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The Nation: Satyanand on historical state abuse inquiry

Mike Wesley-Smith interviews Sir Anand Satyanand

Lisa Owen: The Royal Commission into historical state abuse is currently taking public submissions on its draft terms of reference. There’s already been plenty of debate over the time period the inquiry will cover, whether churches should be involved, and the question of compensation. Mike Wesley-Smith sat down with inquiry head Sir Anand Satyanand and started by asking what ideas he’s received so far.
Sir Anand Satyanand: They include very specific things. It’s something of a surprise, and it’s come up at every hui I’ve been to — 20 clauses, couple of thousand words, no individual reference to the Treaty of Waitangi, which, in 2018, is a bit surprising. So I think the drafted terms of reference will find the Treaty in the preamble or somewhere near to the front.
Mike Wesley-Smith: We can’t lose focus on that, right? There was clearly, it would seem, institutional racism towards Maori — that the overrepresentation can’t be, it seemed, explained away in any kind of fair way.
It’s clear as we start that the number of Maori people who have been the subject of state care is considerable, and we will need to work our way through how come — why — and the answers will be illuminating for everyone.
You’re obviously, by statute, independent, but for the layperson, can you describe how that independence works in practice?
The big thing with a Royal Commission is that it is independent. It has a life of his own, and the state, if you like — the government — is the respondent. It’s different from an ordinary inquiry where a minister may require an inquiry be done, reporting back to the minister, so the inquiry is the handmaiden of the minister. A Royal Commission is different. It has its own life. It’s fed and watered by one of the departments of state — the Department of Internal Affairs — but the Commission has a life of its own and it operates in an independent fashion.
The other subject of discussion has been the time window that the Commission will cover. How open is the Commission to potentially there being no particular time window that it covers — that it’s open to all?
I don’t know the answer to that at the moment, but I do know that the main topic to be picked up are the years between 1950 and 2000. After 2000, people were not in institutional care, by and large; people were in the community, and New Zealanders had available to them a number of mechanisms — Human Rights Commission, Health and Disability Commission, ombudsmen, etc. — so there were mechanisms available to people after that, which is the reason that the 2000 line has been drawn. But there were institutions, like the psychopaedic hospital in Levin, near Palmerston North, which was open after 2000, so there will be good reason to have a soft door there, so to speak, so that if people come forward with material relating after 2000, we, of course, will listen to it.
Obviously, the other recent issue has been to involve the church or not. Some churches have expressed a willingness to be involved. What is your position currently, from what you know, as to whether you would see the churches being involved in the Commission’s scope?
I’ve thought about this and had discussions. I’ve actually had a discussion with the country’s senior Anglican and Catholic bishops meeting together, and I raised with them the prospect that the churches could use their combined resources to mount a commission of their own and deal with issues in a tailor-made fashion so far as the churches are concerned. There would be obvious strands of similarity between the work that the Royal Commission is doing and the work that a church’s commission might be doing. There could be capacity for exchange of not necessarily information, of course, because that would be confidential and we will have a big store on confidentiality, but there could be processes, there could be headings, there could be issues which the two commissions might share.
Did they express a willingness to do that?
The churches have expressed a willingness to be engaged with, so there’s a little time yet for all of this to work itself out. But in the end, I also have to stress, I think, that the decision about what this Royal Commission will do, whatever I recommend, at the other end, it will be a political decision made by the Cabinet, based on the information available to it.
What is the Commission’s position on compensation?
The question of compensation is one of the matters that the Royal Commission will come to at the end of its hearing, assessment, analysis, investigation and adjudication, if you like. All the way through, there will be a restorative approach taken, and when we get to the crucial point of what you’re asking, the Royal Commission will be asked to look at the question of what can be called atonement, subheadings of which are ‘is it appropriate for the government to consider making an apology?’, ‘what territory should that apology cover?’, ‘what are the pathways for considering the question of compensation?’. In other words, the Royal Commission does not end up providing compensation for individuals, but it will cover the territory, and it will provide pathways whereby the government will be able to consider undertaking these things. But that’s a good question to raise, because no individual should be in the false state of thinking, ‘I’m going to go to the Royal Commission, and they’re going to provide me with compensation.’
What can the Commission do if it does find evidence that there had been a cover-up of sexual abuse by institutions?
Well, there will be the primary thing — to state it and to state how widespread it was and what effects there were. In other words, the Royal Commission will need to receive the information to verify it and to have it investigated and then, in the end, come to a decision.
Do you see it, though, Sir Anand, as being potentially one of the most crucial questions the Commission can seek to answer — is the reason why it has taken so long, why the state seemingly has been incapable of holding itself to the same standards as it would an individual, that the notion of there having been a lot of abuse in state care has really been there, known about, for many years?
The really important thing is that eventually the government has decided to undertake a Royal Commission, and they’ve provided a group of people who have the appropriate background to examine what has occurred and the reasons for it, and in the course of that, maybe the question that you ask will be addressed. I can’t give you any answer to it at the moment.
For those New Zealanders who’ve been, thankfully, untouched by these experiences, why should they care about the work that your Commission is about to undertake?
In world terms, New Zealanders are well educated, well nourished, rights-conscious, and we are regarded as a tolerant and fair society. Now, the subject matter of this Royal Commission questions one or more of those pillars, and this Royal Commission is a mechanism which will enable thorough investigation of those items, and hopefully the general community will say the problems were unearthed and were addressed in the Royal Commission’s report.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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