By Children’s Commissioner, Judge Frances Eivers.
How can we trust our democratic process when people’s voices are ignored?
Against the will of the public, Parliament’s Social Services and Community Select Committee has pushed the Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill through to its next stage that will effectively dismantle and eradicate the role of the Children’s Commissioner.
A total of 403 people and organisations made submissions to the Committee – only eight were in support of the bill and 311 vehemently opposed it. Those on the front line, working tirelessly to keep children safe, have been vocal about their concerns, yet all these voices have simply been ignored.
I cannot comprehend how the Select Committee progressed this Bill through largely unaltered. When such a clear, resonant message is sent to Government, the failure to listen to the people they vowed to represent speaks volumes.
This Bill will see the Children’s Commissioner stripped of their power to investigate, no longer handling complaints from children and their families, and no longer being an independent monitor who keeps a close eye on those who have power over our mokopuna, such as Oranga Tamariki.
I have been very clear – as have the majority of submitters on the Bill – that creating an ‘Independent’ Monitor within the Education Review Office by definition cannot be independent. They can say they work without fear or favour but ultimately this is a government agency monitoring another government agency and both answering to ministers. Children in care deserve to have a monitor that is independent of Government.
How can the New Zealand public have any trust in a Government that makes sure that it is the only one marking its score card? The Royal Commission on Historical Abuse in State Care and in Faith-based Institutions has shone valuable light on what can happen when people have power over children without these safeguards.
The Children’s Commissioner is a vocal advocate for all our children, yet the proposed changes to supposedly improve the Oversight of the Oranga Tamariki System is looking at the role through only one lens. Undermining the Children’s Commissioner in order to control who has scrutiny over Oranga Tamariki robs the 1.2 million children of Aotearoa of a voice that will hold government to account for their actions – children who deserve better.
On the surface, news of the establishment of what will be a ‘Chief Children’s Commissioner’ and appears positive, but the rest of the changes outlined in the Bill undermine children’s safety, exposes the most vulnerable children in New Zealand – those in care or at risk of entering care – to danger from the lack of effective monitoring.
Let’s also be clear that the proposed ‘Chief Children’s Commissioner’ is not just a name change. Without the power to investigate any decision or recommendation made, or any act done or omitted in respect of any child risks creating a figurehead rather than an advocate with real teeth. The loss of the power to monitor or assess the policies and practices of Oranga Tamariki and their impact on children who deserve a champion who will maintain a close eye while transformational change is being made is the opposite of what survivors of state care have been telling us is badly needed.
The Chief Children’s Commissioner will ultimately become just a chair of the board – one of up to 6 Commissioners – not someone identified and brought aboard for their advocacy skills and willingness to speak truth to power. Commissioners have always been people with mana –
Dr Russell Wills, Dame Cindy Kiro, Judge Andrew Becroft. That legacy will end under this new structure and those mokopuna who need it the most will be worse off.
A board simply adds a layer of bureaucracy and cost which is not needed for an office of 30 -40 employees. It is money better spent elsewhere. Why is the government seeking to fix something that is not broken?
We need to hit pause. This work should halt until the findings of the Royal Commission reports in June next year. To pre-empt that work would be to make a mockery of those who were brave enough to tell their stories. Did we really want to listen to their insights, because we are still designing new legislation without even waiting to hear them?
In the same vein there has been inadequate consultation – particularly with children and young people and Māori – before such significant decisions were made. How can that be, unless there wasn’t really an appetite to hear what they had to say?
The Government has the laudable vison to make NZ the best place to raise a child. Let these not just be worthy words – it is time to walk the talk and put our mokopuna, our children first and at the centre of the decision-making process.
Te piko o te māhuri, tērā te tupu o te rākau – how we treat the sapling is how the tree will grow.