The legislation to set up the new successor ministry to CYFS, Oranga Tamariki1 had its first reading in Parliament today, (assuming I finish this post on time) and there are a number of interesting things going on with it that bear discussion.
First, a quick disclaimer: There is a Treaty of Waitangi issue around Oranga Tamariki led by the president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. I have some familial ties to the league2 and have given them some of my time and experience in the past, and although I don’t speak for them in any way, I’m not necessarily an entirely neutral party in that particular issue, so I won’t talk about it much. Louisa Wall, whose partner is said president of the League, also seems to deliberately not be talking about the case and instead leaving that to her Green and Labour colleagues, which seems like a wise separation to make as an MP.
I will say, however, that the government under the Treaty is supposed to do good-faith and substantial consultation with Māori around issues with significant effect on Māori. As Māori children are something like 60%+ of “clients” for CYFS, Māori are essentially the key stakeholder in the new Oranga Tamariki ministry, and have every right to expect substantial consultation, including input on the structure and key points of the new legislation. That is literally a constitutional requirement on the government, and there is an argument that although the structure of the bill has been presented to Māori, no significant changes incorporating feedback were made. Anne Tolley has committed to further consultation with the League in the new year, so hopefully she will take on board and largely address their issues and there will be no need for the dispute to continue.
Like most good (for spectators) bill debates, all of Parliament agrees on what the goals of the bill, broadly, should be, and that a law change is necessary. Evidence suggests that CYFS interventions, on average, are not guaranteed to be safer than the previous situations children found themselves in, which basically means they are, while well-intentioned by all involved, a very expensive and traumatic public relations exercise.
Greater emphasis is being placed on the wishes of children and outcomes for them in this new legislation, which is good, although arguably other legislation around government services also needs to be amended as well to make this a whole-of-government culture change, rather than a rotation of the guard from CYFS to Oranga Tamariki.
The two issues in contention are whether it’s acceptable to remove a clause from the old legislation that allows for extended relatives or community to have priority as caregivers over other people registered with the Ministry. Because extended family holds a special place in Māori (and Polynesian) society, this is basically removing a legislative guarantee that children should be placed within their own community or culture when possible. Basically, the government and New Zealand First think that should be taken into account but not guaranteed by law, and the opposition and the Māori Party think it should, but possibly as a tertiary priority behind the child’s safety and their preferred living situation. I think given the stipulation that it’s actually a lower-tier priority, it wouldn’t hurt to enshrine that principle in full law rather than simply in department policy, as I can definitely tell you that laws get treated far more seriously than policies in the government sector.
The other was a rather odd dig at the Youth Court by Darroch Ball3, who doesn’t ever want 17 year-olds sent to it. (the legislation allows for non-serious offenses by 17 year-olds to go to the Youth Court) Mr. Ball looks at the proportion of offenders who had previously been through the youth court. That’s a terrible way to measure whether the Youth Court is effective. The correct measure of whether the youth court is effective is actually looking at the effectiveness of young people sent to the youth court vs slightly older young people tried as adults. (I have not yet done that, but then again, neither has Mr. Ball, so I will defer to social scientists on that matter, who I imagine are generally in favour of youth courts, if not necessarily of how they’re implemented in New Zealand) Now, there is a reasonable argument that it’s worth giving additional teeth to the youth justice system for when offenders need a more serious punishment. As to views of police on the justice system, frankly, I don’t expect to get a neutral point of view from the police, they’re almost always in favour of harsher punishments, more convictions, and more legal powers. You don’t even need to ask the police to know their (collective) opinion on something, and that sort of rhetoric is just tough-on-crime nonsense that doesn’t help anybody and is purely there to be red meat to social conservatives.
Lastly, there were some amusing parliamentary hijinks around National opting to only brief Labour about the legislation rather than including the Greens and New Zealand first, too. According to Carmel Sepuloni, Labour was not involved and was under the impression that it was a whole-of-opposition briefing until they turned up. Whoops, National!
Overall, this is an important bill that the government needs to get right, and it’s not really doing its job well enough yet.
1 Oranga Tamariki, which apparently translates roughly as “welfare of children,” (or more specifically as “health and wellbeing of children”) has a terrible name in English should never be used by anyone other than to demonstrate how terrible it is. (god only knows why they didn’t give it a similar English name such as Ministry for Children or Ministry for Care and Development) That name is “Ministry for Vulnerable Children,” which starts off by basically assuming that children who need to be placed in foster care will forever be vulnerable. It’s the same issue of whether to call survivors of rape “victims” or survivors, and you can see I fall on the strengths-based side of that scale.
2 If you’re really curious you may be able to find out the connection by digging, but as I don’t make a habit of pre-clearing my personal blogs with family, I will be staying mum on the nature of this connection to protect other people’s privacy.
3 Darroch Ball incorrectly interprets the Green and Labour Parties’ positions as wanting community to be the primary concern in placing children, rather than simply a legally mandated concern. He may just be doing this political effect, but whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem like a fair characterization, and like NZ First’s actual contention with the bill, shows very clearly why they’re a much more conservative party than most of the others in Parliament.