We last spoke to Judge Andrew Becroft five years ago as he was about to take up his new job as the Children’s Commissioner — and that kōrero is still worth checking out if you missed it the first time. Dale Husband caught up with Andrew again just over a week ago, as he was about to step down from his role as the country’s top children’s advocate.
Kia ora, Andrew. You’re about to finish your term as our Commissioner for Children, and now I wonder if you might reflect on that experience — perhaps starting with what you consider has been the most satisfying aspect about your role?
I think it was hearing directly from children and young people about what really concerned them — and taking that to government. And, in some cases, getting real change.
Like, for example, banning adults from smoking in cars where there are children. Like 17-year-olds being included in the youth justice system. Like 200,000 students at the more marginalised end of our schools getting free school lunches.
They’re things that I can celebrate with others who advocated for them as well. The kumara doesn’t tell of its own sweetness. But we were involved in those things. Children told us about those issues and then there was action. And that’s so encouraging.
You developed a role for a Māori Assistant Children’s Commissioner. Has that fulfilled what you’d hoped for?
Yes, it has. As a grey-haired Pākehā man, I started out acutely aware that our office had to reflect both a Treaty relationship in our governance, and a te ao Māori view.
And the best I could do was to appoint an Assistant Māori Commissioner. That wasn’t the title that I wanted. I wished it could’ve been Co-Commissioner, to reflect the fact that here we were, Glenis Philip-Barbara and I, standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
But it’s been a Co-Commissioner relationship in practice, and it’s absolutely widened my view of things.
I’ve had a genuinely authentic Māori lens over the issues that we face, and I think — as is the way with good Treaty relationships — one plus one equals three.
I’ve been so helped by the steely, forceful, gracious advocacy from Glenis, and I’ve learned a huge amount from working with her.
You’ve also championed Māori responses to the high numbers of our tamariki Māori in state care. What’s your assessment of how that’s proceeding?
I am cautiously optimistic.
The last of a series of reports — and they have all been singing the same song — was the ministerial advisory group’s recommendations for more community involvement, more devolution of resources and power to Māori, to iwi, to Māori organisations.
I think there’s an unstoppable tidal wave of change to get Oranga Tamariki back on course.
So, my assessment is that there’s a lot of mahi to be done to put that into practice. But the case for transformation is now unarguable. There are too many people invested in the transformation of the organisation for the change not to take place.
And that’s going to mean Oranga Tamariki shrinks, the community grows, and there’s a real emphasis on prevention. I’m quite excited, because this was the original vision back in 1989 — it just didn’t materialise.
We don’t often have a second chance for a revolution. But this is our chance, and we must grab it.
Unlike other roles, you’ve had the opportunity to visit facilities, many of them ageing and forbidding but still used to house vulnerable kids. What sticks most in your mind? What upsets you the most when you’ve been visiting those facilities?
I think it’s the fact that well-meaning officials and community workers and social workers were operating in a model that was unfit for purpose.
These big residences had their origins in the philanthropy of the 1800s — the poor houses, the orphanages, and the children’s homes.
But the idea that we could take those children from the most troubled, traumatic, and difficult backgrounds, aggregate maybe up to 40 of them together, and separate them from mainstream, and then expect that this would be an effective and enduring recipe for rehabilitation, is plainly wrong. It’s outdated. And it just doesn’t work.
What upset me most, I guess, was to see so many people toiling to do their conscientious best in substandard facilities in some cases, and in the context of a model that was so last-century.
What are your expectations now of the role of iwi Māori, of Māori communities and whanau Māori?
All around the country I meet iwi Māori organisations who say: “Our time has come.”
It may have been that, in the ‘80s or ‘90s, they were absolutely, and understandably, committed to ensuring that water and land and Māori rights and Waitangi Tribunal processes were in place.
But what I hear from all quarters now is this: “We must prioritise children. We must prioritise our mokopuna. And we’re up for that challenge.”
It might not be straight away. And we might do it in different ways — and that’s why we talk about “by-Māori, for-Māori” approaches — but I’m hugely heartened by what I’m hearing about a willingness to get involved and take the lead. To be involved in prevention, to be involved in support and assistance.
I guess at the heart of it is that for all of us, for whānau, there’s no greater treasure than a child. There is no greater responsibility than bringing up a child, and that has to be our number one priority.
If we’re responsible for children, absolutely nothing is more important, and we’ve got to give all that we have to ensure that they live a life that is safe, fulfilling and meaningful.
And that, in a sense, is our legacy as adults.
Obstacles with housing, education, health and employment all contribute to Māori getting trapped by the system, so a wider lens seems needed to shape the future. What are your thoughts there, Andrew?
New Zealand in 2021 is facing some systemic issues, chief of which is income inequality and the disadvantage coming from that.
We have at least 125,000 children and families who are doing it really, really tough — contending with ingrained, intergenerational, almost chronic disadvantage. And Māori and Pasifika are, sadly, disproportionately represented in that group.
Yes, there are legacies of colonisation and modern-day racism, and those two feed off each other. But at the heart of it, now, is the need to address income inequality, because the tentacles of poverty reach out into so many other areas — educational engagement and achievement, health outcomes, abuse and neglect, involvement in the justice system.
If we could address income inequality, as sure as night follows day, so would those other issues improve too. That’s the big challenge for any government in New Zealand now.
We can no longer tolerate a community where too many children don’t live a decent life. They could live a decent life if we were committed to it. And my question is: Why don’t we make that commitment? Why doesn’t the government put that proper safety net in place?
Also, maybe we should be questioning the limits of the mandate given to the role of Children’s Commissioner. Are the Commissioner’s powers wide enough?
That’s a good question.
We have a very wide-ranging advocacy, monitoring and assessment role — but, in the end, our levers are recommendations, the power of our analysis and reports, and the strengths of our advocacy.
Provided these are informed by children’s voices, and young people’s voices, I hope that we’re feeding into change policy and practice.
You’re right, though. Our levers are pretty minimal. We don’t have direct power. But I think the office is respected, and I know the government takes our views seriously.
For instance, we were strong about benefits being linked to wage growth. And they’re linked now, so the gap between benefit levels and wages won’t get any bigger, and I’m glad about that.
So, the right recommendations and the right advocacy can bring about change. But you’re asking me: should we have more direct powers? And I’m not sure about that. We’re not elected. We’re appointed by the government to speak into the policy world, and I hope that our input does bring about change. I know that it has in some instances.
I say this respectfully but, through the media, it seems that the Commissioner’s role is preoccupied by the challenges of a relatively small percentage of New Zealand kids. So, what has been uplifting for you in the big picture of the future for New Zealand children?
I’ve tried to keep in mind that there are 1.1 million children here, and you’re right that I do have a responsibility for all children of Aotearoa New Zealand.
But, of course, it’s like working in a gravitational force field. We get pulled towards the needs of the most disadvantaged, so that has become a recurring theme in the role. I can tell you, though, that I’ve travelled around all of New Zealand, and I’ve tried to speak to as many children and young people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, as I can.
And I am constantly encouraged, constantly uplifted, constantly optimistic when I see their abilities, their honesty, their commitment, and their idealism. It isn’t all doom and gloom. For 70 percent of our children, New Zealand is a fantastic place to grow up.
I never want to convey the view that poverty equals bad outcomes, although poverty does increase the risk of bad outcomes.
But when I see the Manu Kōrero speech competitions that I’ve been a part of, when I see kapa haka, or the AIMS Games, or children and young people playing sports — and that’s just an obsession of mine — I see constant high standards, success and commitment. And that does the heart good.
While I often talk about the more challenging aspects of childhood in New Zealand, I never cease to rejoice in childhood, and seeing children thrive and flourish.
You and I have spoken before about some of the wonderful skills and attributes our young people have, so much so you believe that they should be voting at an earlier age. Do you think our generation overlooks what they can bring to the table? Do we as pakeke need to listen to them more intently to help them build their futures?
We absolutely do. I think we all benefit if we bring children to the table and if we ask them for their views and if we ask them to participate and contribute.
The Māori staff in my office tell me that pre-colonised New Zealand was a land where children were not only valued but were also involved and included in community decision-making.
That’s not something we do so well in New Zealand now.
Whether that’s because of the view of our Victorian English forebears that children should be seen and not heard, or whether that’s because we think we’re preparing children to have views as adults, but not have them now, I’m not sure.
But I do think that hearing from children, hearing their voice, is just so crucial, so valuable — and it’s also their right, under the United Nations Convention.
I can give example after example where children’s views have improved government policy, so I just say: “Bring it on. Let’s hear more from children.”
We don’t have to do everything they say. But we do have to respectfully and genuinely say: “We want to hear your view — and we want to take it into account.”
That’s why I think 16 or 17-year-olds should get the vote.
It’s going to happen, Dale. It’s just a question of when. But it will happen.
We’re incorporating more of the real history of our country, warts and all, into our school curricula. How do you think that’s going to play out in the increasingly multiracial country that we’ll share in the future?
I think we’ll have generations of New Zealanders who understand, to its fullest level, what was New Zealand’s real history.
The history I learned in the ‘60s and ‘70s at Kilbirnie Primary School, Evans Bay Intermediate and Rongotai College in Wellington was the history of the colonisers. It was history seen through the white lens.
My education implied that New Zealand didn’t really exist until James Cook arrived — that’s when everything started. As a schoolboy, I simply wasn’t taught the full extent of New Zealand’s history. Not taught about the injustices, nor the effect of colonisation.
And I think that when we learn our history, we’ll be better fitted. We’ll be more productive members of our community, and things will change.
You’ve been a shining light, Andrew Becroft. I have really respected your views and the way you’ve shared them with us through the media. And I want to say thank you for the contribution that you’ve made as the Children’s Commissioner. But what’s on the cards for you now?
Thank you, Dale, I’m humbled by your words. This role has been one of the genuine honours of my life, and it’s been a fantastic privilege.
I’m still a judge and, in due course, I hope to return to some form of judicial duty. I hope to return as a better man, and as a better judge, because of what I’ve learned.
And I certainly won’t ever forget that the wellbeing of children must be absolutely primary.
I have some long leave to use, and the Attorney-General has quietly suggested that if I don’t use that leave, I’ll lose it.
And my wife, who ranks even higher than the Attorney-General, has said that if I don’t take that leave, I might lose her as well. So, that’s step one.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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