Tolley says no to state care in­quiry


The on­go­ing fail­ures in mon­i­tor­ing the fish­ing in­dus­try – on-board cam­eras that fail, mon­i­tor­ing del­e­gated by the au­thor­i­ties to a firm owned by the fish­ing in­dus­try – is all too typ­i­cal.

In a coun­try as small as New Zealand, truly in­de­pen­dent sys­tems of over­sight and re­view seem dif­fi­cult to ar­range. Every­one knows every­one, or has worked for them in some ca­pac­ity or – all too of­ten – they are be­ing paid by the same min­istry or in­dus­try they are be­ing ex­pected to eval­u­ate.

As a ‘‘she’ll be right’’ na­tion, we’re not hard-wired to see the ne­ces­sity for reg­u­la­tory over­sight, ei­ther. Af­ter all, our Par­lia­ment runs on a sin­gle cham­ber with no writ­ten Con­sti­tu­tion, a sim­ple ma­jor­ity of MPs can pass sweep­ing laws, and our courts don’t need much re­mind­ing of the supremacy of Par­lia­ment.

In ad­di­tion, a cli­mate of cost­cut­ting within gov­ern­ment can read­ily work against full and fear­less in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the state’s fail­ings, es­pe­cially when the vic­tims may be el­i­gi­ble for com­pen­sa­tion.

Last week’s con­flict be­tween So­cial De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Anne Tolley and district court judge Carolyn Hen­wood il­lus­trated some of these flaws, in full bloom.

As chair­woman of the Con­fi­den­tial Lis­ten­ing and As­sis­tance Ser­vice panel, Hen­wood has heard tes­ti­mony from more than 1100 peo­ple who were abused in state care be­tween the 1950s and 1992, mainly while un­der the care of So­cial Wel­fare.

Dur­ing that time, more than 100,000 chil­dren were re­port­edly taken from their par­ents, and placed in state in­sti­tu­tions. Sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of them were se­ri­ously abused.

Af­ter a pa­tient, be­low-the radar in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Hen­wood and the CLAS panel rec­om­mended that – among other things – an in­de­pen­dent pub­lic in­quiry was re­quired into the pro­cesses that en­abled this abuse, and also into its on­go­ing im­pact, and that mean­while, the state should is­sue a gen­eral apol­ogy for the sys­temic fail­ures re­vealed to date.

Tolley has re­fused on both counts. She has re­jected the need (or de­sir­abil­ity at this late stage) for a pub­lic in­quiry fully in­de­pen­dent of the state agency un­der the spot­light.

No pub­lic apol­ogy was deemed ap­pro­pri­ate be­cause – in Tolley’s view – no sys­temic fail­ure had oc­curred, given that only 3.5 per cent of for­mer state wards had com­plained of abuse.

By tak­ing this stance, Tolley laid her­self wide open to the crit­i­cism that with­out a pub­lic in­quiry, the true ex­tent of the abuse would never be known – a point made by Ra­dio NZ’s Kim Hill in a fiery in­ter­view with Tolley.

As Hill also in­di­cated, some re­spon­dents might well have had mis­giv­ings about con­fid­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences to the very agency that had pre­vi­ously failed to pro­tect them.

Tolley’s cit­ing of the per­cent­age of abuse claims seemed par­tic­u­larly mean­spir­ited. By anal­ogy, only a small per­cent­age of Catholic chil­dren have laid for­mal claims for com­pen­sa­tion for abuses com­mit­ted by Catholic priests.

Yet surely, Tolley wouldn’t at­tempt to deny that sys­temic fail­ings oc­curred within that par­tic­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion.

Re­port­edly, a pub­lic in­quiry could leave the gov­ern­ment fac­ing ma­jor com­pen­sa­tion claims, and this prospect may also have been a fac­tor in Tolley’s de­ci­sions.

Well, Treaty claims for past wrongs by the state are be­ing com­pen­sated, fi­nally.

So far, this shabby episode has done lit­tle to re­as­sure the pub­lic that Hen­wood’s find­ings – and the vic­tims - have been han­dled fairly.

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