Opinion: Last week the Government announced it would extend the Royal Commission for Abuse in Care’s final report deadline from June to March 2024. This is the commission’s second extension, having received an additional five months in 2021. And though the latest extension has received a mixed response, it will give Aotearoa’s largest and most complex inquiry the time it needs.
Some survivors are frustrated with the new schedule. Their response is perfectly valid. Survivors have experienced repeated delays in their efforts to get justice. The government stonewalled the Human Rights Commission’s demands for an inquiry in 2011, and survivors continue to face delays when seeking compensation.
Also, the Government’s announcement follows a recent media furore arising from a ministerial briefing that canvassed further delays to the new redress programme. Last, the delay to the final report will delay the plans for a public governmental apology to survivors.
Many survivors will see the extension as continuing a pattern of delays.
That said, the extension means New Zealand’s Abuse in Care Commission will last just over four years – a relatively short period compared with similar inquiries overseas. Moreover, most overseas inquiries also require extensions.
To illustrate, a similar Australian commission had a two-year extension that took that inquiry from three to five years. Canada’s seven-year investigation into abusive residential schools included a one-year extension. And a comparative British inquiry began in 2014, and which was initially expected to last five years, submitted its final report in 2022.
New Zealand’s commission will be comparatively short, and it is worth recalling it originally asked to submit its final report in June 2025. The Government refused that request, imposing a June 2023 date, a timeline that the recent extension implicitly recognises as unrealistic.
Previously, the commission’s final report was to be submitted uncomfortably close to the October general election. Waiting until 2024 may help avoid submerging the report’s findings amid the political turbulence of electioneering partisanship
But why, you might ask, do these inquiries take so long and are so often delayed? The answer is that it is hard to know how big the job is before it begins.
The Abuse in Care Commission is New Zealand’s biggest, most complex inquiry. To get the evidence it needs, the commission’s investigators must dig through enormous archives of poorly organised information. Those documents are often decades old and held in badly managed repositories; sometimes comprising a box stuffed with decaying papers lodged in a garage or basement.
And there is no way of knowing which institutions have relevant documents, as relevant material comes from institutions that run the gamut from powerful and suspicious government ministries to small, now-defunct charities.
The commission is also collecting testimony from survivors and other witnesses. Those processes cannot be rushed. Some well-resourced institutions contrive legal obstacles to obstruct the progress. At the same time, now-traumatised survivors confront difficulties in recalling events that occurred to them as children many decades ago.
Those survivors require support and care to minimise the harm done to them as they give evidence. It is also the case that survivors continue to come forward with new evidence. In the last quarter to December 2022, the commission registered 276 new survivors, and more will have come forward since.
Finally, the commission needs to produce high-quality and sophisticated analysis. Comprehending systemically abusive out-of-home childcare involves understanding complex structural injustices of racism, colonialism, poverty, and ableism.
Moreover, the effects of abusive childcare are difficult to trace, yet potentially embrace important ongoing social and political characteristics of contemporary New Zealand, including the prevalence of criminal gangs.
With those points in mind, the Royal Commission must have the independence and time it needs to do its job. The government gets its policy advice from its ministries. And too many of those ministries have been culpable in mistreating survivors. That is why the Government set up a Royal Commission, the most independent form of inquiry legally available. That independence is necessary if the commission is to conclude its work well and without constraints.
The extension will offer further benefits. Previously, the commission’s final report was to be submitted uncomfortably close to the October general election. Waiting until 2024 may help avoid submerging the report’s findings amid the political turbulence of electioneering partisanship.
Further, the extension will allow the commission to workshop its recommendations with relevant stakeholders, including survivors, Māori organisations, and the Government. Part of that process will work out timeframes for implementation. That means the Government will know what the commission intends to recommend before the end of this year. The Government should be able to hit the ground running when it receives the final report next year.
Moreover, the extension will give the commission time to publish other reports before it finishes. Those will include a case study into the Order of St John of God Case (Marylands), and, one hopes, further analyses into relevant fields and events.
But it must be clear that the extension provides no reason to delay redress. The commission published its report and recommendations for redress in December 2021. It has been well over a year since the Government agreed to implement that report.
While it is pleasing that co-chairs for the independent design group have recently been appointed, the policy process needs to accelerate. Survivors deserve prompt, good-faith implementation, and the Government should complete that work without delay.