Apologies overdue

Yesterday in Wellington, two different groups of people went to Parliament for exactly the same reason: to seek an apology from the State.

One was given; the other is still not forthcoming.

It was a historic day for homosexual male New Zealanders convicted for consensual adult activity. They finally received an apology from the House and an acknowledgement the legislation of the time, under which they were punished, was unjust.

Justice Minister Amy Adams apologised, on behalf of Parliament, which she said "deeply regrets the hurt" caused to consenting homosexual men. There were several stirring speeches, including by Labour’s Grant Robertson, who said he stood on the shoulders of courageous gay men who had gone before him, suffered shame, stigma and prejudice, but still had the strength to fight for justice and equality.

The apology came as part of the first reading of the Criminal Records (Expungement of Convictions for Historical Homosexual Offences) Bill. The legislation will enable men (or their representatives in the case of those who have died) to apply to have their convictions quashed.

The legislation and the apology acknowledges the wounds of the past. Sadly it comes too late for men (lesbian sex was not criminalised in law) who have died (some at their own hands) in the interim. It is too late for those who were stigmatised, forced to live in shame and fear. It is too late for those whose ambitions, personal and professional relationships, and travel plans were hampered by their criminal convictions.It will do something to restore dignity,  however.

It has been a long and tortuous road to acceptance, respect, equality and justice.

While inroads were made with the Homosexual Law Reform Act of 1986 that paved the way for an equal future, it did nothing to erase the State’s sins of the past. At the time, the energy of campaigners was solely on decriminalising consensual homosexual sex.

While there has been considerable progress since then (New Zealand was among the first in the world to legalise gay marriage in 2013),  pressure was still required to reach this stage. The apology was made only after the Government was petitioned last year. Britain apologised for its anti-gay laws at the beginning of last year, and Australian states were quick to follow. Cynics would wonder whether the timing, mere months from the general election, will tarnish some of the symbolism. It would have more meaningful, too, if more MPs were present. It is, nonetheless, a significant gesture, which should start the healing process and bring to a close a dark chapter of our past.

That is not the case, however, when it comes to victims of state care abuse, who also gathered yesterday, along with the Human Rights Commission, to present a petition to Parliament calling for an official State apology for the wrongs done to tens of thousands of vulnerable children in state care, many of them Maori.

The House was also considering the third  readings of the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Legislation Bill and the Vulnerable Children Amendment Bill — part of the overhaul of child care and protection services as a result of Child, Youth and Family’s raft of failings.

The Government has steadfastly refused to make an official apology, on the grounds the abuse was not systemic. In Parliament yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett said Social Development Minister Anne Tolley’s "individual" apology to victims was more powerful, and continued to dispute calls for a public inquiry into the issue, saying that would not resolve anything on a practical level.

It was a sitting of two halves, then. Identifying injustice, investigating its extent, eliminating pain and prejudice, taking responsibility for failings and apologising for them is a lengthy process. There is still inequality in the way individuals are treated in New Zealand, including around gender, sexuality, race and economic status.  And that continues to shame us all.


So the Government will not undertake a review of the abuse of children in its care as it was not systemic. If it wasn’t systemic what was it? How did the system fail to recognise that children in State care were being emotionally, physically and sexually abused. How does the Government account for the high number of Maori children taken into care? Why were these children taken into care? What assessment criteria were used to make these decisions? If a Government can not answer these questions, then they do not understand why the abuse happened in the first place. If you don’t understand the history of abuse and how it could happen, how do you ensure you do not repeat the mistakes of the past?
How can it be that children who had no say in decisions made about their care do not warrant a public apology and an investigation into why the very people charged with ensuring their safety and care, failed them. A public Government apology does not take away the ability to provide meaningful individual apologies.
The impact of this institutionalised abuse on many people has been years of poor health and educational outcomes and an over representation in both offending, and in prisons.