Royal Commission at critical juncture
23 August 2022
Opinion: The Royal Commission's comprehensive, ambitious, and inclusive vision for redress must not be lost in the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy, writes Stephen Winter.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care is now in its final year and at a critical phase, with questions about how the Government will redress survivors of abuse in state and faith-based care.
Aotearoa’s largest-ever Commission is investigating the abuse suffered by survivors of out-of-home care between 1950 and 1999. It is tasked with recommending how abuse should be redressed and with proposing improvements to present care systems.
For three years, the Commission has heard from thousands of survivors; cross-examined senior government and church officials; and compiled millions of documents. Established in 2018, the Commission is due to submit its final report in June 2023.
This August, the Commission is holding a hearing that is putting senior government officials on the stand to explain what their agencies knew about abuse and what they have done about it. It is apparent that for many years, these agencies knew their operations were harming people in care but failed to take appropriate action.
But while the Royal Commission’s hearings occupy public attention, important events are unfolding elsewhere. On 9 August, Cabinet released its response to the Commission’s redress recommendations, a response that has been long delayed.
The Commission published its comprehensive and ambitious call to action back in December 2021, in a report outlining the need for puretumu torowhānui— holistic redress that targets the needs and rights of survivors, both individually, and as whānau and hapū.
The Government immediately accepted the Royal Commission’s redress report, however, most of the work needed to implement its recommendations remain outstanding. The Commission asked the Government to oversee a collaborative policy design process, arguing that process should be by and for Māori, reflecting their over-representation among survivors and the duties entailed by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The Commission recommended that Māori should work with other survivors to design inclusive redresses processes. It is the Government’s job to come up with the policy design process.
While the Royal Commission’s hearings occupy public attention, important events are unfolding elsewhere. On 9 August, Cabinet released its response to the Commission’s redress recommendations, a response that has been long delayed.
The Government agreed, but no plan has been announced. The August Cabinet paper promises a policy design blueprint will arrive in November. While they wait, survivors may have lost confidence as they watched the Government ignore their unanimous opposition to the Oranga Tamarki Oversight Bill, which contradicts the Royal Commission’s core recommendations on monitoring.
In the meantime, the Government has identified four priority actions. The first is to set up a confidential listening service for survivors. This service will solve a problem that will arise when the Royal Commission ends in June 2023.
Presently, the Commission receives written statements from survivors or hears from them in private sessions. When the Commission concludes, the proposed confidential listening service will fill the resulting gap by enabling survivors to talk about their experiences and get information about available support.
A second group of initiatives will focus on improving survivors’ access to their records. State and church agencies hold significant quantities of information about survivors of abuse in care, information that can help survivors understand their history and reconnect with family and whakapapa. The Royal Commission asked the Government to improve access starting in June 2022.
The August Cabinet paper promises to finish its scoping exercise by November 2022, not only to identify how survivors can better access their records, but also how they can control information held, and how to participate in developing future records. In light of the significant over-representation of Māori in care, any work in this area engages with Māori claims to data sovereignty.
A third area of work concerns a prime ministerial apology to survivors. This will happen when the Royal Commission publishes its final report in June 2023. In contrast to the resistance faced by similar initiatives in other countries, the Government strongly supports an apology.
While there remains consultation over the text of the apology and the means of its delivery, the Government is likely to learn from the positive reception of the prime minister’s 2021 apology for the Dawn Raids and associated discriminatory policies towards persons of Pacific descent.
Lastly, the Government has agreed to make advance payments to survivors who are so elderly and/or ill that they may not be able to wait upon the hoped-for improvements to seek redress. These advance payments begin in September, although Cabinet has not said how much they will pay or what criteria eligible survivors will need to meet.
The Cabinet paper appears to restrict these payments to claims against state institutions, potentially excluding claims lodged with religious organisations. There are further hints that, in the first instance, eligibility may be restricted to those existing and outstanding claims.
Those four priorities are important steps towards realising the Royal Commission’s vision of puretumu torowhānui. But they are only a start. There is a frustrating lack of detail and a persistent pattern of delay.
These continued delays means that the Commission must employ its considerable mana to advocate for survivors. The urgency is underlined by the fact that the Commission is heading into its final months. Its comprehensive, ambitious, and inclusive vision for redress must not be lost in the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy.
Stephen Winter is an associate professor of politics and international relations at the Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from Newsroom Royal Commission at critical juncture, 23 August, 2022.
Margo White media adviser
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