25 March 2015
After a slightly shaky start, Dame Susan Devoy is starting to impress in her role as Race Relations Commissioner. Her pronouncements have a strong flavour of common sense and understanding of the real issues and concerns facing New Zealand’s ethnic communities. And her recent call for an increase in the number of quota refugees accepted each year – from 750 to 1,000 – is both timely and correct.
The role of Race Relations Commissioner is a difficult one at the best of times – a balancing act to challenge all balancing acts. New Zealand has been fortunate in the consistently high calibre of its Race Relations Commissioners, since the initial appointment of Harry Dansey back in 1969. Arguably, in today’s diverse global environment where ethnic and cultural stigmatisation has become the new form of discrimination, the role is even more vital than ever, both to protect the rights of the affected minorities, and to stand up for balance and justice throughout the national community.
But all this might be about to change. There is currently legislation before Parliament to “streamline” the role and function of the Human Rights Commission, of which the Race Relations Commissioner is part. One change does away with that specific role, arguing instead that greater mainstreaming of the Commissioner’s role into the overall tapestry of the Human Rights Commission will place race relations issues much more at the core of the Commission’s functions that has been the case to date. The counter-argument, which has far more credibility, is that these changes will remove the specific focus on race relations issues and make it more difficult for ethnic communities to lobby and raise concerns when they feel disadvantaged. At a time when the phobias around various ethnic communities, their religions and cultures are rising irrationally in some quarters because of the perceived tangential link to international terrorism, this has to be a backward step.
Now, at this point, I have a major apology to offer. This legislation was introduced before last year’s election, and frankly slipped by my and UnitedFuture’s radar screens. I voted for the Bill’s introduction and agreed as part of our confidence and supply agreement to support the Bill through to its Second Reading. I state that as a fact, not an excuse. However, I have now advised the Government that I will not be supporting the Bill beyond its Second Reading, unless the position of Race Relations Commissioner is retained.
If anything, given the Government’s attention to “foreign fighters” and related issues, this is the time to be seen to be strengthening the role of the Race Relations Commissioner, not abolishing it. As Dame Susan grows in confidence and assurance in her role, the suspicion otherwise will be she is being silenced early, lest she become too troublesome later. Hardly a good look in a self-proclaimed tolerant society.