Billionaire dreams of zero child abuse

16:00, Dec 15 2012
Owen Glenn
PASSIONATE: Billionaire Owen Glenn wants to end domestic violence in New Zealand.


Owen Glenn dreams of standing before the United Nations, waving a ground-breaking report into how New Zealand solved domestic violence and child abuse, and saying "here, that's how you do it".

Even if they just give him a 20-minute audience, he says, he'll be pleased.

The billionaire philanthropist says his "People's Inquiry" - that has just kicked off and, although Glenn is reluctant to talk figures, will cost a considerable part of the "up to $80 million" he's pledged to help fight child abuse - will certainly have a significant impact on the next election.

The report will be delivered early in 2014, election year, and Glenn has commissioned a communications firm to sign up 500,000 people to a petition demanding all parties support the findings of his inquiry - or lose their votes.

"Once we have 500,000 voters people will sit up and take notice," Glenn says.


In another sign of his serious intent, Glenn has recruited 13 international child abuse and domestic violence experts - from Australia, the US, Canada, Uganda, and including a veteran Scottish homicide cop as well as senior academics - to form a think-tank advising his report panel.

He has also appointed veteran family violence campaigner and former head of the government's domestic violence unit, Ruth Herbert, to lead the inquiry.

He describes the relentlessly energetic Herbert as a "real dynamo, and she knows where all the bones are buried". He first spotted her calling for a national inquiry on a television show four years ago after writing her masters thesis on the subject.

Herbert, who describes herself as "campaigner, advocate, maybe a stirrer", had just finished her government contract and was helping her son paint his house when the call came from Glenn.

"Life has funny twists," she says excitedly.

"One day Owen Glenn rings up and you find yourself doing something different. It was like a dream come true for me . . . to have a philanthropist who says he wants an independent inquiry when you've been calling for the same thing. It takes a nanosecond [to say yes]."

Herbert says news of the inquiry has been met with amazement in the sector and the response has been extensive - offers from volunteers and people willing to share their stories.

Glenn has told her to start from the bottom up, to hear ordinary voices rather than those in authority.

In this, their biggest obstacle may become their biggest strength. Because the inquiry is independent, they have no power of subpoena; but similarly, their work isn't subject to Official Information Act requests, allowing them to guarantee people's anonymity. They hope this will entice frontline workers, as well as survivors, to contribute.

Herbert says there are other advantages: "We're not constrained. For many inquiries, the Government sets the terms of reference. In this case, we set them. Those terms of reference don't need to be constrained by the political or economic situation. We're aiming to answer the question ‘If New Zealand was leading the world, what would it look like?"'

Herbert doesn't want a catalogue of woes, doesn't plan to log every punch and kick, every depraved tale of child abuse.

"This inquiry could not accommodate hundreds of stories about what the abuse was like. That's not what it's about . . . we want to know what is working, what's not, and if we are going to build the best system for victims of abuse, what's it look like?"

Crucially, the report is thought to be not just the first time anyone has collated all research on the study but also the first time research has examined child abuse and domestic violence together.

Herbert says they are indivisible: 60 to 70 per cent of child abuse has domestic violence attached; in every case of domestic violence where children are present there is a psychological impact on the child.

The inquiry will examine every stage from primary prevention - how to change society to stop violence - to early intervention, to crisis management, to "rebuilding".

Herbert has three staff already. The full inquiry panel of three or four is likely to be chaired by a retired judge. And the think-tank will comprise between 25 and 30 people - half from overseas, the rest local, with 65 New Zealanders already invited to apply.

The wide-ranging nature of the report means they needed offshore expertise. Herbert says it's a "leap of faith" for the international experts to sign up for a role yet to be clearly defined, but 13 of the 17 people she approached came on board immediately.

University of Sydney academic Lesley Laing hadn't heard of Owen Glenn before, but wanted to be involved because of New Zealand's reputation of innovation and the combined approach to the two issues. "It's a great opportunity to share some ideas around thorny, complex problems," she says.

"It's a really exciting opportunity to make some change. You hear of lots of philanthropy around the arts - not always about social issues."

Scottish policeman John Carnochan (see sidebar) came to Herbert's notice after he was interviewed on Radio New Zealand after speaking at a World Health Organisation conference in Wellington.

"You've got an economy of scale," he says. "If you can get a consensus nationally that would be tremendous . . . even the fact you're writing about this starts a discussion. I think it is a great idea and I'm really passionate about it."

For Glenn, the trigger for funding the inquiry came more than 40 years ago, during a brief spell living in the South Auckland suburb of Otara.

"I saw first-hand some of the horrible things that go on, and it was what prompted me to leave the country," he says (he has spent much of the intervening time overseas).

"I never lost the thought that there were problems. But in my 20s, I wasn't in much of a position to do anything about it other than to walk away."

Glenn says this could have been an official royal commission of inquiry, but the Government declined.

Instead, he says they've offered to share anything - except material covered by the Official Secrets Act.

"What on earth has the Official Secrets Act got to do with violence?" he booms. "Can someone explain that to me please?"

He plans to ask for everything he can get hold of. "Or have those in positions of authority to answer for it."

In many ways, this will not be a traditional inquiry. Already, it's clear that Herbert and Glenn will be aggressive campaigners.

"Unless all political parties sign up and commit to long-term action to working together, nothing will happen," says Herbert.

"We have to stop making it a political football. We need a commitment for 20 years for all parties to work together."

The Glenn Inquiry wants to hear from people with personal experience of child abuse or domestic violence, and welcomes offers of expertise, time or financial support. Email or go to

Sunday Star Times