The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the historical abuse of children in residential state care has been a long time coming – so long, in fact, that a number of the former wards we will hear from will probably be well into their 80s.
In terms of summoning old ghosts, however, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deserves credit for allowing a comprehensive political fact-finding exercise in which the reputation of some previous Labour governments also appear booked to take a wallop.
New governments, after all, typically tend to concentrate on serving up rich sauces of symbolism, high in popular cholesterol and with much joyfully self-referential music playing in the background.
The idea usually is not to make them potentially damaging to their own political health or that of their party brand.
Ms Ardern has said the inquiry, which will be the most retrospectively far-reaching of its kind to be held in her first term, will not primarily be about the individual cases RNZ and other media have highlighted over the past 18 months.
Rather, she says, it will be about examining those systems that failed. It will look at what governments did and didn’t do as they blundered for the most part through the decades in looking for new ways to care for the neglected young and those who landed on the wrong side of the youth courts.
Many of those administrations were Labour-led.
It was, after all, under a Labour government that these onetime educational residences became the youth crime facilities that have featured in so many of the hard-luck stories that the public has become familiar with over recent years.
The first dramatic turn for the worse almost certainly occurred in 1972 when the old Child Welfare Division of the Department of Education, as it had been known since 1948, morphed into the then new Department of Social Welfare, which assumed the oversight of the country’s residential institutions.
Many of the abuse claims currently outstanding relate to the years immediately following this change, which passed on the watch of the third Labour government.
Fifteen years on, it was another Labour government that began winding down the national operation as it had become.
What remained of the 26 residences closed their doors – but there was to be no closure of the sort the Royal Commission will be looking to give and which Labour at the time, had it not been mired in its own ideological civil war, might have provided.
As the reverberations of the failed experiment first began to be felt, it also fell to the last Labour government to deal with the hundreds of miserable claims made by former wards.
The government of former prime minister Helen Clark oversaw the establishment of a Historical Claims Unit within MSD, which soon found itself overwhelmed by petitioners.
Within a couple of years, the number of claims in the unit’s quiver had reached 140 – many of them highly complex – that somehow had to be dealt with by a team comprising just five advisors and a couple of administrative staff.
By the unit’s own estimate in 2010, around two-thirds of the claims the hard-working unit had worked on had reached some kind of agreeable resolution, whether in the provision of important information or the issuing of an ex grata payment, usually at the lower end of the spectrum up to $30,000.
But this accounted for just 36 such claims; a further 137 still awaited action even at that point, and the number over recent years has only grown apace.
None of this to suggest the issue has been only of Labour’s making. Indeed, more than most, the matter of these old residences remains an equal-opportunity political offender, reflecting not only the two major parties but others like the Māori Party and the Greens who between them barely murmured when the subject first began to air.
What is more, it was the National Party that refused to countenance any kind of official inquiry at all.
“Today we are sending the strongest possible signal about how seriously we see this issue by setting up a Royal Commission of Inquiry,” Ms Ardern said in announcing the overdue remedy. True enough. But she is also sending the strongest possible signal that few previous administrations are likely to emerge with their reputations enhanced by it.
* David Cohen, a former ward of Epuni Boys’ Home, is the author of Little Criminals (Random House), a portrait of the state-run children’s residences that operated in New Zealand between the 1950s and late 1980s.