New Zealanders have spent more than two years angsting over whether parents should be permitted to smack their children. Meanwhile, as a society, we've been failing our kids

I'd imagine many of you share my fond belief that New Zealand is the best place in the world to bring up children. It's certainly something I've been guilty of telling folks from overseas when they ask me what New Zealand is like. And it's a theme you hear repeated a lot in interviews with expats, explaining why they've finally packed in their OE and returned to these fair shores.

But it is a belief that doesn't really survive contact with the OECD's just released report, Doing Better for Children. The inaptly named "Country Highlights" synopsis of New Zealand's performance makes for a grim read. Here are some particularly hard to swallow portions:

● New Zealand government spending on children is considerably less than the OECD average. The biggest shortfall is for spending on young children, where New Zealand spends less than half the OECD average.

● Material conditions for Kiwi kids are relatively poor. Average family incomes are low by OECD standards and child poverty rates are high. The number of New Zealand children who lack a key set of educational possessions is above the OECD median.

● In terms of child health, New Zealand has the highest rates of suicide in the OECD for youth aged 15-19. Overall child mortality is also higher than the OECD average. Immunisation rates are poor for measles (second worst in the OECD) and whooping cough (fifth worst in the OECD).

The report finds that New Zealand doesn't make the top 10 OECD nations in any of the six child well-being indicators deployed to examine each country (although for one of these, "Quality of School Life", no relevant data could be found). Only Italy, Mexico, Poland, Turkey and the United States performed as uniformly poorly. Conversely, we ranked in the bottom 10 for three indicators, and were second-to-bottom for children's health and safety (ahead of only Turkey).

To my mind, this report (and what to do about it) should be the first item on John Key's cabinet agenda from now until the next election. This also should be the first question put to anyone who raises the smacking issue in public: "What exactly should we be doing about the fact our country treats its kids worse than most of the rest of the developed world?" Because until we get back on track on this issue, arguing the pros and cons of smacking is like fighting over whether the band on the deck of the Titanic should be playing jazz or swing.

But I rather suspect mine is a vain hope. For one thing, National's Paula Bennett already seems to be downplaying the report's significance, rather bizarrely stating: "Ask me whether I would want to raise a child here in New Zealand or in Mexico, it is going to be New Zealand every time." (For the record, the report ranks Mexico below New Zealand on all but one of its well being indicators, so her point is opaque to put it mildly.)

For another, I don't know whether this report by itself will be enough to shatter our cherished national mythology. The fact is that for many of us—comparatively rich, predominantly white, with functional social networks for support—New Zealand does remain a great place to raise kids. There's the outdoors, there's good and cheap schooling, there's low crime rates. Granted, even rich, white kids from good families kill themselves, and our boozing culture is a problem across all social strata, but on the whole the pros of New Zealand's way of life largely outweigh the cons.

As for those for whom the story isn't so good—relatively impoverished, disproportionately brown, socially isolated or enmeshed in dysfunctional peer groups—they remain firmly out of sight, out of mind. When they do make an appearance, it usually is as a horror story in the court news, or as a social problem to be shuffled on to someone else's plate or otherwise just repressed.

Which is why I'm guessing the OECD's report will provoke a few days of anguished hand wringing, a couple of band-aid measures dressed up as a solution, and then we'll get back to "normal". For many of us, it will soon be time for taking the family to BBQ on the beach. For the rest, it'll be back to the food banks—if they can meet the demand.

(A final point: one of those responsible for the OECD's report was New Zealand's own Simon Chapple, previously the Chief Economist at the Ministry of Social Development. Kudos to him for overseeing a fine piece of research.)

Comments (1)

by stuart munro on September 05, 2009
stuart munro

It will be lucky to produce so much as the bandaids you refer to. Effective government action simply isn't part of our parliament's performance repertoire.

This report is only one of a raft of issues serially neglected by New Zealand governments. Nothing is the thing that our leaders do best - which really raises the question of what we pay them for. Certainly not for their entertainment value, intelligence or integrity.

When our governments in the 80s abandoned Keynesian policies (which they used comparatively poorly) for free market fantasy, a major driver of this abandonment of their responsibilities was the possibility of avoiding accountability. Governments since that time have not even tried to confront the greatest problems facing our society.

And these are? Suicide - not just youth suicide. Declining educational outcomes. The disappearance of the manufacturing sector. The permanent balance of payments crisis caused by imported oil. A lack of entry level housing and an aging, expensive and inefficient housing stock. The need to establish alternative industries to replace air travel tourism over the next 20-30 years... there are more matters like these than we can count. And of course child poverty is one of these, and in part a product of them.

And neither major party has any intention of doing anything whatever about any of them. This is not remotely acceptable.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.