This is an edited version of an article by Rose Northcott in the April 2017 Public Sector Journal. For the full article, please contact: email@example.com
Before taking up this role in July 2016, you had a 30-year career as a lawyer and judge. What were some of the highlights?
After graduating, I got a job with a Queen Street law firm. That firm was entirely supportive of me helping set up a community law centre in Mangere with five others, which led to me living and working there. For the first time I was confronted with issues relating to Māori historical grievances and the long-term and enduring effects of colonisation and Treaty breaches. It was deeply humbling and influential on my legal practice and on my understanding of New Zealand. It began the process of opening my eyes.
Working as a District Court Judge in Whanganui I was exposed to a huge variety of work. Legally, there was no better place to learn. In a city of 48,000 people, you couldn’t hide. People knew who you were. It helped me realise that in a District Court you are a judge of and for the community. It was a great incentive to treat people as you’d like to be treated and that showing respect for people’s dignity was not inconsistent with being a judge.
I was then asked to be the Principal Youth Court Judge. That proved to be a terrific opportunity and built on all my previous experience. You are dealing with a small group of New Zealand’s toughest young offenders who combine our most pressing societal issues. The Youth Court was community’s last best shot to turn those lives around. It was absorbing, challenging and rewarding work.
Eight months into the job, how are you finding the Children’s Commissioner role?
It’s a privilege, but it also comes with a deep sense of responsibility. There are 1.12 million under 18 year olds in New Zealand. That’s the jurisdiction of the Children’s Commissioner. That’s nearly 25 per cent of the population. They are disenfranchised and often without a voice and they are a cohort of great extremes.
I’d say 60-70 per cent do as well if not better than comparable groups in any western world countries in sport, cultural, and academic achievement. There’s cause to really celebrate what’s going on with the majority of our New Zealand children. But at the bottom, the most challenging end, our 10-20 per cent of under-18 year olds probably do worse than most comparable western world countries. Well-being rates for Māori are even worse. I feel an enormous responsibility that we do the right thing for all our children, but particularly that most disadvantaged and challenging cohort.
What’s your involvement with the new Government agency Oranga Tamariki?
The creation of Oranga Tamariki is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a truly transformational, world-leading organisation. We are closely involved in the work of the 100 or so people called the Investing in Children team which is shaping the new ministry. The emphasis is on targeted and earlier investment in children, with a particular focus on Māori, and ensuring a joined-up delivery between major government departments, health and education in particular. It provides a chance to do something distinctively different.
What does it mean for government organisations to be truly child-centred?
Every public policy organisation needs to ensure that a truly child-centred approach is factored into their policy and decision-making The voices of under-18 year olds provide richness to decision-making. It adds to the debate and improves the end product. It’s not a matter of blindly delivering every single expectation of a child. Rather, it’s a matter of carefully factoring their view into the policy decision, balancing it and telling them why, if their view isn’t followed, the reasons for it.
There have been very good examples of where being child-centred is not just a formulaic exercise. These include the New Zealand Transport Agency asking us to conduct a survey regarding children’s views about riding bikes on the footpath. And when Social Development Minister Anne Tolley set up a reference group of young people who’ve been through the system, one of their big consistent concerns was that when they were removed from families they wanted to remain with their brothers and sisters, so sibling unity is now in the Act.
There is a real challenge for New Zealand policy makers to take seriously a child-centred approach and begin to implement it. It surprises me how poorly we’ve done that.
Should reducing child poverty be the Government’s number one priority?
In a sense, in this role, all roads lead to child deprivation. While no one can say relative income poverty is causative of adverse life outcomes - many in that group are well loved and flourish despite tough circumstances - we have to accept that living in relative income poverty is a high risk factor for adverse life outcomes. Living in a deprived and materially disadvantaged environment as a child increases risk. We can’t escape that.
And that is why this office can’t escape raising that issue, which is what we do with the Child Poverty Monitor. However way you cut it, at the most severe and disadvantaged end, there are 85,000 – 90,000 children living in severe deprivation who are consistently materially disadvantaged. We have to turn that around. It is important that we agree on a suite of measurements and obtainable targets, and we already have the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which New Zealand has signed up to, to reduce poverty in all its forms by half by 2030. We can’t get there without a road map which is what I’m suggesting and I’m looking forward to productive discussion.
In my view this isn’t something that is simply a government responsibility. While we look to government to take a lead, if we are really going to make a change, it will involve NGOs, civil society, business and the community. It’s a challenge for the whole country – probably one of the biggest and most important challenges facing us as we go forward.