We need an independent voice to speak for children

Opinion by Brendon Wilson
TINZ Director

Around 5000 young New Zealanders are under state care, and around 50,000 young people were the subject of a report of concern during the six months to the end of December 2021.

Life is hard and too often short for many New Zealand children. Every five weeks a New Zealand child loses their future as a result of family violence. Two thirds of child homicide victims are under two years of age. New Zealand has very high rates of teen suicide and teen pregnancy.

It’s a sad tale that we know too well, and is why New Zealand scores so low internationally in terms of child wellbeing outcomes; ranking 35th out of 41 developed countries according to the UNICEF Innocenti Report.

In light of these realities it is concerning to see the Government is replacing the Children’s Commissioner with a board positioned within the Education Review Office.

The statutory independence held by the Commissioner enables both an auditing type role and an advocacy role for children in New Zealand. Children's Commissioners have asked difficult questions, monitored the capability of agencies to do the best for children, and promoted the voices of children.  

The Children's Commissioner in New Zealand has long held an admirable position of raising issues where children's interests are at stake.  The Commissioner's role to monitor, evaluate and speak up about issues benefits from the independence and transparency of leadership by a single known individual of credibility, objectivity and high standing who can speak without fear or favour. 

The remit of the Commissioner extends to all of the rights of children under the UN Convention on the rights of the child which are, as would be expected, very broad.

It is not clear how this level of independent voice can be managed within a government agency. Despite proposals to build in measures to preserve independence, the basic premise is that the role will likely be submerged into a bureaucracy. It is hard to imagine a Board within an education bureaucracy being willing to speak without fear or favour to the people and government of New Zealand. This is no recipe for transparency, openness, independence 

Integrity systems are made stronger through the application of independent auditors and reviewers.  The government’s decision to water down a role that has consistently challenged power for the good of vulnerable children, is of concern to TINZ. 

The Children’s Commissioner Act is specifically focussed on the Convention on the Rights of the Child which New Zealand is a signatory to. We need an independent advocate who can speak to that range of rights: welfare, freedom from exploitation, social and cultural rights, the right to life, nationality, identity, family, freedom of expression, judicial rights, freedom of thought, association, protection of the law, freedom from violence and many others.

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