Terror in Chch

PM’s inconsistent line on terror attack ACC

Jacinda Ardern’s comments on her return to work jar with advice over extending ACC cover to mentally injured terror attack victims. David Williams reports.

ANALYSIS: In April, an emotional Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke in Parliament about the Government’s gun law reforms.

It was 26 days after the Christchurch terrorist attack, and lawmakers had moved quickly, and nearly unanimously, to ban a raft of dangerous weapons. “We are here because of the victims and families,” Ardern said, her voice breaking. She couldn’t recall any victims she visited in hospital who had just one gunshot wound. “They will carry disabilities for a lifetime, and that’s before you consider the psychological impact.”

Five days later, Ardern and other high-powered Ministers vetoed a plan to extend Accident Compensation Corporation cover to those mentally traumatised by the terror attack. They had been asked by ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway to support a one-off exception from the usual rules, which only cover the physically injured and those who are working. As revealed by Newsroom last week, they opted instead for payments and support led by the Ministry of Social Development.

Because of the Parliamentary recess, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues haven’t been badgered by journalists to explain their decision. Ardern was questioned on her regular slot on TVNZ’s Breakfast show yesterday. But her comments jar with official advice and the recommendations of Lees-Galloway.

Ardern, whose compassion for the attack’s victims has been lauded around the world, painted a picture of a Government that wanted to do the right thing by giving victims the best support they could, as quickly as possible.

She said on Breakfast that extending ACC to those mentally injured by the March 15 attack would have been a “significant change” that could potentially alter the levies paid. She also raised the prospect that such a “big change” would require consultation.

“It would take time,” she said. “We wanted to provide cover. We wanted to do it quickly. ACC would not have been a quick option.”

The Ministry of Social Development was “a bit more agile”, she said, and had a “bit more discretion”. “They’ve done it before. And so we put in place a package specifically, that way, to try and deal with the issue.”

‘Murky and unclear’

Wellington lawyer Warren Forster, an ACC expert, says Ardern’s comments appear to contradict advice to Lees-Galloway and the Minister’s own advice to Cabinet. He’s still not sure why the Government didn’t extend ACC for mentally traumatised terror victims. “I don’t think the messages from this morning have clarified what is a pretty murky and unclear situation.”

A March 20 briefing to Lees-Galloway, from the Business Ministry’s (MBIE) general manager of labour and immigration policy Ruth Isaac, and ACC’s chief governance officer Deborah Roche, suggested he make a ministerial directive demanding ACC be extended to mentally traumatised victims. It was something that could be implemented quickly, depending on funding, the paper’s authors said, while noting the move was relatively untested.

Isaac’s next briefing, provided a week later, said ACC was “well placed to quickly address the gap between people physically injured and covered by ACC, and those not physically injured”. Eligibility would be “tightly targeted”, and did not risk expanding the scope of the scheme more generally, around mental health and trauma.

In his April 15 Cabinet paper, ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway asked his colleagues to support a ministerial direction, under the Accident Compensation Act and the Crown Entities Act.

It would be a “targeted, one-off response that is quick and relatively easy to implement”. “I consider the unique nature of these events requires a unique response from the Government,” Lees-Galloway said. ACC’s board needed to be consulted, he said, but that should take only “a few days”.

Treasury opposed extending ACC, while the Ministries of Social Development and Health supported an ACC-led approach. The estimated costs were $35 million over the life of the scheme, including $1.4 million to the end of June, to help up to 680 people.

Friends and family of the victims gather at Christchurch's Hagley Community College the day after the terror attack that killed 51 people. Photo: Getty Images

Ministers’ decision to support mentally injured terror victims through the Ministry of Social Development leaves intact a gap in ACC coverage called out by the OECD in a report published last December.

The report recommended the Government reconsider the stark approach between treating injuries and illness – a division that penalises people with mental health conditions. “A strict and adverse distinction between injuries (covered by an effective and well-resourced social insurance system) and illnesses (covered by an under-resourced general health and a means-tested welfare system), with mental health problems virtually always falling into the latter group.”

Haji-Daoud Nabi, who greeted the shooter with the words “Hello, brother”, was the first person killed at the Al Noor mosque on March 15. His son, Yama Nabi, had his ACC claim rejected – because his injury from March 15 was mental, not physical. Yama Nabi was one of the first people to arrive at the Deans Ave mosque after the shooting, to a scene of dead bodies and wounded children.

He told the NZ Herald that he just wanted time to recover and look after his children.

“I've been working since I was 19 years old. I've paid my tax. They said 'Work and Income is going to help you', but Work and Income just act like they want you to go back to work as soon as possible," he said. “I just wanted time to give the kids a bit of love.”

In a written statement last week, Lees-Galloway said the main factor behind its decision not to extend ACC cover to mentally traumatised victims of the terrorist attack was “the need for fairness for others who aren’t eligible for ACC coverage”.

“It just isn’t providing New Zealanders with the support that we would expect from ACC.” – Jan Logie

That’s why the Green Party wants the rules changed.

Jan Logie, the party’s ACC spokeswoman, said on Breakfast yesterday ACC cover was inconsistent and unfair. “It just isn’t providing New Zealanders with the support that we would expect from ACC.”

But she dodged a question from presenter John Campbell, asking if the Greens were saying the Cabinet decision was wrong, and that mentally traumatised victims of the March 15 attack should receive ACC support.

“What we are saying is that ACC, as it was initially intended, was there to provide consistent, coherent support for personal injury, regardless of the cause, and that we did that for mental injury up until the ’90s where there was a decision to save money. And we think New Zealand families have been suffering as a result of that decision, and we want to see that decision reversed.”

Mixed messages

What are the signals from the Green Party’s coalition partners? Confused, at best.

Lees-Galloway specifically sought advice from officials in the wake of the terror attack because he felt there was a gap in support for the mentally traumatised. But last week he said a discussion about expanding ACC coverage will take some time, adding: “There are no plans to undertake such a reform this term.”

Ardern didn’t acknowledge that gap yesterday, and implied the health and welfare services were capable of meeting the need.

Those mixed messages have left Forster, the ACC expert, scratching his head. Forster has some skin in the game. He is developing a plan to expand ACC coverage through a Law Foundation international research fellowship, and he used to represent some of the terror attack victims’ families.

Most people who experience trauma say they don’t get the help they need from the health and welfare systems, Forster says. Has the Government created some magic pilot in Christchurch to do things better? He doesn’t know – but he suspects not.

“Looking from the outside, with all the knowledge that I have, it seems that one [approach] is probably the most effective way, which is to help the people.”

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