HE’S COMMITTED TO CHANGING THE LIVES OF OUR MOST VULNERABLE KIWIS
Why he looks out for Kiwi kids
Boomfa”. That’s the word Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft uses to describe the moment New Zealand became a more inequitable country.
It was the late ’80s, early ’90s. The time of the global financial crisis and of Ruth Richardson’s “mother of all budgets”, of user pays educational and health reform, and of benefit cuts.
It was a different Aotearoa to the one he was brought up in. That New Zealand was where Andrew – born in Kuala Lumpur and the oldest of four siblings – played backyard cricket with his Kilbirnie schoolmates and where egalitarianism still fostered a sense of community responsibility and togetherness.
“When I was growing up, there was a very wide middle class,” he says as he reflects on his two-year anniversary as Children’s Commissioner. “We didn’t have the sorts of extremes of wealth and disadvantage that we see now. It went boomfa very suddenly. Right now, we have one in 10 children, about 100,000 – and you could fill Eden Park twice over with that group – doing it really tough.”
These are the kids living in homes without access to enough food, who are twice as likely to end up in hospital as their better off counterparts, and who are at risk of poorer educational outcomes.
They are the kids who drive Andrew in his efforts to address childhood deprivation.
He winces at the suggestion there are people who continue to argue poverty is a lifestyle choice, that those 10% of kids are, somehow, at fault for the circumstances of birth.
“Undeniably, some parents make tragically bad decisions that impact on their children,” he says. “They manufacture methamphetamine in front of their kids or their children are exposed to unacceptable violence within the family.
“It’s easy for me in my Karori home to pass judgement on those who are struggling. But there’s something about the unremitting toxic stress of living in disadvantage that makes good decisions difficult, and it increases the risk of kids being negatively impacted.“
Claims that his career trajectory – from his early days as a lawyer in South Auckland through to his time as a district court and then Principal Youth Court judge – was destined are greatly exaggerated, he laughs.
His children – Sam (23), Anna (21) and Isaac (18) – would undoubtedly back him on that. “They bring a dose of reality to what I do. We’ve got a sign at home that reads ‘Remember, as far as anyone knows, we’re a normal family’. We’re a family with the same issues that many New Zealand families have to deal with. We’re not immune to them.”
Wife Philippa, a lawyer and now a learning support advisor at Victoria University of Wellington, reminds him regularly that “a bit of balance would be useful”.
The 60-year-old’s own struggle with stuttering has been instrumental in Andrew understanding vulnerabilities in others.
“I wouldn’t want to overstate it because people now say I hardly stutter. But as a young teenager growing up, boy, it really marks you. I hope it gives me empathy. And we all struggle with something, we all have aspects of ourselves we wish we didn’t have.”
The commissioner has never been one to shy away from controversy. In 1981, he felt his Christian faith required him to protest against the Springbok tour. More recently, he’s criticised the National government for dropping the ball on child poverty, he’s called for “prisonlike” state-run care and protection residences to be closed, and for benefits for children to be linked to wages and prices. He wants smoking to be banned in cars and more done to curb our binge-drinking culture, the result of which is some 2000-3000 kids being born every year with foetal alcohol syndrome. He worries about teens’ easy access to porn. He wants free lunches in schools.
Still, he is optimistic new legislation that requires governments to halve child poverty rates by 2030 will be game-changing. He tells,
“There are some dark and uncomfortable realities about New Zealand today that we find very difficult to own – and we all need to step up – but this legislation is historic and it’s once in a lifetime.
“I’m committed to earlier intervention and structural change, I’m committed to doing better. Equally, we can’t escape the personal responsibility for our own children who are taonga in the best sense. Nothing is more important than our responsibility to provide love, support, nurturing and good role modelling, nothing.
“I often ask kids how they spell ‘love’. They say, oh,
L.O.V.E. I say – with their parents there – no, it’s T.I.M.E. Love is a four-letter word spelt time.”
And looking two years ahead? The commissioner pauses for just a moment, then says, “I was in Whangarei airport and two little old ladies came up to me out of the blue and said, ‘You’re the children’s commissioner aren’t you, young man?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ They said, ’Well, you keep saying what you’re saying because that’s we’d want to say if we had the chance…’ And off they went. I thought, yeah, I’m privileged in this role that I get to call it like I see it. I can’t shrink from that.”
Left: Andrew says his kids (from left) Isaac, Sam and Anna keep him real. Below left: With wife Philippa.
Top: Andrew at a Premier House picnic. Above: Sharing the limelight with PM Jacinda Ardern.