I read the Glenn Inquiry’s report (The People’s Report) yesterday, during the course of two or three hours (when rampaging offspring permitted). I found myself feeling increasingly uneasy as I absorbed the material and reached the end of the report. As I cooked a very slapdash dinner I tried to work out the source of my unease. Was it the absolute lack of secondary material or relative lack of statistics supporting the material in the book? No. Not at all (once I got over my irredeemable pointy-headedness which has a tendency to bark: “What’s your evidence??” and “What about peer review?” at inopportune moments). Actually, those aspects were strengths. This report was largely what the Chairman (Bill Wilson QC) said it was:
…it has allowed so many victims and frontline workers to tell their stories in an unvarnished way. It gives them a genuine voice in exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the present system. The report does not dictate, rather it recites what those most affected by family violence say happened to them, what worked and what did not.
There should be a place for unvarnished voices, however grating on the ear, to be heard, however discomfiting the message. 500 interviewees is not a large number of people given the thousands upon thousands of people involved with, and affected by, family violence and child abuse every year in New Zealand. There are also obvious gaps in the kinds of voices included (as acknowledged in the report itself there is no focus on the voices of disabled New Zealanders), but nevertheless these are 500 people we would not have heard from without this report.
I was involved in a similar (albeit far more modest) process as a member of Welfare Justice, the alternative welfare working group commissioned by the Anglican Social Justice Commission, Caritas and the Beneficiary Advocacy Federation which operated in 2010-2011. Welfare Justice was set up to feed into the welfare reform process that was being dominated by the Welfare Working Group set up by Paula Bennett, which ultimately led to the welfare reforms of the past few years. We had more than 400 people take part in our consultation process and we keenly felt the need to issue a separate report that would allow the observations of those groups and individuals to be heard on their own merits. Predictably enough much of what we heard focused on the perceived deficiencies and inequities of the welfare system, and gave people a real opportunity to tell us how things were for them.
This report is at: /www.caritas.org.nz/sites/default/files/Welfare%20Justice%20in%20NZ%20What%20We%20Heard.pdf
I do have faith in these kinds of mechanisms that feel democratic to me; because they encourage and provide for participation by ordinary people in a process of discussion and prioritisation of important ideas. We need more, not less of this kind of forum.
So a report reflecting ordinary voices in crisis and critique is welcome. Provided…ah. There’s the rub. There is a proviso in my endorsement of this kind of report. As I tried to articulate to myself why I struggled with the report it eventually became clear to me that the report purports to be more than it is. The report crosses some line from reflection of voices into direction on what form reform ought to take. I think this is too early.
The final section of the report (Taking Action) starts out OK, as it provides an account of suggestions made by interviewees and submitters as to how they would like things to change. The report states at the beginning of the section:
We have devised a set of suggestions based on the voices of the people who came forward to speak to the Inquiry. These suggestions are based on key issues that are complex and multilayered. They require substantial changes to societal, institutional and community perceptions, organisations and systems, and families. We suggest seven key issues for consideration that might help New Zealand better meet the needs of those impacted by child abuse and domestic violence.
Again, relaying the suggestions of those people who participated at this of the inquiry is important. Further, it would be inevitable that the authors imposed some interpretation on the material they received, if only by the way in which they had to organise it for presentation. We had to do something similar with the Welfare Justice report. In this case the authors collated the suggestions made under the rubric of RESPECT:
R Refining documentation to eliminate
inaccuracies, fragmentation and errors
E Early intervention
S Skilled workforce – it only takes “one
champion” to make a difference
P Prevention via education, especially children,
to interrupt the cycle of violence
E Equitable approaches – helping one, helping
C Community action – how can communities
T Tying it all together – inter-agency
So far so good. In this section, however there are a number of instances where the authors move beyond merely reflecting the voices of those participants to the inquiry itself directing the nature of the reform that ought to take place. I understand the frustration at the lack of action on family violence issues, and that the temptation to be directive at this stage would be huge, even if at least to give the media some handy nugget to digest and to kick off debate. There were a great couple on interviews this morning on Nine to Noon about the notion (strongly enunciated in the report) that further reform is needed in the Family Court. So the report in that sense is doing its job, getting people to engage in public discourse and wrangle about the best path forward. Good. maybe only directiveness can get that ball rolling.
My worry is that the authors (and by necessary extension, the Inquiry itself) taking such an early and directive stance on what needs to happen for reform now undercuts and discounts all other relevant research or perspectives that would need to be taken into account before working out that best way forward. I thought the job of the Inquiry was to gather information (including the incredibly valuable material in this report) and propose a framework of reform, the ‘Blueprint’ to be released in November this year. The work of information gathering is only part-way done:
By identifying promising solutions from the panel interviews, working with people who have an in-depth understanding of the current system, and with the help of system experts from New Zealand and overseas, we will look at how to develop an ideal system for addressing abuse and violence. A literature review, in-depth interviews and workshops will be undertaken as part of this work. https://glenninquiry.org.nz/where-are-we-up-to
So, in other words, there is a heck of a lot of water that needs to go under this bridge before the Inquiry is in a position to make even solid suggestions let alone recommendations for change. Here I have to let my pointyheadedness take over and identify that my fundamental unease is that the People’s Report presumes it has the answers already to what it identifies as key issues that are complex and multilayered. Here is the final paragraph of the report:
A national strategy also needs to include requirements around the improved education of professionals and frontline workers, and require better inter-agency collaboration. There also needs to be a major review of the courts system and Child Youth and Family so that the gender bias against women and mothers is eliminated and victims can get the necessary assistance when they are traumatised and need help to be safe and secure. Importantly, people need help in overcoming the trauma and abuse they have endured. They need access to free counselling that is not time-limited, because child abuse and domestic violence erodes people’s spirit and psychological wellbeing. It can’t be fixed in six short sessions. Finally people need to have a code of rights and an independent forum whereby they can have their grievances heard and addressed
I do not suggest for a moment that these statements are wrong. I’m saying they are directive and break away from the purpose of the report which was to give voice to the voiceless. There is nothing merely suggestive here, this is the Inquiry speaking. Perhaps the perspective the report’s authors want us to understand is that of the Inquiry as Advocate: in these (and many other) directive words, the Inquiry is standing as an advocate on behalf of those who spoke with the panel and contributed to the inquiry. Perhaps this stance is is intended somehow, to make up for the inaction and the trauma that those contributors have described. Goodness knows passionate advocacy is required, as is productive and creative imagination to figure out the best way out of the morass. But if the Blueprint is to have any chance of success once released, I would have thought that allowing the New Zealand public to hear these voices in as unmediated a fashion as possible would provide those people with the best service at this stage of the inquiry.
Reality and pragmatism have to kick in. It’s inevitable that this report was going to be subject to huge scrutiny. We wanted it to SAY SOMETHING. Here I am moaning that it says something, so it seems. But early criticism that the report lacks rigour and analysis (http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2599880/advocates-slate-report) might have been avoided if the Inquiry had kept its powder dry and stuck to what it said this report was intended to be; that voice for the voiceless.