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Why it’s an exciting time for children

Why it’s an exciting time for children in Aotearoa New Zealand – but we can’t afford to be complacent

By Claire Achmad

New Zealand’s 2017 General Election campaign signaled a shift in the public and political consciousness about how we treat children in our country. Unlike previous campaigns, issues affecting children got significant and widespread attention. This led to strong policy commitments for children across many of the political parties, including the largest two.

This was timely, because big changes are needed if we are to be a country that can be proud of how we treat and value children. It’s up to all of us – not just Government – to shape the follow-through, so we make the most of the momentum around child well-being created through the Election campaign.

The new Government has been unequivocal in articulating its commitment to prioritising children’s well-being and bettering children’s lives. It comes right from the top – a Prime Minister who is setting a clear tone for hers to be a Government characterised by empathy, kindness and creating real change in the lives of all people up and down our islands, including the youngest among us.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact our Prime Minister is already having by talking in terms of empathy and kindness. She is a Prime Minister who children and young people are excited about, and the messages she sends are reaching them. As a result, children and young people are getting switched on to something which is not new but which hasn’t always been ‘cool’ – there’s a currency in kindness right now.

Kindness is something we need to foster in our society, so all children in New Zealand grow up knowing it’s cool to be kind and to have empathy for others. Nurturing this culture also holds the promise of more of our children and young people feeling supported, loved and respected, and having a sense of hope for their future. This is something there is no doubt we desperately need given our ‘world’s worst’ rates of adolescent suicide and the high levels of anxiety and mental health issues among children in our country.

The policy commitments this Government has made to children have the potential to be transformational and intergenerational in effect. Among other things, a commitment to reducing our shameful rates of child poverty could be a game-changer. How the Government implements its commitments in policy, legislation and service delivery is going to be the critical part to get right.

Implementation measures must be carefully designed and services must be delivered in ways that will work for children in practice. As well as focusing on the children who are in the greatest need, it is essential that this Government and future Governments recognise their responsibility of governing for all children. This means ensuring children’s rights are promoted and protected across the board, in line with the standards set out by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Alongside this, establishing the institutional architecture and mechanisms supporting a more child-friendly and child-focused country will help create the machinery to turn policy commitments into reality (for example, establishing Climate Change, Housing and Mental Health Commissions and a unit within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to lead child poverty reduction work; amending the Public Finance Act to require the Budget reports on progress to reduce child poverty).

It is also promising to see the focus on sustainable economic, social and environmental development reflected in the new Government’s Governing agreements, starting to give life to the Sustainable Development Goals in New Zealand. This is especially important for children and young people. After all, they are the future kaitaiki or guardians of our country and planet, and as the UN acknowledges, children and young people are critical partners in achieving sustainable development.

For those of us working in the child and social sectors, Government’s new commitments to children give us reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future situation of those we work to promote the rights and well-being of – Aotearoa’s children and tamariki. But we cannot afford to be complacent or to think it is going to be easy for Government to achieve its ambitious commitments to protecting and advancing children’s well-being. It will be hard and require relentless energy, policy nous and coordinated and concerted efforts to implement and drive change on the ground.

These efforts will need to be sustained over time and transparency concerning progress will be crucial. It will – as the Prime Minister herself has stated – require Government to work collaboratively with civil society organisations which share its goals. Consulting early and embracing co-development and design will be necessary to make this collaboration effective.

Achieving real change for children in New Zealand will also require the input of experts from academia and independent research quarters, and working with people who have lived experience of the social challenges Government is seeking to address. That means we must find new ways of working with children and young people to hear their ideas and experiences, and to ensure these have influence, by translating them into policy and action. It is often those who are experiencing problems first-hand who know what will work best in terms of solutions – we’ve seen that time and again in the disability sector and children are no different.

Instead of being a country that continues to appear in the ‘worst ranked’ columns when it comes to of rates of child abuse, violence and neglect, we have the opportunity to now work together as a country to build a culture of positive outcomes and well-being for and with all children. To do this, it is essential we understand the complex drivers of our existing child rights and well-being problems, and shape solutions addressing the intersection of these issues. These need to be turned into practical action delivered in ways that work for children, and which offer intergenerational impact. Add a healthy dose of kindness to the mix, and we might just have a recipe for a country where every child can shine bright.

Claire Achmad is Manager – Child and Tamariki Advocacy, Barnardos, New Zealand’s largest children’s charity. She was formerly Senior Advisor to the Chief Human Rights Commissioner and has held posts as a lawyer and policy advisor in government and international child focused organisations.

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