Many of the 60,000 new New Zealanders each year deserve a better deal. Numbers of them are forced to live in difficult circumstances; they are unable to fend for themselves, and no-one speaks up for them. Some are abused, others are assaulted or otherwise degraded. All are potentially vulnerable and we need to do better for them to avoid the opprobrium of the civilised world.
Already, the hackles will be rising amongst the racists and the xenophobes, the Trumpists and their acolytes in this country, who will be screaming in their ignorance why are we allowing these people to add to the pressure points they perceive to be already in our society, and why are we letting so many of them in every year. However, this group of 60,000 new New Zealanders a year is not made up of migrants or refugees, but is the number of children born in this country each year. Nearly 70% of them will grow up in a two-parent family; just under 20% will be raised in a sole parent household, and around 5% will have been born to a teenage mother. None of them will have any choice or control of their family circumstances, or how they will be raised subsequently, yet all of them will be profoundly affected by that environment.
Amongst these children are our future political, social services, academic and business leaders, our future sporting heroes and sadly, our villains. But whatever their destiny, they all have an arguably greater stake in the future of our country than we who have been around for a while. As a group, children under 18 years of age make up almost a quarter of our population. Yet few speak for them, and even fewer try to reflect their needs in policy formation.
That is what makes last week’s publication of a Children’s Covenant, under the guidance of Judge Carolyn Henwood, and Ngai Tahu leader Sir Mark Solomon so much more important. Their aim is as positive as it is stark – to “make a solemn and enduring covenant with our nation’s children, whoever they are and wherever they may be, in equal measure, those children who are born and those who are born in the future.
We as New Zealanders undertake an unconditional duty to do all in our power to ensure that all our children are treasured, respected and enjoy a good life full of opportunity in a nation that is diverse and rich in culture and aroha.” Implicit in those goals is the recognition that every child has an equal right to access to opportunity in this country, every child has an equal right to access to quality healthcare and education, every child has a right to good housing and good prospects in life, and that the challenge facing all of us – and that is what the covenant recognises—is to focus our efforts afresh on delivering those policies. It has often been said, but not yet achieved, that we have to put the interests of our children at the centre of government policies.
Against that backdrop, Parliament resumed this week to the usual cacophony of windbag rhetoric about housing and health, and all the hardy annuals, but amongst the shouting and the handwringing, the state of our nation’s children received no mention. Nor did the Children’s Covenant. Sadly, it seems, children are only of political interest when there is another horrific assault or murder, and an intemperate headline can be gained by strutting populists who can temporarily stop attacking other minority groups, like migrants, as the root of all our problems, to bang the law and order drum for a while. The cynicism is putrefying and sickening, yet incredibly there are New Zealanders prepared to lap it up.
Our children simply deserve the best. We are failing them at present. The commitments contained in the Children’s Covenant are positive steps credible and responsible political leaders should willingly endorse, and seek to reflect in their policy deliberations. Yet so far, only three parties – the Greens, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture – have done so.
While the rest lag behind, our children suffer. For a country built on compassion for the vulnerable, that collective apathy is hardly something to be proud of.
Hon Peter Dunne, Leader UnitedFuture New Zealand.