider our next steps given the broader implications. We stand by our people and our science – which we will continue to deliver for the benefit of NZ … The 2019 eruption at Whakaari was a tragic event, and one year on, our thoughts are still with those who were seriously injured and their families. Our thoughts are also with the families of those who lost their lives and the affected communities.”

A Crown Research Institute, GNS Science is responsible for volcanic surveillance on Whakaari and provides advice on whether visits to the island are safe, but cannot restrict access. Nema, which replaced the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management in 2019, provides leadership in reducing risk, being ready for, responding to and recovering from emergencies.

Volcanic Air, which ran tours to the island, has also confirmed it is among the groups charged, as has White Island Tours for two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

During her post-cabinet press conference today, Ardern said the decision to lay charges was made independently by WorkSafe.

4.15pm: Ardern and Wood on sick leave increase

Workplace relations and safety minister Michael Wood joined Jacinda Ardern for today’s post-cabinet press conference to confirm its plan to double sick leave to 10 days a year (see 4.00pm). Ardern said Covid-19 had brought to the fore the importance of being able to stay at home while sick, and although the Covid-19 Leave Support Scheme had been rolled out earlier this year, she said New Zealand needed “a more enduring response” to the issue. “The global pandemic has taught us one person’s illness can quickly become another’s … we have obligations to each other to stay home and get better.” Wood added that the increase would put New Zealand in line with countries like Australia and Finland.

4.00pm: Sick leave bill goes to house tomorrow

A bill to boost minimum sick leave entitlement from five to 10 days a year will be introduced to parliament tomorrow. “Covid-19 has shown how important it is to stay at home when people are sick. The Holidays (Increasing Sick Leave) Amendment Bill will mean more workers can stay at home if they’re sick, and more sick leave will help support working parents,” said workplace relations and safety minister Michael Wood. “The bill also keeps the current maximum entitlement of any unused sick leave at 20 days annually, which will help make it easier for businesses to implement.”

Questions around sick leave allowances came into sharp focus earlier this month when an Auckland retail assistant was reported to have gone to work despite being symptomatic and while awaiting a Covid-19 test result, which returned positive.

The bill will go through a full select committee process and is expected to come into force two months after passing into law in the middle of 2021. Wood is appearing with Jacinda Ardern at the post-cabinet press conference about to begin at the Beehive.

3.15pm: Worksafe lays charges against 13 over Whakaari after biggest ever investigation

Worksafe has confirmed earlier reporting (see 12.00pm) that criminal charges have been this morning against 10 organisations and three individuals in relation to the Whakaari/White Island disaster a year ago this week.

Speaking to media, WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes batted away numerous questions, including anything related to the identity of those charged, saying the matter was now before the courts. “Today my team has filed charges in Auckland District Court against 10 organisations and three individuals under the Health and Safety at Work Act,” he said. “The victims, both workers and visitors, all had a reasonable expectation that they could go to the island knowing that those organisations involved had done all they were required to do to look after their health and safety. But had they? That’s the question WorkSafe was mandated to investigate.”

The individuals each face a single charge “that as officers of the company they failed to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the organisation was meeting its health and safety obligations”. Parkes added: “The focus of our investigation was on events leading up the interruption, so none of the enforcement action that we’re taking relates to the rescue and recovery operations.”

It had been “significantly larger and more complex than any investigation we’ve undertaken before”, said Parkes. At its peak as many as 28 people were working on the investigation. The first hearing is scheduled for 15 December in Auckland District Court.

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1.55pm: Latest Covid numbers

When the Ministry of Health daily Covid-19 update arrives closer to 2pm than 1pm, you can feel the ripple of nerves. But today’s press release, despite landing at 1.52pm, is not untypical. It reports four new Covid-19 cases, all in managed isolation.

The new cases: an arrival from Ethiopia via Dubai and Kuala Lumpur on November 14 November, who tested positive at day 11 on Friday. Two people who arrived from the US on November 23 and tested positive at day 5 after someone in their bubble had previously tested positive. The other case is an arrival from the US on November 26 who tested positive at day 3.

The total number of active cases is now 72. Yesterday 2,939 tests were processed, bringing the total number of tests completed to date to 1,275,525.

Pakistan cricket squad

A seventh member of the Pakistan cricket group has returned a positive test, on day 3 testing. The remaining 46 members of the squad in managed isolation in Christchurch tested negative. Of the original six cases who tested positive on day 1, two are now deemed to be historical cases, meaning they are not infectious.

The squad’s day 6 tests are to be conducted today. “Following the results of these tests, the Canterbury DHB medical officer of health will conduct an assessment of whether the team members who have not returned positive tests can have an exemption from managed isolation to train. For this to occur, the medical officer of health must be satisfied that training is unlikely to transmit Covid-19,” said the ministry.

12.00pm: Charges filed over Whakaari disaster

More than a dozen parties have been charged by WorkSafe, as part of its investigation into last year’s Whakaari/White Island eruption. A 22nd person died last week due to injuries sustained in the December 2019 disaster.

According to TVNZ, 10 parties are facing charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act and are facing a maximum fine of $1.5 million. Meanwhile, another three individuals have been charged as directors or individuals who were required to exercise due diligence to ensure the company meets its health and safety obligations.

11.00am: October jobs numbers see boost from election; effects of Covid-19 felt

New figures show that job numbers increased by over 27,000 in October, compared with September, largely boosted by the general election.

Stats NZ said the rise of 15,155 jobs from the public administration and safety group contributed the most to the increase in filled jobs in October. “Staff employed for the country’s general election on October 17 drove the substantial lift in the public sector administration group,” economic statistics manager Sue Chapman said in a press release.

Filled jobs are up 28,082, or 1.3%, compared with October 2019. According to Stats NZ, this is the smallest annual increase since a 1.1% rise in October 2012. “Even with the lift from election-related jobs, total filled jobs are not significantly higher than they were this time last year, reflecting the impact Covid-19 has had on the economy,” Chapman said.

10.45am: Biden twists ankle while playing with his dog

It’s been four years since a dog was last in the White House, but the next first-dog has caused president-elect Joe Biden to suffer an injury today.

Biden suffered a twisted ankle while playing with one his two canines, a Reuters report said, with the 78-year-old Democrat getting examined by an orthopedist “out of an abundance of caution.”

9.15am: PM defends record on child welfare

Jacinda Ardern has once again been questioned on her government’s child welfare record, following the release of a report responding to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. The Child Poverty Action Group report found that of the group’s 42 key recommendations, none have been fully implemented. Only seven have been partially implemented, 12 have been minimally implemented and 23 have no evidence of implementation.

Appearing on RNZ this morning, Ardern said there are elements of what Child Poverty Action Group said that she simply disagreed with. “They’ve scored it a ‘red’ on the issue of income adequacy… I just disagree with that. It’s fair to say we have not had the 40% increase in benefits that was recommended by the Advisory Group, we at the time said that was something we wouldn’t be able to do,” Ardern said.

“However to say that there is no progress when we have, for instance, indexed benefits to wages… had a general benefit increase… [brought in] the winter energy payment, the best start payment, family tax credit increases, which means that a significant number of sole parents are on average, $100 a week better off. To say that is no progress, I disagree, respectfully.”

Meanwhile, there’s concern that aspects of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque attacks could be suppressed for 30-years. Ardern said it was a decision that was made by the Royal Commission itself. “A Royal Commission is entirely independent from [the government] and that is why they are very costly exercises, they take a lot of time,” Ardern said.

“Essentially as soon as we have written the terms of reference and appointed the individuals who oversee them, then they are completely separate to us.”

7.40am: Trump admits legal challenges are difficult; won’t admit defeat

President Trump has given his first interview since losing the presidential election, appearing on Fox News (despite a string of recent tweets blasting the network for being fake news). In the interview, the outgoing president admitted his legal challenges are difficult and expressed doubt that he’ll be able to take it to the Supreme Court.

However, he said he’ll continue to fight the results of the election. “The problem is it’s hard to get it to the Supreme Court,” Trump said in the interview. “My mind will not change in six months.”

The Fox News appearance comes after legal challenges from the Trump campaign in major states like Pennsylvania and Georgia alleging voter fraud. No evidence has yet been presented and the results of the election have not changed – except for giving Biden even more votes.

“We’re trying to put the evidence in, and the judges won’t allow us to do it,” Trump said. “We have so much evidence. You probably saw Wednesday last week we had a hearing in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. … Unbelievable witnesses, highly-respected people, that were truly aggrieved.”

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

Just a note: I’m in charge of both The Bulletin and live updates today and tomorrow, so you’ll be seeing a bit more from me than usual. Don’t freak out! 

An exclusive report from Newshub’s Patrick Gower claims an admin failure allowed the Christchurch gunman to access a firearm. Gower reports that the terrorist should never have been allowed to obtain a gun licence because he did not have appropriate referees – but police gave it to him anyway.

Mahrukh Sarwar and Nour Malak from the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand investigated how police let the terrorist get a gun licence. The pair found that the terrorist’s referees were an “online gaming friend” and the friend’s father. Newsroom had the same scoop, with David Williams writing an in-depth report based on the Federation’s findings.

According to police procedure, there are specific rules for who can be a referee. One can be a spouse, partner, or next-of-kin who normally resides with or is related to you, and the other must be a person who is unrelated to you, over 20 years old, and knows you well. “If they followed through their own policies that they set, 51 lives would have gone home on that day [on March 15],” Nour Malak told Newshub.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks was given to the government last week. But, as Stuff reports, it’s possible that there will be a 30-year wait before the public can see any evidence given by ministers and senior public servants.

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