New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives to attend islamic prayers in Hagley Park near Al Noor mosque on March 22, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

After Christchurch, Ardern’s defence of the ACC system rings increasingly hollow

The government’s reluctance to front up about support for mentally traumatised mosque shooting survivors has shone a spotlight on the limitations of ACC, writes RNZ’s Veronica Schmidt.

The difficulty with being held up as a symbol of empathy and compassion is trying to live up to the image forever after. In the days after the 15 March mosque attacks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised for the sensitivity, compassion and support she showed victims’ families and traumatised survivors.

But fast forward four months and her government has kiboshed a proposal to extend ACC to mentally traumatised survivors of the shootings, and she’s busy trying to defend the decision.

Her position is made more difficult by the years she has spent talking about the importance of mental health and emphasising her government’s commitment to tackling mental illness.

The pressure came on soon after 15 March, when ACC began supporting physically injured survivors with up to 80 percent of lost wages, treatment, lump sum payments for permanent impairment, home help, transport to appointments and more, while those suffering with PTSD and unable to work or function had their claims turned down.

Initially, Ms Ardern simply pointed to the Accident Compensation Act, saying it only allowed for the cover of mental injury in a few narrow circumstances.

Then, senior Christchurch MP Megan Woods announced the government was tweaking residency eligibility criteria for Ministry of Social Development payments, allowing some survivors who wouldn’t normally qualify for a benefit to apply.

The government no doubt hoped that would end the ACC conversation. But a benefit falls well short of 80 percent of most people’s wages and the coordinated care ACC provides. Trying to peddle benefits and ACC as being on a par was never going to fly for long.

ACC minister Iain Lees-Galloway (photo: supplied)

Then last week, ka-boom! A Cabinet paper emerged showing that a month after the attacks, the government was presented with the option of extending ACC cover to mentally injured mosque shooting survivors.

The paper, from ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway’s office, said it was appropriate to provide financial support for those mentally harmed by the mosque shootings “that is similar to that available to those physically injured by the attack”. It said ACC was “well-placed to administer this support”.

The paper also noted: “In most cases the benefit will be significantly lower than what a claimant can receive if they are eligible for ACC weekly compensation.”

So, why did the government turn down the proposal and instead tinker with benefit eligibility?

Ms Ardern tried to answer that question on TVNZ’s Breakfast yesterday morning, saying, “We wanted to provide cover, we wanted to do it quickly and ACC would not have been a quick option.”

The explanation may have flown if the Cabinet paper hadn’t said the opposite – that directing ACC to provide services to mentally harmed mosque attack victims would be “fast” and “feasible”.

Her other lines were more convincing – how much would levies have to go up? Should consultation be done before extending cover to those with mental injuries from the mosque attacks when others who had suffered similar harm from other incidents weren’t covered?

Mr Lees-Galloway, who has ducked interviews on the issue, raised the same issue of fairness in a statement to Newsroom last week, saying the government’s decision to turn down the ACC option for attack survivors was about “fairness for others who aren’t eligible for ACC coverage”.

But the fairness argument brings us full circle: is it fair that ACC covers physically injured mosque attack survivors but not mentally harmed ones? And moreover, is it fair that ACC in general covers physical injuries but not mental ones?

The Greens don’t think so. The party’s ACC spokesperson, Jan Logie, has added to the government’s headache by calling for a system overhaul. She wants cover extended to all injuries – physical or mental.

Ms Ardern says her government has no plans to review ACC or to extend cover for mental injuries.

But, now that the Christchurch attacks have brought the ACC discrepancy squarely into the spotlight, how long can the government stick with the current system?

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