Making children an investment, not a cost

The government went big on investment this week — on infrastructure. It wants to go big on minerals investment. Will it go big on investment in children?

The best infrastructure, the biggest mineral bonanza, the lowest taxes and the best balanced regulation won’t catch Australia if too many children get a bad start in life. They are the Australia-catching future workforce.

It is hard to think of a reason why any child, anywhere, at any time, deserves a bad start or bad or incompetent parents. It is a matter of raw morality and equity. It is a matter of social cohesion. It is a matter of economic efficiency.

Hence the importance of Paula Bennett’s child abuse experts forum’s report on Wednesday. The forum concluded that, while child abuse can’t be eliminated, changes in practice can greatly reduce it from the 20,000-odd a year new cases of attacks and abusive neglect now.

The challenge to the government is to elevate this matter to the same level as roads, which were put on a fast track last year. Bennett has asked officials for a “feasibility” report in two months and says she backs the recommendations if they help some of the children.

Those recommendations are commonsense: assess all parents before a child’s birth, target support, with a dedicated case worker, to parents “needing more intensive support” and heavily intervene in the bad cases.

How? Full data sharing; no closed cases, so a mother of a previously abused child is closely watched when pregnant again; a clear operational statement from the government, backed by changes in legislation.

The experts thought keeping an “always-open file” on mothers of previously abused children is “complex and contentious”. Why, if no child deserves a bad start or bad parents? Even Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff thinks there is “probably no reason why this can’t be done almost right away”.

One sad finding of the report mirrors prison statistics: an “unconfirmed” but intuitively credible estimate that “approximately 30 per cent of the families in need of support will have mental health or addiction issues”. But “mental health services target only the most acute cases (approximately 3 per cent)” and other services are not alerted to the other 27 per cent.

Logically, the experts said, “parents with small children should be given priority access to treatment for mental health and addiction issues”. Again: commonsense, if children do not deserve a bad start.

Bennett is a commonsense sort of person (some in snooty Wellington look down on her for that reason) and so is promising to “do whatever I think it will take”. It may help that the experts say it doesn’t need more money or even better IT systems.

But if it did cost more money, would it be money well spent?

Not if you think abuse is just a matter between parents and children. But not even ACT activists, who loudly lament the anti-whacking law, think that.

Then there is the traditional National party instinct that this sort of state intervention is a cost. But Bennett — a rarity in a National cabinet — knows social assistance can be an investment. She got educated while on a domestic purposes benefit.

That experience may partly explain the curious press release she issued on Monday, headed: “A million Kiwis to get increased payments.” The payments are from her as minister for dependency.

The population totals 4.35 million. So nearly a quarter get all or part of their income from the taxpayer. It is not a statistic you would expect a National minister to trumpet.

She went on, in a vein flowing with the nectar of John Key’s beneficence: “It was a manifesto commitment to maintain super and veteran payments at 66 per cent of the net average weekly wage.” Key glowed in a speech last week to Greypower that this will go on being delivered at age 65 for pensioners.

This is despite the fact that each new intake of 65-year-olds has on average two months additional life expectancy than the previous year’s and despite the parlous long-term fiscal implications.

David Seymour, a 20-something ACT activist living in Canada, made this apposite point last Saturday: the baby-boomers, by skimping on infrastructure, science and other investment for the future and instead scoffing the boom years in consumption and driving up house prices, have in effect been intergenerationally transferring wealth to themselves from the under-45s.

Thus, Key, instead of paving the policy transition from the baby-boomers to the next generation, is in his superannuation policy abetting a continuing transfer from the younger generations to the baby-boomers. Among those next generations are the children Bennett’s experts want to save.

Smoothing the pillow for an ageing generation is mainly cost. Acting for children, not one of whom deserves a bad start, is investment — in them as children of all of us, in society, in the economy and in future fiscal health.

Key has yet to get that. Ex-solo-mum Bennett could offer some expert help.