Years ago, I remember someone in the Heath Ministry telling me off the record that regulatory oversight in this country largely consisted in ‘waiting for something to turn green or fall off somebody’ before the authorities would swing into action. Prevention is often deemed as being too costly, or too intrusive on business-as-usual. The ongoing failures in monitoring the fishing industry’s snapper catch – ie onboard cameras that fail, monitoring that has been delegated by the authorities to a firm owned by the fishing industry – are the all too typical outcome.
Only some of the contributing factors are structural. Yes, in a country as small as New Zealand, it can be difficult to devise truly independent systems of oversight and review. Everyone tends to know everyone, or has worked for them in some capacity or – all too often – they will be being paid by the same ministry or industry they are being expected to evaluate. Officials readily see the wisdom of learning the language of discretion. There is an art form in drawing up terms of reference for an inquiry so that the powerful will be safely insulated from the potential for political fallout.
As a “she’ll be right” nation, we’re not hard-wired to see the necessity for regulatory oversight, either. After all, our Parliament runs on a single chamber with no written Constitution, a simple majority of MPs can pass sweeping laws, and our courts don’t need to be reminded of the supremacy of Parliament. In addition, a climate of cost-cutting within government can readily work against full and fearless investigations of the state’s failings, especially if the victims are eligible for compensation.
Last week’s conflict between Social Development Minister Anne Tolley and District Court judge Carolyn Henwood illustrated quite a few of the flaws in the system. As chair of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) panel, Henwood has heard testimony from over 1,100 people who were abused in state care between the 1950s and 1992, mainly while they were under the care of Social Welfare. During that time, more than 100,000 children were reportedly taken from their parents, and placed in state institutions. Significant numbers of them were seriously abused.
After a patient, below-the radar investigation stretching over several years, Henwood and the CLAS panel recommended that – among other things – an independent public inquiry was required into the processes that enabled this abuse, and also into its ongoing impact; and that meanwhile, the state should issue a general apology for the systemic failures revealed to date.
Tolley has refused on both counts. She has rejected the need (or desirability at this late stage) for a public inquiry fully independent of the state agency under the spotlight. No public apology was deemed appropriate because – in Tolley’s view – no systemic failure had occurred, given that only 3.5% of former state wards had complained of abuse.
By taking this stance, Tolley laid herself wide open to the criticism that without a public inquiry, the true extent of the abuse would never be known – a point made by RNZ’s Kim Hill in a fiery radio interview with Tolley that was a perfect illustration of public broadcasting doing what it does best.
As Hill also indicated, some respondents might well have had misgivings about confiding their experiences to the very agency that had previously failed to protect them.
Tolley’s citing of the percentage of abuse claims seemed particularly mean-spirited. Only a small percentage of Catholic children have ever laid formal claims for compensation for abuses committed by Catholic priests, either. Yet surely, Tolley wouldn’t attempt to deny that systemic failings have occurred within that particular institution.
Reportedly, a public inquiry could result in the government being liable for major compensation claims – a risk mentioned in the papers that Tolley took to Cabinet – and this prospect may also have been a factor in Tolley’s decisions. (Well, Treaty claims for past wrongs by the state are being compensated, finally. Arguably, so should these failings. ) So far, this shabby episode has done nothing to re-assure the public that Henwood’s findings – and the victims – have been handled fairly. As Henwood has indicated, by refusing to fully investigate how this widespread abuse could have been committed against so many vulnerable children for so long, we are not doing all we can to ensure that it won’t happen again.
Thanks everyone, for the comments on the Putin article the other day. Believe me, that article wasn’t meant to perpetuate a new Red Scare. Personally, I’m a sceptic when it comes to the imperial actions of both Washington and Moscow. What I was arguing in that article was that compromise doesn’t seem to be part of the approach to dispute resolution of the current and imminent leaders of the US, Russia, or China. This convergence of alpha male winner-take-all tendencies is IMO, reason for concern.
Obviously, there are any number of reasons to oppose Donald Trump, even if many of his supporters have been victims of decades of neo-liberalism. (That doesn’t excuse the racism, or the misogyny.) For similar reasons, Putin’s kleptocratic tendencies and use of reactionary religious and right wing forces to suppress dissent make him no friend of the left, either. IMO, these guys are virtual mirror images of each other. It is not a matter of lining up on one side or the other. It isn’t a binary world.
I’d argue that a Trump/Putin duopoly would be likely to be to the detriment of nearly everyone else – including on policies about climate change, although the US under Trump is a bigger problem there. (What Trump says about climate change will be less relevant than what is in the new budgets for research and clean air regulation.) Within the US, it remains unclear whether the activists inspired by the Sanders movement can reclaim the Democratic Party policy agenda from the Clinton old guard, let alone what what that new agenda might look like. To win back the white working class, any major changes on immigration and identity politics would violate the Democrats’ traditional commitments on social justice, and would alienate support among Hispanics and blacks. Pandering isn’t an option.
That said, did Putin – and Trump’s declared admiration for him – decide the outcome of the US election? Given the narrowness of the victory margin in the Electoral College states, any number of factors could have been decisive. Yet as several readers have pointed out, I shouldn’t have cited Putin’s role as being decisive in the way that I did. With hindsight, I agree.
What I should have said instead is that most of the developments working in Putin’s favour – the rise of Francois Fillon in France, of Trump in the US and of the populist right throughout Europe – have virtually fallen into his lap, rather than being the fruits of his active design. The smoke involved ie, the prior lobbying by Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort for the pro-Russian regime in Ukraine, the paid work by the new national security adviser Michael Flynn for the Russians, and even the hacking of the DNC etc – should have been taken as reflecting an affinity between Trump and Putin, and not as evidence of Putin’s direct manipulation. I was wrong to conclude otherwise.
@ Francesca On that score, and with respect to the Baltic States… IMO, the medium term risk is that this region could become an accidental flashpoint, given Trump’s erratic signals on NATO and Newt Gingrich’s description of Estonia as “a suburb of St Petersburg.” Estonia has ample reason to feel nervous, in the light of its decades of Soviet occupation. Over the past 15 years it has also seen Russia invade Crimea, Ukraine and Georgia. Saying so is not to deny Russia’s rationale for regarding Ukraine as a vital buffer zone for its own defence, which I’ve previously acknowledged. Nor is it meant to sanitise the regime in Kiev, which seems to have already betrayed the Maidan Revolution.
The risk of misunderstanding lies in Trump’s contradictory signals- on say, NATO – which he has issued even before taking office. Basically, the boundaries of the new US isolationism that Trump has been touting hasn’t yet been tested. No one knows what will happen when it is, there is reason to feel apprehensive. It is too soon to tell whether the November 9 election of a pro-Russian government in Estonia will reduce, or raise, the stakes.
And finally, Syria
@ Dennis Merwood, Andrew Nichol. To use your term Dennis, what is “unconscionable” here is quibbling over whether Syria is a proxy war or a civil war – actually, it is both – while totally ignoring the wider point: that a military solution is being pursued in east Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, at an enormous cost in civilian lives. Do either of you have a view on that? (To date, the West’s bankrupt policy in Syria seems to have been to fund and arm several of the contending factions and plan for a bloody stalemate to endure, as the best of the bad options.) Meanwhile, what Russia and Assad are doing in East Aleppo is akin to what Trump has advocated ie, to bomb everyone in the vicinity of the terrorists into submission, regardless of the casualties among the civilians trapped in the fire zone.
For the record – as I’ve argued before – Syria is a proxy war that the US, Israel and the Saudis have been aiming mainly at Iran, via the removal of its ally in Damascus. (Turkey has its own neo-Ottoman agenda in the region.) It is also, given Assad’s Alawite base and links to the Sunni business elite, a civil war. Proxy wars tend to be civil wars, also. (That’s how proxies are so readily recruited.) In Syria, that’s why there is considerable grassroots, anti-Assad, non-IS support for the rebellion. It isn’t a binary world.