Saturday, November 18, 2017

Most beautiful city? Not sure about that, but it suits me

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 17.)

I’ve been copping a bit of stick lately. Not because of anything I’ve said or done, or even how I look, but because of where I live.

Last month’s announcement that Masterton had been declared New Zealand’s Most Beautiful City was the cue for much chortling and guffawing at my expense.

I’ve lived contentedly in Masterton for nearly 15 years, but I concede it’s not a town that immediately springs to mind when you start thinking about beautiful places.

I received an email about the award from a friend in Nelson, a city so lovely that its residents can’t help but feel smug. In the subject line he simply wrote “Oh, please!”. There was a world of incredulity and ridicule in those two words.

Even locally, the decision was regarded with surprise and scepticism. “You have to be bloody joking,” one heretical Masterton resident wrote on the Wairarapa News website. Another wondered whether all the other cities in New Zealand had been blown up - proving at least that Masterton people have a self-deprecating sense of humour, along with their many other virtues.  

In the same awards, Greytown, just down the road, was declared New Zealand’s most beautiful small town. Now there was an award that people understood and agreed with.

Greytown is pretty and charming. It has become Wellington’s favourite weekend bolt-hole. If you’re from Kelburn or Wadestown, you’re just as likely to see your next-door neighbour in Greytown’s Main Street on a Saturday as you are at your corner dairy. Locals grizzle that they can’t find a car park because of all the out-of-town Porsches and Range-Rovers clogging the street.

But to me (and I hope I don’t offend my Greytown friends by saying this), Greytown is a bit Midsomer, if you get my drift. I don’t mean they keep killing each other there by gruesomely inventive means, as in the TV series, but it’s all rather fashionably homogeneous.

Masterton, on the other hand, is a Decile 1-10 town. Every socio-economic stratum is represented here, from wealthy old Wairarapa farming dynasties to multi-generational welfare-dependent families living in P houses with dead Ford Falcons on the front lawn.

It remains a no-nonsense provincial farming town. Drive in from the south and you run a gauntlet of agricultural equipment dealers, which clearly signals what drives the local economy. On weekends the sound of chainsaws can be deafening.

People think there’s a lot of crime here, but that’s largely a residual reputation from a past era. In any case, I no longer cringe when I see a headline about a drive-by shooting or a senseless act of vandalism in M-town.

In fact I now take a kind of perverse pride in such incidents, celebrating them as evidence of a community that represents humanity in all its rich and wondrous diversity. There’s more to life in Masterton than being able to find the perfect soy latte.

But back to that award. Part of the reason it occasioned such disbelief was that the phrase “Most Beautiful City” is a misnomer. For a start, Masterton’s technically not a city. You need 50,000 people for that, and we’re barely halfway there.

More to the point, the organisers weren’t using that word “beautiful” in the conventional sense. No one could claim that Masterton is richly endowed with scenic wonders, although it certainly makes the most of the assets it has. Even my Nelson friend admits to a fondness for Queen Elizabeth Park, where you can imagine the thwack of leather on willow even when there’s not a cricketer in sight.

This is the sort of thing the judges were getting at. They praised the town for its environmental and heritage conservation efforts, and for the strength of its “community engagement”. 

I know what they mean, even if the sneerers don’t. It’s a place where people pitch in when there’s something that needs doing.

Trouble is, word seems to be getting out. Last year, Masterton’s population grew faster than any other place in the Greater Wellington region, other than the capital itself.

It’s certainly not one of those provincial zombie towns that you read about. Visitor numbers keep increasing, new housing consents are double what they were in 2016 and local builders are going gangbusters.

Most of the new arrivals are from Wellington and Auckland. Whatever Masterton’s got, they seem to like it. 

But the town is changing to meet their requirements. There are now bars where you don’t have to drink Tui and we're about to get a classy boutique cinema. Traffic keeps building up and next thing you know, people will be demanding traffic lights.

I have grave reservations about these changes. Thank God for the Remutaka Hill, I say. It’s our only defence against the interlopers. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

It's the Friendly News with Dan the Smiling Weatherman

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 15).

Something’s not right here. I’m watching a 1 News item about Prince Charles being implicated in an international tax dodge, and the reporter is TVNZ’s own Chris Chang.

The story originated in Britain but Chang would have recorded his voiceover in TVNZ’s Auckland newsroom. It will have replaced a voice track supplied with the original item by the BBC. But why?

Are we really expected to believe that a journalist sitting in New Zealand, with no specialist knowledge of Prince Charles or his dodgy investments, is in a better position to tell us what’s going on than someone close to the action?

Of course he isn’t. But this deception is routinely practised by our state-owned television network. Almost nightly, TVNZ takes overseas news items and gets its own journalists to record a voiceover.

It’s dishonest, because it pretends TVNZ’s own staff have done the hard yards when in fact they’re piggy-backing on the work of correspondents overseas.

You could argue that it’s harmless, but it’s dishonest all the same – and entirely unnecessary. So why does TVNZ do it?

I suspect that it’s all about promoting TVNZ’s own journalists as “names” – celebrities, you might say – whom we are encouraged to regard as our personal friends. It’s just one example of the many ways in which TV news bulletins have been cheapened by gimmickry and the cult of personality.

Even in the digital age, when consumers of news have a veritable smorgasbord of options, the 6 o’clock news remains crucial in locking viewers in for the evening. 1 News remains the most-watched free-to-air programme, and TVNZ constantly tweaks it to ensure it retains our loyalty.

The debasement process was set in train decades ago when someone decided it would be a good idea to have two people, rather than one, reading the news.

The tandem male-female newsreading team is now such an entrenched practice that we no longer think of it as peculiar. But reading the news requires only one person, as radio and most respected overseas TV networks demonstrate. Two is pure gimmickry.

Let me remind you how this strange practice came about. In the late 1970s the newly launched TV2, desperate to establish a point of difference against the bigger and better-resourced TV One, pioneered a dual newsreading team consisting of John Hawkesby and Tom Bradley.

Even Hawkesby and Bradley seemed to recognise that it was all a bit silly, jokingly referring to themselves privately as the Bobbsey Twins, after the characters in a popular series of American children’s stories. But nearly 40 years down the track, this contrivance has become a permanent fixture.

Now let’s move from the merely irritating to the ingratiating. TVNZ newsreaders and reporters have clearly been instructed to encourage us to think of them not as detached, competent professionals doing a serious, important job, but as our chums.

It’s the Friendly News with Simon and Wendy, with Dan the Smiling Weatherman providing the warm-up act. This sense of easy familiarity is reinforced by the way the newsreaders address reporters when they appear live. Jessica Mutch is “Jess”; sports host Andrew Saville is “Sav”, and so on. They’re our pals.

We see it too when a reporter such as Paul Hobbs, one of TVNZ’s most favoured journalists, appears on screen. He often gives the impression that he’s less concerned with providing an authoritative report than with establishing a smiley empathy with viewers.

This approach can be traced back 20 years or so, to when an American consultant was brought in to retrain TVNZ’s journalists and newsreaders. His message, which TVNZ management heartily endorsed, was that viewers had to become more emotionally engaged with the news. They had to feel it on a more personal level.

Brian Edwards memorably called it the coochie-coo news. Some TVNZ journalists couldn’t bear it and quit rather than undergo what they called “potty training”.

What else bugs me about 1 News? Well, there’s the nagging suspicion that some reporters are hired for their looks rather than their ability. It helps to be young and attractive. Appearance seems to be valued over experience.

Then there are the ridiculously brief sound bites from interviewees – sometimes just three or four words. Is TVNZ worried that our attention span can’t cope with a complete sentence, or is it a way of making the news seem fast-paced and dynamic?

There’s also the ridiculous emphasis on reporting “live” from the scene of a story, even when the event being reported took place hours earlier and the “live” report adds nothing. It’s made worse when the reporter is not up to the challenge of speaking live to the camera, as is often the case.  

And don’t get me started about incorrect captions – indeed, often no captions at all, so that you’re left to guess the identity of the person on screen. Standard practice is not to identify the speaker the first time he or she appears. You have to wait for a second appearance before you learn who it is.

Again, why? Perhaps TVNZ thinks we’ll be so curious to discover who it is that we won’t be tempted to stray to a rival channel in the meantime. Who knows how the TVNZ corporate mind works?

My point is this: news is serious stuff. It deserves to be treated with respect, not gussied up with floss and tat better suited to a travelling circus.

In the 1920s, the BBC famously required its radio newsreaders to wear a dinner jacket, even though no one saw them. Over the top? Yes – but at least it showed that the BBC saw the reading of the day’s news as an occasion of some gravitas.

FOOTNOTE: Soon after my column appeared on the Manawatu Standard website, TVNZ supplied the following statement from Phil O'Sullivan, head of newsgathering. I reproduce it in the interests of fairness and balance.

"Mr du Fresne is perfectly entitled to his opinion on our news and we welcome his viewership but when he accuses 1 News of 'deception' and 'dishonesty', a response is called for.

"We frequently run international material from the BBC and the United States’ ABC network. When our Europe or US correspondents are not available, we will often pull together a story back here in New Zealand. Not all our affiliate material is suitable to run in New Zealand. The story may still be developing, it may be too long, too short or aimed too closely at an overseas domestic audience. Our aim is simply to tell a story that New Zealand viewers can relate to.

"Mr du Fresne is incorrect in stating as fact our reporter 'replaced a voice track supplied with the original item supplied by the BBC'. The reporter conducted his own research and reported the story using a range of affiliate material and sourcing. In no way did we deceive our audience and we believe they’d be smart enough to know if we did so.

"We agree 'news is serious stuff'. In the past year alone our team has reported from all over New Zealand and the world on stories as diverse as natural disasters to a general election. All of these stories have myriad challenges, not least keeping our staff safe while covering them.

"1 News is New Zealand’s most watched and most trusted TV news – we never take that position for granted."

I'm happy to accept Phil O'Sullivan's assurance that Chris Chang compiled the Prince Charles item, although I question the need to do so when the BBC could have been relied on to cover the matter thoroughly. I believe this reinforces my point about TVNZ wanting to put its own reporters forward. I have noted many occasions in recent months when TVNZ's own journalists have presented overseas news items for no obvious reason.

Incidentally, I notice that on the two nights since my column was published, 1 News appears to have changed its policy of not identifying people when they first appear on screen. Of course this could be entirely coincidental. Nonetheless it's welcome.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The state giveth and the state taketh away

READERS PLEASE NOTE: I submitted the following article to the few mainstream outlets that I considered likely to be interested in publishing it. None accepted it, for reasons that I understand. Journalistically, it’s problematical for several reasons. Nonetheless I think it’s a story that deserves to be told, which is why I finally decided to publish it on my own blog page. Anyone wishing to share or reproduce it should feel free to do so at no cost.

BY KARL DU FRESNE

T
his is a story of a family caught up in “the system” and overwhelmed by what can seem an intrusive and all-powerful bureaucracy.

It’s a story about a couple whose children were taken away and who are desperate to get them back, although there seems little prospect of that happening, at least under present circumstances. And at its core it’s about three small children, unseen and unheard, who have been removed from their parents and are growing up without them.

It’s a story that illustrates the complexity and emotional sensitivity of the issues dealt with by the controversy-plagued child welfare agency formerly known as CYF (now the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki), and it goes some way toward explaining why some people accused the agency of abusing its power.

It’s not a straightforward story, with instantly identifiable heroes and villains. It’s messy. The protagonists could be said to have contributed in multiple ways to their own predicament. The only entirely blameless parties are the ones with no control over their fate: the children.

But the story does raise questions about a child welfare system which, if the couple’s account is to be believed, can be overbearing and bullying. It also illuminates what has been labelled the “three cars in the driveway” syndrome. The couple had dealings with a plethora of social agencies, but none seem to have provided the practical help they say they needed.

It’s a story that raises public interest issues, since the taxpayer is complicit in what has happened. The children were born as a result of state-funded fertility treatment and then, in a cruelly ironic twist, were taken away when the same state decided their parents couldn’t be trusted to look after them.

It also raises questions about the disclosure of sensitive information given in the expectation of confidentiality, and about how much – or how little – the public knows about actions taken on its behalf.

Cases involving care-dependent children are not generally publicised for the very good reason that minors must be protected from the glare of public exposure. But this raises a nagging question: how many similar stories remain hidden because rules intended to protect the vulnerable also have the effect of shielding “the system” from public scrutiny?

T
HE COUPLE at the centre of the story, Radha and Murray Gardener (not their real names) live in a state house in a provincial city. They are on benefits. They have no car, little contact with extended family and give the impression of being socially isolated.

Their house is tidy and well cared-for. There are pot plants in the small front porch. In winter, Murray complains that the ground is too water-logged for him to work in the garden.

Radha, a Fiji Indian, is a small woman but feisty and forthright, with a volatile streak. English is her second language. Murray, who’s white and Australian-born, is quieter and more phlegmatic, but he’s astute and capable of expressing himself succinctly. He’s 80, she’s 40 years younger.

In his language and general manner, Murray seems slightly out of place in 21st century New Zealand. Generational differences may have been a complicating factor in his dealings with CYF. He refers to women as sheilas – not in a derogatory tone, but it’s not something that would have endeared him to younger, female social workers.

I met the couple after my sister, Julie du Fresne Kynoch, took up their case. Julie and a friend had come across an obviously distraught Radha in a Catholic church and asked what was troubling her. That was in 2014. “Julie became my best friend,” says Radha.

Interviewing the Gardeners is not easy. Radha frequently goes off on tangents. There are abrupt, bewildering chronological jumps in the narrative. Sometimes the couple’s accounts are garbled and sometimes they disagree.

While they seem devoted to each other – Murray calls Radha “Bub” – there are occasional hints of unresolved issues between them. An official report on the Gardeners suggests, without providing any substantiation, that there was violence between the couple, which Radha says isn’t true.

The following account was pieced together from official documents as well as interviews with the couple.

R
ADHA met Murray after she placed an ad in the “Connections” column of the New Zealand Herald in 2003. She had come to New Zealand on her own, obtained work as a waitress in Auckland and wanted to find a husband.

Murray, who grew up in Queensland but had served in the New Zealand Army – at Terendak, in what is now Malaysia, and Vietnam – was employed as a storeman. He had previously been married and had an adult family.

Murray saw the ad and got in touch. Radha flew to meet him in the city where he lived and they hit it off, despite the age difference.

In the culture Radha came from, there was pressure to marry and have children. She too had been married before, to an Indian man, but had no kids. Now she wanted to marry a European. “I’ve seen a lot of white men and thought white men are quite nice,” she says with characteristic, disingenuous frankness. “Quite educated and things like that.”

They married in 2003. Radha was 27, Murray 67. But this isn’t one of those cases where an older white male takes advantage of a na├»ve and vulnerable Third World bride. Radha gives the impression of being too assertive and independent for that.

She didn’t see the age gap as a problem. She was escaping the expectations of a culture where women marry young, have children and take on responsibilities for the wider family. “That was a very big escape for me,” she says.

But although she didn’t want children at first, she says family pressure began to weigh on her after she went back to Fiji for her brother’s wedding. Her family couldn’t understand why she and Murray didn’t have children.

Radha returned to New Zealand “really upset”. “I told [Murray] this was in my culture and asked if he would agree to have children. I said, ‘let’s go to the doctor and see’.”

Murray was not in good health (he has diabetes). He also had a low sperm count – too low to have children. They were referred to a doctor from Fertility Associates, which is based in Remuera, Auckland, and operates 18 fertility treatment clinics around the country.

Murray says he sensed that their GP thought fertility treatment would be unwise because of their age difference, but the doctor from Fertility Associates who interviewed them didn’t think there were any issues. The company applied on their behalf for funding from the Ministry of Health and got it.

Fertility Associates – “over 29 years’ experience and 17,000 babies born so far”, according to its website – declined to answer specific questions about the treatment provided, citing patient confidentiality (although it was made clear the couple would not be identified). However the Ministry of Health says the usual cost of treatment is between $8000 and $10,000 per treatment “cycle”. In the case of the Gardeners, funding was approved for two cycles.

Radha was given sperm from a donor and became pregnant with triplets. “I was really, really happy,” she recalls. “This was the biggest happiness that ever happened in my life. And then things went sadly wrong for me.”

Murray chips in. “She lost one baby at five weeks and one at four months.” He has a sharp mind and a clear recollection of dates, names and places. (Asked about the possibility of adverse consequences following fertility treatment, Fertility Associates said the risk of miscarriage was similar to that with natural conception.)

The third of the triplets, Louisa (not her real name), was born at 31 weeks in 2010. Radha very nearly died from toxaemia. Murray remembers the police, or “coppers” as he calls them, coming to their flat and telling him go to the hospital immediately because Radha was extremely sick.

A
FTER a long spell in hospital, Radha came home without the baby. Murray says she had post-natal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It was in hospital that Radha first came to the attention of a social worker. “I was ill and they [the hospital] forced her [the social worker] on me. They kept asking, ‘Do you want a social worker?’ I didn’t know what a social worker is because I never had a social worker in my life.”

She confided to the female social worker about her “private life” and included the information that Murray had once served a prison term for rape. “She [the social worker] was asking me questions like a journalist would: how did I come to New Zealand, what did I like, how was I going to look after the baby, that sort of thing. I was just trying to be frank and open with her.”

Radha says she assumed their discussions were confidential. “I didn’t know she was making a report or telling stories all over the hospital.” But obviously the rape disclosure went on her file.

A Ministry of Social Development report prepared in response to complaints about the Gardeners’ subsequent treatment by CYF makes no mention of Murray’s criminal record, but confirms that a hospital social worker filed a “report of concern” prior to Radha’s discharge. It said the social worker was concerned about Radha’s mental health and cognitive ability – concerns that were to resurface repeatedly over the following years.

Not surprisingly, Murray doesn’t seem comfortable talking about his rape conviction (Radha found out about it only after they got married, and clearly wasn’t happy), but he acknowledges it openly enough.  He was tried in 1992, found guilty and spent four years in prison.

The case involved two 15-year-old girls who would come to his house after school. Murray says one of the girls asked him to teach her how to “pash up” (that language again) and it led from there. And the second girl? “She was a friend and she was there. You know how it goes.”

He says there was no coercion and that if he had been charged with unlawful sexual connection, he would have pleaded guilty. But the jury concluded it was rape.

When combined with concerns about Radha’s mental health, disclosure of Murray’s conviction was enough to put the couple on CYF’s radar.

Julie Kynoch is convinced that CYF had Murray in its cross-hairs from that time on because it viewed him – wrongly, she believes – as a potential sexual abuser. “I believe CYF adopted a mindset in regard to him,” she says. Murray himself says he was falsely accused by a CYF social worker of sexually grooming Louisa.

I
F Kynoch is right about Murray being viewed as a likely abuser, there are similarities with two cases reported earlier this year by Radio New Zealand, which suggest CYF had a fixation with supposed threats posed by some fathers, even when the department was known to be wrong.

In one case, CYF refused for 15 years to correct erroneous records claiming that a father was a sex abuser and even repeated the unsubstantiated claims in reports to the Family Court. The Ministry of Social Development, CYF’s parent ministry, apologised to the man and was subsequently reported to be negotiating a payout.

In the other case, a Family Court judge rebuked CYF for putting a three-year-old girl at risk by providing misleading information about her father. CYF repeatedly told the court the man was violent, thereby obstructing his efforts to win custodial rights from the girl’s mother, who was a drug user living in an abusive relationship.

The father subsequently initiated legal action against CYF. Anne Tolley, then the Minister of Social Development, described herself as “a bit cross” and ordered a review of the case.

But there were other complicating factors in the Gardeners’ case. The MSD report says Radha herself had expressed “concerns” – unspecified – about Murray to social workers.

In later dealings with social workers, Radha would say things that she now says were misconstrued, and which may have led CYF to conclude that Murray was a potential abuser.  And Murray himself, by making comments that he now cannot explain, would reinforce CYF’s view of him as a man not to be trusted.

B
ABY LOUISA eventually came home. Murray says she was the joy of Radha’s life. But as time went by, Radha decided Louisa needed a brother. “I didn’t want her to grow up alone.”

The Gardeners had been funded for a second round of fertility treatment, so went ahead. No one appears to have expressed reservations, despite the loss of Louisa’s unborn siblings and the problems associated with Louisa’s birth.

Twins Brendan and Tanya (not their real names) were born in 2013, three years after Louisa. The pregnancy went full term and the babies were born healthy. But Radha was the subject of another hospital report which said she appeared irrational, paranoid and aggressive. There were concerns about her going home with the twins.

Murray, too, had again come to CYF’s attention when Radha told a social worker she was worried about leaving Louisa at home with Murray while she was in hospital.

Radha admits saying this, but says she was concerned only because Murray – who was now on the wrong side of 75 and suffering from sciatica as well as diabetes – might not be capable of looking after Louisa.

Murray himself didn’t think he could cope. He says his sciatica occasionally caused him to collapse in pain and he was worried he might be left immobile on the floor. On occasions he was forced to move around on his hands and knees.

Besides, Louisa was a very active three-year-old and Radha feared that without constant supervision she could have a serious accident – possibly even electrocute herself.

Whatever was on Radha’s mind at the time, the Gardeners believe CYF misconstrued her concern and thought she was worried that Murray might sexually molest his daughter. 

With the Gardeners’ consent, Louisa was placed with a caregiver while Radha was in hospital. The little girl would be brought in to see her mother, and it was during one of these visits that Murray made a comment – an essentially harmless comment, but one that was bound to provoke disapproval – that he thinks further turned CYF against him.

As Murray explains it, Louisa was crying and he thought she would be comforted by being breast-fed. He asked Louisa: “Do you want some of Mum’s titty?” It was overheard and he was subsequently rebuked by a CYF social worker – one whom the Gardeners came to regard as hostile – for having made a vulgar and sexual remark. It was another black mark.

I
T was another, later comment from Murray, however, that understandably ramped up suspicions against him, and it was one that he admits he can’t explain. It happened when the twins had come home and Radha was changing Brendan’s nappy. Louisa was watching and Murray asked if she would like to lick (Radha says the word was “suck”) Brendan’s nuts.

The remark played on Radha’s mind and when she went to her doctor the following day, she told him about it. “I used to tell the doctor everything.

“It weighed on my mind. I said to myself, I do everything for this man [Murray] – everything I can possibly do. Why did he say that to my kid? Why?”

She didn’t realise, she says, that the doctor would inform CYF. Within hours, social workers had arrived at their house and ordered Murray to leave the family home. The MSD report says officials determined that his behaviour was unacceptable and a “safety plan” was put in place which required him to move out.

He left that afternoon and spent a year living on his own. CYF told him to get some counselling, which he did – for 34 weeks.

D
ID MURRAY represent a sexual threat to the children? A person who has read a lengthy psychologist’s report on the Gardeners, prepared for CYF, says it concluded that he was not a potential abuser.

Murray himself says the police never came knocking on his door when they were investigating local sexual offences, the implication being that they didn’t think he was a danger.

Asked if he can explain why he made the “nuts” comment, he sounds remorseful. “No idea. No idea why I said it.” He says his former lawyer would have described it as prison talk.

Radha is remorseful too, for having told the doctor. “I didn’t want [my husband] to leave. I didn’t want my family to break up. I made a mistake telling the doctor.” She thought doctors were bound by rules of professional confidence.

But while Murray’s verbal indiscretion resulted in him being banished from the family home, it wasn’t the final straw. That came when Radha, under stress from looking after three small children on her own, feeling she was constantly being critically assessed and getting little practical help despite visits from CYF and miscellaneous social agencies, blurted out something that was interpreted as a threat to kill her family and take her own life.

It happened one day when she was picking up Louisa from kindergarten. Radha, a woman given to sudden impulsive outbursts, was struggling with a pushchair and an obstinate gate. Clearly near the end of her tether, overtired and feeling harassed by kindergarten staff, she said to a staff member: “Why don’t you give me some poison so I can drink it?”

Radha denies threatening to kill her children, but it seems that’s what kindergarten staff told CYF she had said. This followed further concerns that had been expressed by a CYF social worker about her mental health, although community mental health workers had visited Radha and concluded there was no need for them to be involved.

CYF wasted no time acting on the kindergarten incident. That evening CYF staff armed with a court order turned up unannounced at Radha’s house, accompanied by five police officers, and took the children away.

Radha insists that when one of the police officers asked the senior CYF official at the scene what they should do about her [Radha], he replied: “Leave her there to die.”

CYF has denied any such statement was made. Whether or not it was, it seems extraordinary that a woman whom social workers considered mentally unstable, and possibly a suicide risk, was left alone after having her children forcibly taken away.

Murray learned of the children’s removal when a distraught Radha came to see him later that night. Within a month, Radha was in the mental health ward at the local hospital. After her discharge, Murray returned to live with her.

T
HE CHILDREN were removed on February 7, 2014 and placed with a CYF caregiver. They have never been back to the family home.

The psychologist’s report prepared for CYF, which the Gardeners say was written after only brief interviews with them, and which appears to have been mostly based on information provided by CYF, said it was not in the children’s best interests to go back to their parents.

That report, which appears to have been a crucial factor in CYF’s decision-making, became another bone of contention. Julie Kynoch questions whether someone dependent on CYF for much of her income, as she believes the psychologist was, could be regarded as impartial.

The children’s caregiver, a solo mother with an older child of her own, subsequently applied for parenting orders. At this point, events took a puzzling turn.

At a meeting with CYF, the Gardeners consented to the granting of a care and protection order over the children, effectively conceding that they would be better off with someone else. Murray explains this by saying he and Radha were advised that it would give them their best chance of eventually getting the children back.

Julie Kynoch thinks Radha had developed a habit of saying what she thought CYF wanted to hear. The couple also felt they should take the advice of their lawyers and a friend who thought that agreeing to the care and protection order and “keeping in good” with CYF would improve their chances of having the children returned.

In fact it now looks, in hindsight, like the point of no return.

The Gardeners were babes in the wood, Kynoch says. “They felt compelled to agree to CYF arrangements in the expectation that compliance would improve their chances of the children’s return.”

The upshot was that in November 2015, the Family Court granted the children’s foster mother a final parenting order, thereby effectively placing them permanently in her care.

S
INCE then the Gardeners have been allowed to see their children once every three months – for one hour, under supervision. 

They take the children toys and food treats. Murray says the children run to him, calling out “Daddy, Daddy”. The Gardeners claim, although it can’t be corroborated, that the children sometimes look skinny, dirty and poorly dressed.

The limited access seems gratuitously cruel, but a lawyer experienced in family law says the aim is to avoid children getting too attached to their “real” parents. “You could call it tough love.”

Not much has changed in the two years since the court order, except that the caregiver moved to another city 140 kilometres away, thus making visits more difficult.

The Gardeners say they are given virtually no information about the children’s wellbeing or progress. A recent glossy report from the twins’ kindergarten was a first.

They have never met the caregiver and there seems to be no onus on anyone to keep them informed. CYF batted away my questions about the children’s welfare on the basis that they were no longer its responsibility, that having passed to the Family Court.

For its part, the court seems reluctant to air the facts about the case. My request to see the court file was turned down by Judge Jill Moss, initially in the mistaken belief that I had been “involved extensively in supporting and advocating for [Mrs Gardener]”. Judge Moss accused me of not fully disclosing my interest in the matter.

She was wrong. At no point had I had any partisan involvement in the case. As a journalist, I was simply keen to establish the facts. But the judge appeared to assume, presumably because my sister had advocated on Radha’s behalf and often goes by her maiden name, that I was Julie’s husband.

Judge Moss also accused me of making a second attempt to obtain information that the court had already decided not to release. Wrong again: I had not been involved in any previous approach to the court and was solely concerned with obtaining information that might help in the preparation of this article.

The judge reviewed her decision after her mistake was pointed out, but the result was the same. She ruled that since I had the co-operation of the children’s parents, who she said were in possession of the relevant documents, there was no need for the court’s file to be disclosed to me. It was a small insight into the difficulties of trying to penetrate a system that seems stubbornly resistant to scrutiny.

T
HERE have been other issues, many of them detailed in the Gardeners’ complaints to the MSD. Those complaints were dealt with in a detailed 18-page report in June last year that left the Gardeners and Julie Kynoch, who helped with their case, dissatisfied and frustrated.

The complaints were considered by the MSD chief executive’s two-person “advisory panel”, which went back over voluminous case notes, Family Court files, reports of various family group conferences, earlier complaints about CYF’s treatment of the Gardeners and the department’s responses to those complaints.

The panel ended up dismissing virtually all the Gardeners’ grievances, mostly because the couple’s allegations weren’t corroborated by CYF staff. Where the Gardeners’ claims differed from CYF’s version of events, the default position seemed to be that nothing had been proved. 

One minor complaint – about one of the children being given a crude haircut – was upheld “because there are often cultural considerations around cutting of children’s hair”. But the panel seemed less concerned with cultural sensitivity when it ruled on another complaint. The Gardeners alleged that during a visit with the children, Radha was punished by the access supervisor for speaking to them in Hindi. Her visit was abruptly terminated and her access to the children subsequently cut back.

The panel’s report doesn’t deny this happened, but says supervisors must be able to understand what is being said during access visits in order to “redirect the parent if they are speaking inappropriately”. To the outside observer, it all seems a bit controlling.

Issues of language and culture, while not central, may have been an aggravating factor all along. Radha thinks things might have worked out differently had she had been able to speak to someone from her own cultural background while in hospital, or when she was struggling with mental stress at home.

It may not be coincidental that the Gardeners say they got on well with a Pasifika social worker who was originally assigned to their case. Things started to turn sour when that social worker was replaced by a young white woman who, from the outset, gave the impression of being critical and judgmental.

One point the advisory panel confirms is that CYF saw Murray as a threat to the children even though there was no evidence of him having behaved badly, other than when he made the comment that resulted in him being barred from the family home. The report says there was an “extreme” level of concern about Murray but doesn’t say why.

The panel refused to accept Radha’s complaint that she had not been given sufficient help to cope after Murray was ordered to leave home. Radha confirms there was a constant stream of visitors to the house from a variety of social agencies, but says no one offered the sort of help she most needed – for example, preparing meals or doing the washing.


W
HERE does all this leave us? A professional person acquainted with the case says the Gardeners are unlikely to get their children back unless Radha can demonstrate that she’s mentally stable.

She recently spent time in a mental health unit and sometimes exhibits signs of paranoia – claiming, for example, that their house is bugged and that people have tried to electrocute her. At such moments, Murray seems embarrassed. He rolls his eyes or starts whistling so he doesn't have to listen.

To Julie Kynoch, a mother and grandmother, it’s not so strange that Radha behaves erratically. “I’d probably be mad if my children had been taken away from me,” she says.

Seen in this light, it’s a classic Catch-22 situation. Radha may get her children back if she can prove she’s sane, but it’s possible she won’t regain her sanity until she gets her children back. And the Family Court presumably considers it can’t take the risk of returning the children to her in the hope that doing so will restore her mental health.

In short, it’s a mess. The Gardeners are not blameless, but neither is the state. The couple had children only because the state made it possible, and then the state took those children away.

(Asked whether doctors assessing candidates for IVF take into account factors such as age difference between the parents or the social and family support available to them, Fertility Associates said the assessments covered the likely efficacy of the treatment and the balance between risk and benefit. “The threshold to withhold treatment is high and to date has always been medical.”)

J
ULIE Kynoch argues that the dice were loaded against the Gardeners from the start. “My impression is that racism and ageism are underlying issues. At the courthouse, at the police station, even at lawyers’ offices, the [Gardeners] have been given the run-around and treated as second-class citizens, I suspect because he’s old and she’s coloured.”

Are Murray and Radha Gardener fit parents? Possibly not. Does that mean they deserve everything that has happened to them? Again, possibly not.

Are the children better off being raised by someone else? That’s possible too. But crucially, there is no evidence of either Murray or Radha mistreating the children. Rather, the children seem to have been removed because of a fear that they might be mistreated – a possibility that exists, at least theoretically, with all parents.

However one looks at it, troubling questions arise: first, about whether the Gardeners should have been given fertility treatment, Murray being 40 years older and having a serious sex conviction on his record; and second, about whether the agency charged with looking after troubled families behaved in a judgmental and controlling way that may have greatly diminished the prospect of the family staying together.

A striking aspect of the case is that the couple came under state scrutiny too late. The proper time to critically assess their suitability as parents was at the outset, when they first sought fertility treatment. Had their application been more rigorously vetted and the potential pitfalls identified then, a lot of heartache might have been avoided. 

It's not unreasonable to conclude that the Gardeners and their children have been left to pay the price for  errors of judgment by other people - namely, the company that provided the treatment and the public servants who approved it. 

As is often the case, those parties have escaped responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. That has fallen on the Gardeners and their children. Fertility Associates has banked its fee and moved on. And the state, having expended an incalculable amount of money on the case – on fertility treatment, legal fees, court time, payments to caregivers and to the various social agencies involved – now also seems to have walked away. Meanwhile, three small children are growing up not knowing their parents and disconnected from their cultural heritage. 

The Gardeners’ story is worth telling not necessarily because it’s an exceptionally egregious case, but because it offers some insight into what can happen when a family gets caught up in a powerful and overwhelming system that ordinary people are ill-equipped to deal with. And perhaps the most worrying thing is that there are almost certainly far more troubling cases that the public never hears about.




Monday, November 13, 2017

We want our money back

It’s a shame the Consumer Guarantees Act doesn’t apply to politics. If it did, the country would be entitled to demand its money back. The governor-general could be petitioned to annul the election result and do it all again.

I say this because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the new government was formed under false pretences. We were sold faulty goods, not fit for purpose.

This is not the fault of the Labour Party, although it was over-eager to do a deal with Winston Peters. Labour was conned, as were National and indeed the entire country. No one knew Peters was planning to sue key National Party figures, including Bill English, which meant the theatrical negotiations leading to the formation of the new government were a sham.

We can also blame a flawed system that allowed Peters, whose party wasn’t wanted by 93 percent of voters, to take control of the government formation process. Our constitutional arrangements generally serve us pretty well, but they let us down badly by not setting sensible rules for post-election negotiations.

Of course there’s little prospect of a fresh election, in the immediate future anyway (hold all bets in the longer term), but it’s a tantalising thought. I wouldn’t mind if it resulted in a Labour-Greens coalition, just as long as the process was fair, open and transparent.

The crucial thing is that Winston Peters should never again be allowed within a mile of Parliament. No government can have any credibility as long as Peters is part of it, and this one is ineradicably tainted by association with him. Labour and the country will have to endure three years of shame and humiliation unless someone pulls the pin.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Were the coalition talks skewed by Peters' secret utu plan?

Let me see whether I’ve got this right.

We learned yesterday that on the day before the September 23 general election, Winston Peters kick-started legal action against National cabinet ministers and officials over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment. He took this action without disclosing it to either the National or Labour parties.

Then, post-election, Peters entered into – indeed orchestrated – what were held out to be “good faith” negotiations with both parties on possible coalition arrangements.

Both parties believed they were in with a chance – in fact an equal chance – and Peters seemed happy to encourage this belief. It suited him to do so because that way, both Labour and National would be keen to do business with him.

But realistically, what chance was there of Peters going into coalition with National when he was simultaneously – apparently unbeknown to anyone but his lawyers – taking legal action against senior National ministers and officials? What sort of hopelessly dysfunctional government would it have been if the deputy prime minister (let’s assume his appointment to that role would have been one of the conditions of any NZ First deal with National, as it was with Labour) was suing the prime minister?

No, it’s inconceivable.

The obvious conclusion, then, is that Peters kept quiet so he could play the parties along, spinning out the negotiations and extracting maximum concessions, when he must have known all along that he would go with Labour. To put it another way, the negotiations appear to have been an elaborate charade.

If this was the case, National weren’t the only ones being played for suckers. Labour were deceived too. Ask yourself: what concessions did the Labour team make that they wouldn’t have considered had they known Peters intended to go with them regardless?

I’m not alone in thinking this. Veteran political editor Barry Soper writes: “Like all good gamblers, Peters kept a stony face, letting them [National] believe they were still in the game whereas in reality they'd been dealt out when the court papers were filed against them."

They were playing blind, says Soper, and so was Labour. “If they’d known of the court papers they might not have been so generous”.

Now Jacinda Ardern is left with little option but to play it all down by insisting it was just a “personal” matter between Peters and the people he’s going after. She says Peters gave her a “heads up”, although not until last week. All sorted, then; nothing to see here.

Of course Ardern has to maintain the line that this doesn’t affect the unity or stability of the coalition. But seriously, how can Labour trust Peters after this? They appear to have been shafted before they even had their feet under the cabinet table. At the very least, they were misled by omission.

On Morning Report today, political law expert Graeme Edgeler put a benign interpretation on Peters’ behaviour by suggesting he may have decided to proceed with legal action only after deciding to support Labour.

In other words Peters may have negotiated with National in genuine good faith, intending to shelve his legal action if they reached agreement. But if that were the case, why did his lawyers file papers in the Auckland High Court the day before the election? He would surely have stayed his hand while he waited to see how the post-election talks panned out.

I suppose some people might admire Peters’ mastery of the political dark arts (Soper seems to), but to me it just looks dishonest and deceitful. On the face of things, he has treated Labour and National with contempt, he has treated the electorate with contempt and he has treated democracy with contempt. 

And what a cute coincidence that he should have left the country to attend the Apec conference in Vietnam before the bomb went off, so that he was spared having to answer awkward questions. (I won’t comment on the irony of a foreign affairs minister who’s deeply sceptical about free trade representing New Zealand at a meeting of an organisation formed to promote it, but hey - who's going to pass up an opportunity to hob-nob with the big boys?)

Let’s allow that the leaking of Peters’ superannuation details was a political dirty trick, albeit a transparently clumsy one, aimed at embarrassing him ahead of the election. But the secrecy of his plan to exact utu, and the possibility that the coalition talks were skewed by it, can only add to misgivings about the integrity of the process by which the new government was formed. Am I the only one who thinks this is a whole lot more important than the entertaining gamesmanship in Parliament yesterday?



Saturday, November 4, 2017

The first 100 days: a better way

There has been a lot of talk about what the new government proposes to achieve in its first 100 days. It has set itself an extremely ambitious workload and a very limited time frame in which to accomplish it.

Political parties forced to chafe and fidget in opposition over a long period accumulate a big wish-list. They’re naturally impatient to correct everything the previous lot got wrong. When they finally get their hands on the levers of power it’s like a dam bursting.

There's a danger, then, that some of the Labour-led coalition’s priority objectives will be rushed through with insufficient preparatory groundwork or detailed consideration of the practicalities and possible consequences.

The risks are compounded because the vast majority of ministers have no previous experience in government and will be distracted by prosaic demands such as appointing staff and acclimatising in their new offices. Oh, and there’s the Christmas break coming up.

There’s also the tantalising possibility that neophyte ministers, giddy with excitement at their new-found power, will spin out at the first bend. Defence Minister Ron Mark certainly left some rubber on the tarmac this week when he appeared to rashly promise government funding for the RSA. To mix a metaphor, it looked like a case of political premature ejaculation.

Contrary to what Labour and its coalition partners are contemplating, I wonder whether it would be a good idea for power-starved incoming governments to resolve not to do anything for the first 100 days while they wait for the rush of blood to the head to subside.


Friday, November 3, 2017

A coalition of convenience

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 3.

“We won, you lost – eat that!”

Remember? That was the reported taunt to National MPs by deputy prime minister Michael Cullen in Parliament not long after National was banished to the opposition benches in 1999.

Actually, Cullen didn’t use the words in that sequence. Hansard quoted him as saying “Eat that! You lost, we won”, which conveys a subtly different nuance.

Although it’s commonly assumed that he was gloating over National’s election defeat, he was celebrating the fact that Labour had just consigned National’s Employment Contracts Act to the scrapheap.

But the triumphalist sentiment was unmistakeable, and since the paraphrased version has entered New Zealand political mythology, we’ll go with that.

Cullen’s comment is worth recalling because there has been a chorus of “We won, you lost – eat that!” since the formation of the new centre-Left government.

None of the crowing, I hasten to add, has come from Jacinda Ardern or her partners in government. They are wisely concentrating on the work ahead rather than wasting energy on nyah-nyah point-scoring. Rather, it’s the Left-leaning political commentariat that has been relishing its WWYLET moment.

Another crucial difference from 2000 is that this time, the taunt isn’t directed at the National Party. It’s aimed at Right-leaning commentators – including me, probably – who questioned the process by which the new government was formed.

Anyone who expresses any such misgivings is derided as a sore loser or caricatured as a dinosaur, still pining for the days of the first-past-the-post electoral system. The assumption is that they must be disgruntled National supporters.

The Left is keen to stifle any discussion about the questionable circumstances of the Labour-led government’s birth.  Get over it, they say; move on.

Well, just for the record, I don’t advocate a return to FPP and I don’t support the National Party. I didn’t vote for it and would have been happy to see it beaten fair and square.

Neither do I believe that National was automatically entitled to form a new government just because it won more votes than any other party.

I would argue, however, that it had a powerful moral claim to be first cab off the rank in coalition negotiations. But in the constitutional vacuum that followed the election, it was left to Winston Peters, Mr Seven Per Cent, to orchestrate the coalition-forming process. And it suited him to play the two major parties off against each other in order to secure maximum advantage for himself and New Zealand First.

Ultimately, Labour got Peters’ blessing because it was more willing to accede to his demands. To put it more bluntly, Labour was more desperate than National to win power.

Peters then added insult to injury by taking his media label of kingmaker rather too literally, magisterially announcing the formation of the new government as if delivering the speech from the throne, and not even having the courtesy to inform Ardern or Bill English beforehand. I suppose it was his unsubtle way of reminding everyone who was in charge.

You have to hand it to him. It was a breathtakingly audacious hijacking of the post-election process, and we let him get away with it.

The Left-leaning commentariat insist this was a glowing example of MMP working exactly as it’s supposed to.

They would say that, of course, because it delivered the result they hoped for. But can anyone deny that democracy is debased when a party with 7 per cent of the vote effectively dictates the rules of play?

We’re now expected to accept the fiction that Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are soulmates, joined at the hip. But in reality, all that united them was a hunger for power. It’s a coalition of convenience. Peters couldn’t even bring himself to mention the Greens in his kingmaker speech.

The inherent tensions between those parties – socially conservative and populist on one hand, “progressive” and highly idealistic on the other – could easily cause this coalition to implode. That’s not wishful thinking; it’s just being realistic.

However it’s not the outcome of the election that grates so much as the process by which we got there.

Those who insist that the vote for change was bigger than that for the status quo have an arguable case. Many New Zealanders were tired of National’s laissez-faire approach to pressing issues, and even some on the Right accused the party of appearing arrogant and complacent. It will do National’s MPs no harm to suck it up on the opposition benches.

We now have a new government that’s fresh, ambitious and full of energy. It’s doing what Labour governments have traditionally done – coming in with a hiss and a roar after a long period under National and hitting the “reset” button.

But it’s unfortunate that our likeable new prime minister’s moment of glory is tarnished by doubt about the legitimacy of the process by which her government was formed. There has to be a better way.