Terror in Chch

Where Christchurch’s response should go next

With public donations all but exhausted the government must step up, says an advocate for terror attack victims. David Williams reports

“We represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values and a refuge for those who need it,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on March 15 last year. “And those values I can assure you will not and cannot be shaken by this attack. We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages and amongst that diversity, we share common values – and one that we place the currency on right now, and tonight, is our compassion and the support for the community directly affected by this tragedy.”

Ardern’s words set the tone for a community outpouring of support for the Muslim and ethnic communities, embracing diversity and rejecting the ideology of racism and hate. Money from the public poured in – including $13.4 million controlled by Victim Support.

Last week, the Christchurch Foundation said it had distributed $9.3 million of the $11 million it had received, mostly of it directly to the victims. The remaining funds are for community support and post-school education and training.

Lump sums paid to the victim’s families, and the injured, and Accident Compensation Corporation payments for the death of a loved one, or lost income, have allowed breathing space for Government support, as it dealt with a complex tangle of issues, including medical treatment and surgery, counselling, emergency housing, and special visas.

“The public donations have been incredible, and the victims have been very, very grateful for that,” Raf Manji, independent adviser to the Christchurch Foundation and former city councillor, says. “But it has provided a little bit of a buffer. And now it’s important that as we start to get to the point where we finish distributing all those funds that the government comes back into the frame with a clear plan.”

“They should all be receiving at least a base level of income support, and that’s not happening.” – Raf Manji

Getting through 12 months is one thing, Manji says, but having something in place for the next five to 10 years is the real challenge. Remember, 51 people were killed at two Christchurch mosques, and another 50 injured.

“That is mental health, income support. Making sure families have places to live that are suitable for them.”

Many families are still in emergency housing, he says – “They’ve been there for nearly a year.” It’s a worry that a “technical issue”, like immigration status, means that’s unresolved, Manji says.

“I’m telling people that, okay, the public donations have been a real buffer and support, but actually government really needs to come back and take control.”

Income is a big challenge for some families, he says, especially those who were shot and are struggling to get back into work. Some widows have lower incomes than others, because it depends on what their husband happened to be doing at the time of his death.

Manji: “I think is completely unfair. They should all be receiving at least a base level of income support, and that’s not happening. That’s certainly something that I want to look into in the next six months.”

Yes, they’ve all received all lump sums, he says. But it’s difficult to generate income from those. Families have enough for a deposit on a house, he says, but without a regular income they can’t get a mortgage. “So they’re a bit stuck.”

“This [lump sum] has to last them a long time and while they get on their feet a lot of them have to learn English, never mind retraining for a potential entry into the workforce. They have young children.”

Wellington lawyer Warren Forster is, through a Law Foundation international research fellowship, developing a proposal for expanding ACC coverage. He believes the disparity of income provided under ACC’s compensation system is a structural problem that needs to be addressed – and a minimum is a good way to do that. Eligibility can be a problem for welfare payments, he says.

“I agree with [Manji] there should be a minimum, the questions is how do we set that minimum?”

He adds: “We need to have a serious conversation about what happened and what we do next, because I think his point is it’s not working.”

ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says: “What the widows are dealing with is devastating and it is important to me that they are getting support. ACC provides income replacement not welfare payments which is why it is dependent on their partners’ income. We have no plans to change that.”

Government agencies have more work to do, Christchurch Foundation independent adviser Raf Manji says. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Of particular concern after the Christchurch shooting is mental health issues. Manji says he’s getting a lot of calls about help – including from mental health providers, who he thinks are calling him because they don’t have enough money.

“The funding clarity is not there. There are a lot of people who are coming to the end of their provided sessions with a counsellor and there’s no follow through. So they’re not sure where they’re supposed to go next.

“Some of them have been told they have to look after it themselves, and that’s quite expensive. And some of them are very reliant on it.

“Thirty sessions sounds a lot but actually, for some people, they’ll be in counselling for three, five years. And so I think there is a long tail of mental health issues, which will start to manifest as they always do in the 12-to-24 month period [after an incident].”

Megan Woods, the Minister in charge of the response to the terror attack, says the Government has allocated $97 million over five years to support the victims. That included $14.2 million for additional mental health support in Christchurch, and $3 million went to the Canterbury District Health Board for the immediate response.

The Government also established a $7 million fund, called Safer Communities, for communities threatened by hate crimes and terrorism to upgrade or implement security. Victim Support got a $12 million boost, while $17.1 million has gone to Internal Affairs for what’s called countering violent extremism online, including work under the Christchurch Call and the department’s digital safety group.

The Office of Ethnic Communities got an immediate $1.8 million boost, plus $9.4 million over four years. The office’s development fund has increased to $4.2 million a year.

Clear plan needed

Manji says if government agencies think that after a year their job is almost done they should think again.

“Actually that wasn’t the case in the earthquakes and it’s certainly not the case in an event like a terror attack, where, for some people this will go on for many years, in terms of the trauma. And that will include witnesses who were in and around the mosque at the time.

Victims are still getting surgery, getting rehabilitation for injuries. For some widows, their children started school this year. They might have moved house.

“There’s a lot of people now who are just starting to really face the future – what am I going to do, where am I going to live, how am I going to support myself? So the 12-to-24 month period is the bit where you need to have, still, a lot of support.”

There needs to be a clear plan through to next year, Manji says – considering this year there’s the year anniversary, the Royal Commission reporting back at the end of April, the trial of the alleged gunman, and an election.

Hanging over that is a recent threat against the Al Noor mosque.

Manji: “It’s very difficult for people to think, oh, I can get back to my job and my life – that’s not going to happen for a long time.”

Rather than having one department leading the response to the attack, he thinks the Government should establish a bespoke unit with decision-making powers and the ability to access government agency services.

“My sense is actually there’s going to be quite a long tail of issues and it probably needs a more strategic response from a group that can actually deal across government at will,” he says.

“Because then you have an independence place, a place everyone can go to. At the moment people access different places, especially around mental health – people can enter the mental health system through so many different doors, it’s hard always to keep track of them, and that becomes a bit of a problem.”

Manji’s message is, a year on from the attack, there has been progress and generally speaking the response has been good. “But we know where the issues are and we’ve got to have a clear plan for the next 12 months.”

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