Alarm bells are ringing over new legislation that could strip the power of the independent Children’s Commissioner. Have they done their advocacy job too well?
The Children’s Commissioner is one of the highest-profile advocacy figures in New Zealand society – but a new piece of planned legislation has raised fears the Commissioner’s influence could be, in the words of one expert commentator, ‘neutered’.
The Oversight of the Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill would replace the Commissioner’s role with a board, of three to six people, as well as permanently establishing an ‘independent’ monitor to scrutinise Oranga Tamariki.
‘Independent’ is in quote marks here because the monitor would be situated within the Education Review Office – a public service department.
The proposal has drawn the ire of children’s commissioners past and present, with Dr Russell Wills and current commissioner Judge Frances Eivers expressing their displeasure on-record.
On today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to Dr Jonathan Boston and Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva to get an idea of what the new legislation would change in the realm of children’s advocacy and monitoring; the motivation behind the change; and what it could mean for the future of independent watchdogs.
The government has “been looking at reform since they came in in 2017, really”, says Sachdeva.
“It’s a patchwork of changes … but there are two main components that have created the most internal debate.
“What the government has said is … the job is too big for one person. You can’t have a single person doing it by themselves. So they want to replace the Commissioner with a commission of between three and six people – a team, essentially.
“That sounds good in theory – of course, it’s good to have more hands on deck – but the concern that’s been expressed … is that is kind of dilutes the power of the Children’s Commissioner, where you’ve got one person who is the face of the office, so to speak.”
The other main change is establishing an independent monitor within the Education Review Office whose role is to scrutinise Oranga Tamariki.
“The initial plan was to put that within the office of the Children’s Commissioner,” says Sachdeva.
“And then there was a change of heart … where they said, actually, we don’t think this is the best fit.
“The Children’s Commissioner is meant to be an advocate for children, it’s an advocacy role, and monitoring and advocacy are too conflicting.
“They decided to put it in the Education Review Office – a departmental agency.
“The issue that’s come up is that it’s not as independent as it should be.”
Professor Jonathan Boston, who made a public submission forcefully opposing the proposed changes, suspects the motivation behind them.
“I think a fair reading of what is going on is that recent Children’s Commissioners – particularly Russell Wills and Andrew Becroft – have caused considerable embarrassment to various ministers and senior officials.
“People have conferred and come to the view that somehow we need to neuter the office and thus minimise the kind of embarrassment these people have offered.
“This legislation sends a very bad signal.
“It basically says to those who currently hold positions in independent Crown entities that if you do your job too well, if you make yourself too unpopular, if you advocate as you are required to advocate … then you run the risk of being emasculated.
“That kind of signal is a terrible one for a constitutional democracy like New Zealand.”