Simon O’Connor

Husband, step-father, and longtime student of philosophy and history. Also happen to be a former politician, including chairing New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Committee.


For reasons I can’t fully explain, there was very muted reporting of the Court of Appeal overturning a previous High Court judgement which held that a Minister of the Crown does not have to attend a summons by the Waitangi Tribunal.  The new ruling says that the Minister, in this case Karen Chhour, needs to attend.

This is a big deal!  Not only does it strike at a key concept of our democracy, it is also a change of law that I believe is a good idea – and an idea that will benefit New Zealand children in care.

All of this is around the current government’s intention to remove clause 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act.  This clause says that Oranga Tamariki (formerly Child, Youth, and Family) must take into account the Treaty of Waitangi and ensure the cultural connections of children in care are prioritised.

To some, this may sound ok but in reality it has meant vulnerable children are being taken from loving foster families so as to fulfil the cultural and political preferences of adults.  So much for the idea that children are the centre of the system.  Some may recall the case of Moana – a Maori child in the care of a New Zealand European couple.  After four or so years with this couple in a loving, stable, situation – Moana was removed so that her cultural connections could be renewed.  To me, this is simply putting adults’ political/cultural preferences ahead of the good of the child.  Love and security are two critical qualities children need.  Foster parents won’t ignore cultural needs, but to put culture ahead of love, security, safety, stability, and care is just so wrong-headed that it beggars belief.

As I write, Newsroom have published a story that I can only describe as shockingly appalling in terms of what the current legal settings and application by Oranga Tamariki (OT).   It is also important to add that OT and others have fought to stop this and others’ stories being told.  In this story, four traumatised children were given to English foster parents, specifically as a ‘forever home’.  It turned out to be anything but, with OT turning up and removing the children to again suit adults’ preference of culture over love and care.

If children are truly to be the centre of any care system, then what must be prioritised are stable, loving, and secure homes.  The culture of the foster parents is secondary (if that) in my opinion.  Yes, foster parents should be aware of the cultural heritage of a child and work to support this.  But to put culture on a pedestal and think it somehow replaces love is madness, as too often returning a child to a family culture which was often broken in the first place.  I say all of this as a foster parent myself.  This is not just theory to me and my family.

The other whole aspect of this sorry story is the dramatic overreach of the Waitangi Tribunal.  As another commentator, Liam Hehir, has noted the tribunal is set up to look at breaches – that is, events that have happened.  In this current situation, the Tribunal is intervening before anything has happened!  It is critiquing an intention to change the law and this is a major change of behaviour.

In doing so, the Tribunal is challenging parliamentary sovereignty.  Whether we like particular governments or not, they are elected to make laws and have the only – or sovereign – right to do so.  If we don’t like them, we toss them out every three years.  The Tribunal however has decided its unelected members can now insert themselves into this parliamentary process and opine on what should, or should not, happen.  In effect, I would argue the Tribunal is making itself a second house of parliament.  While at this stage it is only calling in one Minister of the Crown to question, it is not hard to see how this initial overreach becomes a consistent behaviour.

For the sake of our democracy and our children, we need to be better.  Much better.

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