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Making New Zealand great for children… Election 2017

Making New Zealand great for children…Election 2017

If in New Zealand we truly want all our children to achieve their full potential, and to break cycles of disadvantage and minimize child poverty, there is need for exceptional leadership and a combined will to act and invest in policies we already know about. Election 2017 provides that opportunity!

Which political leaders are prepared to step up and make the commitment to fully implement a way forward for children that is already published and agreed on by the political parties including National, Labour and New Zealand First?

In November 2013, Parliament’s Health Select Committee published a cross party, essentially unanimous, set of recommendations after a 2-year inquiry into Improving child health outcomes and preventing child abuse with a focus from preconception until 3 years of age. The template is waiting for our next prime minister to fully grasp.

The committee called on the government to take “an early investment approach, to put more focus on an investment into the preconception period to three years of age, and take a health promotion, disease prevention approach (based on scientific evidence) to improving children’s outcomes and diminishing child abuse”.

The work of Nobel prize winning economist, James Heckman and many others has built up compelling comprehensive evidence that investment in the very early years, will yield a significantly higher return for every dollar compared to delayed investment, provided the investment is high quality and evidence based.

Any New Zealand government with the will could start implementing, ‘world’s best practice’ policies from preconception until 3 months of life and then extend in 6month intervals as finances allow. Just imagine New Zealand being best in the world for children!

The economic rationale is based on the principle that since resources are limited, investments in interventions should be made where they have the best chance of long term success and the best return for every dollar. It is a no brainer!

It will result in more children leading healthy lives and progressing to meaningful jobs. Productivity will be increased and money will be saved, an early investment approach is a win for children and a win for the economy. Ideally adults should take full responsibility for the care of children, and there should always be clear signals and incentives for that to happen. In reality, many children miss out for reasons beyond their control.

New Zealand evidence from the internationally regarded ‘Dunedin study’ (Professor Richie Poulten), and the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientist (Sir Peter Gluckman), overwhelmingly backs the early investment approach.

The committee’s report had 12 major recommendations ranging from; the economics of early intervention in children, preconception care and reproductive and sexual health (including timely access to effective and affordable contraception), nutrition and obesity, alcohol, tobacco and drug harm, maternity, socioeconomic determinants of health including housing, research on children, collaboration, to leadership.

There were 130 specific recommendations with practical details of how to achieve benchmarks, along with time lines.

The New Zealand government in response stated, “Improving outcomes for children and preventing child abuse are priorities for this government.” Substantial progress has been made, as is evident from the Better Public Services programme, the White Paper for Vulnerable Children, the Children’s Action Plan and the wide range of initiatives in the health, education and social sectors for children and their parents.

More recently the government has initiated a Child Obesity Plan and also established the Ministry for Vulnerable Children. These initiatives are a step in the right direction but a bolder more holistic approach is urgently needed.

With regard to the Health Select Committee report, in July 2016 the government published what it says it has achieved. The Health Select Committee was due to report on what it believed had been achieved to date, but ironically its time and energies were dominated by the ‘assisted suicide’ debate and it failed to report on children.

In fact, assisted suicide won over children as a priority for the Health Committee. That madness of prioritization could be put right by our next Prime Minister.

While significant efforts have been made by the government to improve the status of children in New Zealand, there clearly remains huge unmet need if we are to become one of the best places in the world for all children, not just the lucky 80 percent.

To improve some of our appalling statistics regarding children, their place needs to be elevated to be of national importance along with the economy, housing, transport and immigration.

With the election now five weeks away, there is great opportunity for the government and all political parties to show inspirational leadership in committing to a long term evidenced based comprehensive package for early intervention, particularly preconception to 3 years.

The power of the Select Committee report was that it was cross party and essentially unanimous. It was informed by some of the best brains in the country. There is a widely acclaimed and agreed upon blueprint to fully implement.

The Select Committee’s recommendation on leadership read,

“We recommend to the government that the Prime Minister accept the formal role for developing and implementing a whole of government action plan for improving outcomes for all children including a specific early intervention action plan, covering preconception to 3 years of age. The Prime Minister’s responsibilities should include defining the economic and general evidence base behind the action plan, monitoring and measuring outcomes and reporting how the government proposes to make improvements in a transparent annual or biannual plan.”

Which political leader (s) have the courage to make this commitment for our children in election 2017?

Dr Paul Hutchison, Former Chair Health Select Committee.

Professor Lesley McCowan CNZM, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland.

Professor Innes Asher ONZM, Department of Paediatrics, Child and Youth Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland.

Professor Gregor Coster CNZM, Dean, Faculty of Health, Victoria University of Wellington.


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