Children must be at the heart of public policy

1978 was a most extraordinary year.

It was the year when in just over a month there were three Popes. Also, it was the year the racist white regime in Rhodesia finally agreed to African majority rule in the new nation of Zimbabwe. Jim Jones gave new impetus to the dangers posed by religious cults with the ghastly mass suicide of his followers at Jonestown. And the unions in Britain embarked upon the process of industrial disruption, forever remembered as the winter of discontent, that led to the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

Things were no less remarkable in New Zealand. At 15 years, Meda McKenzie became the youngest person to swim Cook Strait. The Muldoon Government first unveiled its brutal streak, to be used more persistently a few years later in suppressing anti Springbok Tour protests in 1981, by using the Army and the Police to end forcefully the occupation of Bastion Point. Social Credit’s Bruce Beetham upset the political establishment by winning the Rangitikei by-election. The disastrous “Think Big” projects were unveiled, and New Zealand beat England in a cricket test for the first time. Air New Zealand was merged with the utilitarian state domestic carrier NAC to become the monopoly national airline (although many would argue that as far as the domestic service is concerned, NAC’s neo-Stalinist approach to customer service has prevailed.)

1978 was also the first year our birth rate fell, even though our population was only about 70% of today’s figure. But here is the rub. Of the children born in 1978, one in four now has a criminal conviction. For men, that figure climbs to one in three. Half of Maori and Pasifika born in 1978 have a criminal conviction. Well over half the offending that led to those convictions occurred when they were in their late teens and early twenties, and most criminal careers were quite short-lived.

Similar figures could probably be found for other years, but the message is stark. How is it that so many of our young New Zealanders have gone off the rails, and what can be done to prevent that? It is little consolation that many appear to have returned to relatively productive lives after their early twenties.

Obviously, family circumstances have a large part to play here, and the significance of family violence leading to severe dysfunction cannot be under-estimated. While the causes of family violence are complex, there is no doubt from all the evidence amassed by Police, social services and health agencies that the impact is profound, and more importantly, that building strong and resilient families and communities, and focusing policy to that end, is at the core of resolving it. Investing in early identification of at risk families and children is far better than spending large amounts of money picking up the shattered pieces later on.

Family-centred policies along these lines have always been at the heart of UnitedFuture’s focus for this reason. While, sadly, no child can choose the circumstances of its upbringing, every child nevertheless has the right to expect the love and affection of both its parents. Nurturing children and strengthening viable families must be at the centre of all our policymaking.

Many of the babies born in 1978 are the parents of today, and their grim experiences in their late teenage years and beyond clearly challenge all of us to ensure the mechanisms and supports are in place to ensure their children do not suffer the same fate.

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