Laurie O’Reilly was a barrister and law lecturer who made an impact some years ago in a couple of not especially related areas. One was the welfare of children because he became the Children’s Commissioner in 1994. And the other was women’s rugby which he began nurturing in the 1980s to the point where the New Zealand team, the Black Ferns, came to dominate the game internationally and gather up five of the last six World Cups.
Laurie wasn’t around to see these fruits of his coaching and encouragement because he died, still only 55, before that run of successes began. But he’s still fondly remembered through the Laurie O’Reilly Cup, which the Black Ferns and the Aussie Wallaroos are getting set to compete for next month, before they tackle another Rugby World Cup tournament.
Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing political tussle in the wake of a strange suggestion that New Zealand no longer needs a Children’s Commissioner.
Denis O’Reilly is one of Laurie’s siblings and he offers this picture of his talented and big-hearted big brother.
We had a family celebration last Saturday. It was my sister Patricia’s 75th. Although I’m the pōtiki, I’m the last surviving male of my siblings. My nephew Chris O’Reilly, son of my late brother Laurie O’Reilly, was sitting close by at the birthday table.
It was the day of the Ireland vs All Blacks third test match. Chris had presciently laid some dollars on the Irish — in fact, he’d bet on them over two games — and will have been well rewarded for it.
Chris, who analyses the strengths and weaknesses of businesses in his professional life, expressed his views on the All Blacks’ coach, Ian Foster, as well as the team leadership, and I think events have proved him correct.
Of course, the name of Wayne Smith, a former All Black and All Blacks coach, came into the conversation, and so did the role that Wayne is playing with the Black Ferns as they prepare for the World Cup on home soil starting in October.
Wayne took up this coaching role because of a commitment he made to Laurie, who was his friend and mentor, that he’d help women’s rugby in any way he could. And Wayne’s input has transformed the Black Ferns, who’d been in disarray a few months ago.
Laurie O’Reilly was the first coach of the Black Ferns, and he was a champion for women’s rugby. He had a similar passion for championing the rights of children, both in the field of law as well as through his role as Commissioner for Children.
I miss Laurie terribly. I was a troublesome youngest brother, consistently causing political uproar. Yet he would back me and give me sound advice. I still ask myself when confronted by complex situations that require brave responses: “What would Laurie do?”
I remember the day that Laurie rang me to tell me that he had terminal cancer. He had a very dry sense of humour. For instance, if we were driving from Timaru to Christchurch, even on a long straight, with no discernible impediments in front of us, Laurie would sometimes start tooting the horn. Noting my quizzical expression, he’d say something like: “I thought a dog might run out.”
In this instance, Laurie started the conversation by telling me that I was about to take an upward step in the family hierarchy. He had oesophageal cancer, one of the worst kinds. It was terminal.
I remember being with him in Wellington one night when he experienced a terrible pain in the back of his neck. This was the first evidence of the disease that was to take his life and rob New Zealand society of an extraordinary public servant.
I wondered at the time how paradoxical life is.
I mean, of all my siblings, my lifestyle — use of recreational substances, abuse of alcohol, propensity to get into brawls, high speed driving, let alone the reality that several people were keen to kill me — was most likely to end in an early death.
Laurie never smoked, didn’t use drugs, and was generally modest in his alcohol consumption.
From a relatively early age, as a social activist living in Wellington, I had become accustomed to political duplicity. But Laurie just couldn’t stomach it.
He worried about the wellbeing of those he felt he was responsible for. He believed in truth and integrity — and when these values were betrayed because of political expediency or departmental convenience, Laurie would be devastated. He internalised it. There’s that old Pākehā expression: “It stuck in his craw.” That has become my simple non-medical rationale for Laurie’s terminal throat cancer.
Laurie was appointed as Commissioner for Children in 1994 and died in office in January 1998. Had he been alive today, he would have been a formidable opponent of the intention of the select committee dealing with the Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill.
The committee’s intent has been to have the government disestablish the statutory role of the Commissioner for Children and extinguish the tradition of strong advocacy for our most vulnerable and powerless citizens.
In the months before his death, Laurie took to the road to combat the erosion of the Office of the Commissioner for Children that he feared. In a series of lectures and speeches, he repeatedly said:
The Commissioner for Children is an integral part of a system of checks and balances that keeps the system honest. At one level, the Commissioner is part of the moral conscience for departments of state.
At another level, the Commissioner helps shape societal attitudes and acts as a champion for children in the wider community. Politicians need to move from a siege mentality and a damage control mode of operation.
The solution for our children and our future lies in strong advocacy for children at all levels in a society that truly puts the interest of children first.
Our prime minister has espoused the intention to make Aotearoa “the best place in the world to be a child”. Please, don’t pass this Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill. It’s inconsistent with this expressed intention.
Denis O’Reilly is a writer, social activist and consultant (email@example.com).
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.