New Zealander of the Year Finalist 2012: Dr Russell Wills

By Geoff Cumming

They were the people who made New Zealand a better place in 2012. Some of them responded heroically at a moment when they were most needed, others worked tirelessly - often behind the scenes - to improve the lives of others. They are the Herald's New Zealanders of the Year. Over the next three days we will profile 10 finalists and announce the 11th - and overall winner - in Saturday's Weekend Herald. Our sport and business teams have also nominated finalists, starting from today with the overall winners on Saturday.

Russell Wills says the Government is taking his report on child poverty seriously. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Russell Wills says the Government is taking his report on child poverty seriously. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Suggest to the Children's Commissioner that his baby - a report on solutions to child poverty - is destined to go the way of its predecessors as politicians and bureaucrats count the costs, and he is unruffled.

"I think the recommendations are so powerful and so well-researched they are impossible to ignore," Russell Wills says.

"Some of these things cost very little and the Government can do them immediately."

The report is hot off the press - released only yesterday - and Wills acknowledges there will be a lag as officials work through the big-ticket items, which range from a warrant of fitness for rental housing to redesigning the benefit system. It is for raising the issues of child health and welfare to the top tier of Government priorities that the Children's Commissioner makes our New Zealander of the Year shortlist.

The paediatrician, who gave up a national role with Plunket to return to clinical work in Hawkes Bay, was something of a surprise choice as commissioner in May last year, having supported "anti-smacking" legislation in a form which the National Party fought in Opposition.

There were also political murmurings about the Wellington-based role going part-time - something Wills insisted on so he could continue paediatric work at Hawkes Bay Hospital and reduce the impact on his wife Mary and their two teenage sons.

As Government MPs who defended the appointment noted, his reputation is for walking-the-talk: he was prominent in Hawkes Bay initiatives - including pre-school health checks and domestic violence intervention in hospitals - which were both rolled out nationally. In a region with some of the country's poorest families, they led to big reductions in hospital admissions of children for assault, neglect or maltreatment.

He is quick to credit the "extraordinarily talented" people around him for any successes. His drive to make a difference, he says, stems from community-minded parents (who still live across the road) and early tutelage by renowned Hawkes Bay paediatrician Dr David Barry.

Dr Wills has certainly brought a sense of purpose to his commissioner work: calling for a Children's Act and annual measurement of progress towards stated child health goals and establishing the experts' panel which has just made more than 70 recommendations.

Child poverty is just one of Wills' priorities for his five-year term but you get the feeling he won't allow the report to gather dust. "I know the Government is taking this seriously; they've got officials working on the recommendations now."

- NZ Herald

Your views

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 26 Dec 2014 20:47:40 Processing Time: 545ms