New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - THIS WEEK IN... - Julie Ja­cob­son

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.

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