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Speech: Coroners Bill; Third Reading

Coroners Bill; Third Reading

Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader, Maori Party

Thursday 24 August 2006

Over this last week in Aotearoa, the people have been embraced by death.

They have stood in line to pay their respects, they have scoured the papers, watched in hushed awe as the ceremonial proceedings of the tangi were televised nationwide, they have cried and talked and marvelled at the spectacle unfolding in the public gaze.

The tangihanga for the late Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu has been celebrated and recognised as a growing sign of the maturity of the nation.

It has brought the significance of death into every living room. And we are richer for it.

It is therefore an excellent co-incidence of timing in which to be considering the Coroners Bill.

One of the most consistent messages that has come through, has been the appreciation that many New Zealanders have expressed about the way in which Maori approach death.

Such an appreciation was echoed in many of the submissions to the Justice and Electoral Committee.

Wiremu Wiremu, Tepania Kingi and Martin Waetford from Te Hiku o te Ika raised the issue that Maori must have input into the selection of the chief coroner, and the selection criteria.

The Dunedin Community Law Centre recommended there should be Maori advocates in the Coroner’s Office who can liaise between whanau and coroners - advocates who have been ratified by whanau, hapu, iwi and communities.

Te Huinga Roia Maori o Aotearoa noted that the appointment of coroners must be representative of New Zealand society. They had a particular concern that coroners and their staff need to have an awareness of tikanga, and the appropriate training, as a pre-requisite for their appointment.

The Maori Party, is honour bound, to our constituents, to our customs, to our culture, to raise these issues once more.

The Coroners Bill does not address the urgent need to increase the number of Maori coroners.

The Coroners Bill does not address the need for coroner awareness of tikanga issues in order to be appointed, or the need to receive appropriate training.

The Coroners Bill does not include any provision for te reo or tikanga Maori to be part of inquest proceedings.

And these are serious flaws, impacting on the capacity of the coronial system to effectively respond to the needs of bereaved whanau, including their cultural and spiritual needs.

There are, however, other provisions within the Bill which do take into account the recommendation of the Law Commission’s Coroners Report of 2000. That report identified that the current system did not adequately take account of Maori cultural beliefs and practices.

And so we are pleased that the Bill now allows whanau members to view, touch or to remain near the tupapaku (the body of the deceased), with the coroner’s authorisation. This last clause - the fact that whanau access to their deceased remains subject to the authorisation of the coroner - is insufficient.

Tangata whenua absolutely believe that the tupapaku should not be left on its own at any stage after death. Whether it be at the place of the death, in the hospital, in the home, in the funeral parlour, or at the marae, is beside the point.

Speeches will be made directly to the tupapaku in the belief that the spirit does not immediately leave the vicinity of the body and should be coaxed to leave by the speakers.

Our processes of farewelling and grieving also bring those dearly departed together to be greeted, respected and farewelled.

We speak of ‘ka heke te roimata me te hüpë, ka ea te mate’. When our tears and mucous fall, the movement from life to death is acknowledged and atoned. Accordingly access to the tupapaku, the body, as soon as possible after death, is vital to the body.

Tangihanga or death ceremony as seen with the passing of Te Atairangikaahu requires that Maori gather and begin the mourning ceremonies immediately. Hold ups in the release of the body (especially without explanation) cause enormous trauma on or with the whanau.

So the explicit inclusion of new sections within the Coroners Act 1988 to ensure there are transparent and uniform procedures for the retention and release of bodies is very important to our cultural safety, the authenticity of our procedures around death and dying.

And as we say “I whanau tatau ki te mate, ara te tuturutanga o te ora”; We are born to die, the ultimate journey to life.

A particularly important initiative that has arisen from the passage of this Bill is that around the need for whanau consent related to the treatment of body parts for any reason other than the post-mortem.

Traditionally, our people saw that body parts separated from the body were accorded a ceremony similar to a tangi. Yet, as experience has told us, in the past it has not been the practice of hospitals to return body parts so for many whanau, the vital healing and grieving processes have been disrupted and disturbed through the disclosure that tüpäpaku have been returned and a body part removed.

In other cases, lengthy post-mortem examinations or removal of body parts have created major distress for the whanau in facilitating tangi arrangements.

Internationally renown writer, Patricia Grace, described the traumatic experience of a whanau whose deceased baby’s eyes were removed in a Hospital for genetic research and experimentation. She described this in her novel, Baby No Eyes.

The impact of the removal of the baby’s eyes is described, as follows, and I quote:

“When we woke my mother sat up and looked into my face. “I want you to know you’re not an only child”

“I knew there was someone” I said.

“You have a sister four years and five days older than you”.

“Now I see her” I said. “Shot. Two holes in her head”.

“You mean she has no eyes” my mother said. “You mean her eyes were stolen”.

The Law Commission recommended that the removal and retention of body parts must purely and simply be to determine the cause of death and no other reason.

The Maori Party is pleased therefore that the Coroners Bill introduces improved procedures to guide coroners in their work around the retention and release of bodies and body parts, including the notifications of reasons for, and likely duration of such procedures.

Associated with this, we are also pleased that the Bill now sets in place a process to object to post mortems if they are not legally required; and that Coroners will be subject to the Judicial Complaints Commission.

We would, however, concur with the recommendations from the Dunedin Community Law Centre, that there must be much stronger acknowledgment of how whanau know that they can actually object to post-mortems, and that the process is clear and simple.

The coroner or liaison person must take seriously the obligation and responsibility to properly inform the whanau of what is involved, and to do so in a way which is sensitive to the recognition of tikanga around the tangihanga.

Mr Speaker, it is good to be in this House, considering matters of such central importance to us all. In Te Ao Maori, our waiata, our moteatea, our imagery and allusion is soaked with the heaviness of grief and lament as a natural part of life and death.

One of our sayings is “wahine tangi haehae, he ngaru moana, e kore e mätaki’.

Which literally expresses that the mourning and laceration by women, like the waves of the sea, never cease.

The images that were so vivid in our memory of the last week were pictures of kuia, heaving with despair, crowned with the greenery of parekawakawa, bidding their Queen her last farewell.

But just as those parekawakawa were cast into the grave, so too we must also embrace the fullness of life and living as equally natural in our world.

The Coroners Bill will assist with our ability to be able to carry out the processes which respect our tikanga, which respond to the needs of our whanau, and reflect some of our concerns.

The Maori Party supports this Bill.

There are still many issues to address - and the Maori Party will try every avenue to see that these outstanding issues are considered in the implementation of the Bill.


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