Bennett and an Easter message about children

Easter Monday and Anzac Day coincide next week: the remembrance of two dark times that turned to light. Paula Bennett on Sunday echoed the Easter theme in what may be the government’s most important statement this year.

Gallipoli, the job for the first Anzacs, was ill-conceived, wrong-footed, a bloody defeat, curtain-raiser to a slogging war in Europe that cut a swathe of death through the ranks of our young men, laid a pall on every small settlement and a blight on survivors’ lives and piled debt high on the young economy. Victory, when it came, was more relief than joy.

Some historians divined in this horror and the reaction to it the beginnings of a separate identity, stirrings of national distinctiveness. But it was not until after a real independence mentality emerged in the 1970s and 1980s that Gallipoli became a place of pilgrimage for a cohort of young people two generations removed from those who knew war.

It is to the young a marker, not a scar, a part of heritage and history, light, not darkness.

Easter commemorates the same transition from dark to light, from execution of the leader of a rebellious band to a message of redemption, hope, social unity and altruism fashioned from that leader’s sayings.

As authorities in parts of the Middle East have been finding, Palestine’s rulers two millennia ago could kill the person but not the idea. The tiny rebel band expanded to one of the most powerful world religions.

A religion, when organised, can repress as well as liberate. Jim Wallis, billed as a faith adviser to two American presidents, said of this duality of on Radio New Zealand last September: “People of faith have be the first to admit the failings of faith and how many people have been hurt by religion, by the church. But (while) it has been a force for sectarianism, for patriarchy, for division, for violence (it is) also a force for healing and for good and for justice and for social movement.”

One force for justice could be to ensure a good start for all children. The Easter rebel leader argued that society as a whole is responsible for its weakest members’ wellbeing. Harming children was an attack on his teaching and on him, he is reported as saying.

No child deserves a bad start, still less to be harmed by neglectful, warped or brutal parents. But translating that simple truism into a government programme is complicated.

Helping disadvantaged and “at-risk” children was top of Paula Bennett’s list when she took the social development portfolio. John Key has said he wants his legacy to be what his government does for those children.

Not much has actually been done. Simon Power’s “drivers of crime” initiative has limped along. Children still turn up at school unable to learn.

Behind the scenes Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman last year assembled a heavyweight list of academics, co-chaired by Otago University psychologist Harlene Hayne, who have all but completed an internationally peer-reviewed report on young people, with a necessary focus on children.

An interim report last year said 10-20 per cent of young people are “at risk”. A long list of risk factors included a bad experience at the hands of parents before and in the early years after birth, discrimination, school experiences, dysfunctional communities and, later, peer pressure.

This evidence comes in part from a world-unique, near-four-decade-long Otago University study, headed by Richie Poulton.

Bennett will draw in part on the Gluckman-Hayne report for what she calls a Green Paper on the needs of young people and children up to 18, zeroing in on the first five years. It will, she says, translate the Gluckman-Hayne academic discourse into general language to involve stakeholders and experts. A group headed by Gluckman will provide “quality assurance”.

The Green Paper will be developed, after feedback, into a White Paper next year, which Bennett calls a programme of action, centred on early intervention. It will deal with “topics we normally avoid”, especially in a National party reluctant to interfere in households. It will aim to identify “at-risk” children, track them and help them. It will explore how much the government should get involved and how to go about it.

How closely Bennett’s action plan reflects the evidence will be a test of Gluckman’s drive for science-informed policy, underlined in a report two weeks back.

How far she gets with Bill English will depend whether he sees it as “nice to have”, and thus to be left off his spending programme, or as investment in the future that merits the large expense. It may depend also on whether Key really means what he says about children and how far he is prepared to side with Bennett in Budget negotiations.

That is a question for next year. It is a very big question. But it just might have a bipartisan answer. Annette King last year rebased Labour’s social policy on children.

If so, it could be a way into the light for children now doomed to the dark.