Keep talking until justice is done

Talk without action is empty, but action without talking is dangerous, writes Dr Tom Noakes-Duncan in the wake of a justice summit described as a 'talk-fest'

Before the Government’s criminal justice summit was even under way it was already being dismissed as a “talk-fest”, an excuse for a Government that has no clear strategy on how criminal justice reform should proceed.

On attending the summit, National’s Mark Mitchell likened it to a “counselling session” and suggested some participants get a separate room so the real strategy conversation could get going.

It’s true, many of us are impatient with all this talking. Too much hui not enough doey. Driving this expediency is the need to respond to the people suffering right now. We needed change yesterday rather than talking about it for tomorrow.

Yet I am convinced the change we seek will demand even more talking, and especially more listening. Partly because any change to a justice system as complex as ours will require listening to all the actors within it. But more so because there can be no justice without truth.

The two emotive moments that dominated reporting of the summit, Anzac Wallace decrying the lack of Māori voices on day one and Jayne Crothall’s tragic story of the death of her daughter on day two, were not instances of emotions boiling over but a demand we tell the truth about our past, and acknowledge what is needed to put it right.

For Pākehā like myself, listening to the experiences and desires of Māori may just uncover my own complicity with the bias greasing the justice pipeline. Not having endured family or sexual violence, listening to survivors may just expose me to the responsibility of being a mindful and watching neighbour.

Perhaps the greatest defence of more talking – and listening – is that government alone cannot save us.

Perhaps more than talk, we need dialogue. Without it, individual stories compete for air time, many people are silenced or drowned out. Transformative justice comes through the truthful exchange of stories and perspectives, making all aware of our obligations and responsibilites, partnerships and relationships.

Of course, talk without action is empty. But action without talking is dangerous. If Justice Minister Andrew Little simply announced a course of action without first engaging in the messy and humbling process of listening, a strategy would be done to us but not with us.

Perhaps the greatest defence of more talking – and listening – is that government alone cannot save us. The same goes for Māori and victim advocates. In fact, reform of the criminal justice system alone is not enough. A very truthful conversation with the health and education sectors and their contribution to the present crisis is long overdue.

In our rush to hear what strategies will follow the summit, perhaps we missed the most important lesson. Time and again we heard examples of redeemed people redeeming people. Just as hurt people hurt people, the opposite is also true. Those with lived experience, who embody in their lives the transformation we all want to see, they should be the foundation of any strategy for reform.

In the months that follow, it will be all too easy to play one set of interests against another, bartering the voice of victims against the needs of offenders, Māori against colonisers, Government targets against community safety. Not only will this leave us unchanged or worse off, it will distract us from the opportunity to achieve a larger measure of justice.

In its broadest sense, justice is arguably concerned with right relationships. The justice summit, I hope, begins the process of truthfully acknowledging all that is needed to put right all that is currently wrong or harmful about our relationships in society. Our collective responsibility is to keep talking until our actions catch up.

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