Thursday, 14 February 2013

race relations commissioner

so we're coming up to the end of an era: race relations commissioner jorid de bres is to retire on 1 march, after spending 10.5 years in the role.  the diversity action programme newsletter provides details of some of his achievements.

i hadn't met any race relations commissioners (or conciliators) before mr de bres stepped into the role.  i'm not sure if that's because he has had a much higher level of community engagement or because i didn't get out much in the years before 2003.  probably a combination of both!

the diversity action programme and the annual human rights diversity forums have, i think, had a significant impact in bringing community activists, NGO's, academics and central and local government institutions together.  great for networking, for sharing ideas and learning about projects, for informing others about issues faced by various groups in the community.

but more than that, the race relations commissioner & his staff has played a huge role in managing issues of racial conflict and tension, and in advocating at government levels for changes in policy and practice.  i have to say that i have, on the whole, been heartened by the response in nz to the comments by mr prosser.  that people have been so willing to lambast his comments on a wide range of media & social media must, i think, reflect some of the work that has been happening in communities throughout nz.

it is therefore a matter of some concern that the amendment to the human rights act that is currently going through the processes of parliament proposes to disestablish the position:

the Act will no longer name the Race Relations Commissioner and Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner. Instead, they will be appointed as Human Rights Commissioners to reflect that Commissioners are first and foremost members of the Commission and operate at all times on behalf of the Commission. To ensure the formalised leadership roles are retained in the areas of race relations and equal employment opportunities and an additional role is created in the area of disability rights, the Act will provide that there must be a Commissioner (other than the Chief Commissioner) appointed to lead the work in each of these priority areas.

it's all very well to say that, under the proposed new structure, the commissioners will undertake the same duties without the specific designation.  if that's the case then i don't understand the need to remove the designations, and thereby the visibility of the work they do.  what purpose does it serve?  it's not like we've solved all problems of discrimination by race, it's not like there are no longer disparities in income, in life expectancy, in access to employment and housing, in just being able to go about our daily business.

i can't make any definite statements in relation to crime against people of colour, because while police record the ethnicity of convicted criminals and we regularly get to hear all about the percentages, they refuse to record the ethnicity of victims of crime.  and so we don't have data about race-based hate crime, we don't know if it's increasing or decreasing, we don't know what areas are most dangerous.  when you refuse to record a thing, then you can easily pretend it's not a problem.

there is still plenty of work that needs to be done by the human rights commission.  to take away the name and the current structure is to take away the importance of that work and the importance of these issues in our society.  but more than that, this move may be a way to cut funding and cut the work of the commission in this area without it being so visible.

it's an unnecessary move, but it's likely to happen within the next few months.  hence the delay in appointing a replacement for the current commissioner, and why he has been continuing in his role after his term ended in september.  i don't know what can be done to stop the bill from passing in it's current form, but in the meantime i want to wish mr de bres well for the future and give my heartfelt thanks for the work that he has done to make our lives better.

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