Peter Dunne: Fine words, little action on abuse inquiry

The Government milked political kudos from setting up the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse of children in state care but, having launched it with a fanfare, has now left it dangling with the clock ticking on the reporting deadline, writes Peter Dunne.

Every few days more shocking stories emerge around the world of sexual and physical abuse of young children in institutional care during the latter half of the 20th century.

The scale and detail of the abuse makes it virtually certain that it was also occurring in New Zealand institutions, and that, as elsewhere, it is overdue for the individual and organisational perpetrators to be called to account.

It was against this backdrop that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Children announced at the start of February this year that a Royal Commission of Inquiry - the highest form of independent inquiry we can have - was to be set up to investigate the abuse of children in state care between 1950 and 1999.

The Royal Commission would be headed by distinguished former Governor-General, Ombudsman, and Judge, Sir Anand Satyanand, and, because of the urgency the Government attached to the issue, would be required to report its findings during the current Parliamentary term.

That requirement, and the fact that the establishment of the Royal Commission was included in the Government's first 100 days' programme were designed to show that the Government was taking the issue very seriously. And because this Government prides itself as a "listening" Government, Sir Anand's first task upon appointment would be to conduct a public consultation on the scope of the Inquiry and its proposed terms of reference.

During the following three months, he did so with typical thoroughness, receiving and hearing over 400 written and oral submissions, engaging widely with victims groups, church organisations and others.

By the end of May, he was able to propose revised terms of reference for consideration by the Government.

And there the matter rests.

The Government that was so keen to announce the establishment of the Royal Commission within its first 100 days seems to have done nothing to advance it in the now more than 100 days since Sir Anand reported back on the terms of reference and the scope of the Inquiry.

The commencement of the Inquiry is no nearer than it was some months ago, yet the clock is still ticking.

The Royal Commission is still expected to complete its work and submit its final report during the term of the current Parliament. (In practical terms, if the Government is intending to take any action on the Royal Commission's final recommendations, before the next election, it will need to receive the report by about February 2020 at the latest.)

" ... this Government is emerging as essentially a good news one, with an almost pathological sense of avoidance of difficult or unpopular decisions.."

When the Royal Commission was announced the Prime Minister lauded it as a "chance to confront our history" and a "significant step".

The Minister for Children was no less voluble, acknowledging the scope of children who were abused, the impact on their families, whanau and communities, and the need to make sure it never happened again.

Fine words indeed, but perhaps the Prime Minister's final comment that day put the Inquiry's establishment into its proper perspective from the Government's point of view. Her closing focus was not about the children, the victims, or the failures, but about the fact that establishing the Inquiry was the final step in the Government's first 100 days' plan.

Yet those same gushing and enthusiastic Ministers have failed to respond to Sir Anand's recommendations on the final scope and terms of reference of the Inquiry, and have yet to name the other members of the Royal Commission, or finalise its budget.

As each day of inaction passes, it becomes more and more difficult, for the Royal Commission, when it eventually gets underway, to carry out its work in the thorough and professional manner expected, and still meet the deadline of reporting this Parliamentary term.

For the victims of institutional abuse awaiting their say, and all those affected in one way or the other, the inexplicable delays in the Government's final approval of the terms of reference are extremely frustrating.

The Government obviously wants to milk political kudos from having set up the Inquiry, which is why it wants it wrapped up this term, but it seems wary of broadening its scope, lest it lead to too many unpleasant findings with implications for knotty questions like compensation.

As this Government is emerging as essentially a good news one, with an almost pathological sense of avoidance of difficult or unpopular decisions, having tough recommendations dropped on its plate, just before an election, would be too much to bear.

It is also worth noting that the Minister overseeing this Royal Commission, Tracey Martin, is the same Minister overseeing the Inquiry into the appointment of the Deputy Police Commissioner. She is already considered to be out of her depth dealing with that much more specific and low-level Inquiry, and it is extremely concerning that she seems to be similarly struggling with this far more important Royal Commission.

The situation is, frankly, unacceptable.

The abuse generations of children suffered in state and other institutions of care in the latter half of the 20th century is way too serious for there to be any further delay in its investigation and ultimate redress.

The Royal Commission should be enabled to get on with its job as soon as possible, and given every official support to so thoroughly and professionally, as it would wish.

Institutional child abuse is too important an issue to be left dangling, waiting for another struggling Minister to decide what to do next.

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