Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mike Butler: Abolish race relations commissioner

A move to abolish the title of race relations commissioner, announced yesterday (February 18, 2012) comes after current Human Rights Commissioner Joris De Bres pushed local authorities to set up separate Maori constituencies. An amendment to the Human Rights Act introduced to Parliament late last year would abolish the title, although the duties would continue to be done by a human rights commissioner. (1)

De Bres complained that the change would reduce the visibility of the office and also reduce its independence. But if you think separate Maori council seats are a mistake, his constitutional foray into local government is evidence that less independence would constrain commissioners to actual race relations issues. This backgrounder shows the sort of administrative damage an activist commissioner can inflict.

Last year, the now beleaguered commissioner wrote to all councils, asking them to consider the question of Maori seats in their three-yearly representation review. His campaign resulted in councils in Nelson and Waikato agreeing, last November, to establish Maori seats for next year’s local body elections.

As part of his push, he provided a copy of a 2010 Human Rights Commission report titled “Maori Representation in Local Government – The Continuing Challenge”. (2) The commission identified Maori local government representation and Maori involvement in the decisions of the new Auckland Council as being among the top 10 race relations priorities for 2010

In response, of 78 councils nationwide, 49 told De Bres that they had considered the Maori seats option last year, and two councils – Nelson City Council and Environment Waikato regional council –agreed to establish Maori seats, the Human Rights Commission reported on November 30, 2011. (3)

The Nelson decision was reported as unanimous, but Cr Ian Barker, who heads the council's governance portfolio, and who wants the council to reverse its decision, said the vote was made in his absence the day after he asked for a delay in the decision. Grey Power is circulating a petition demanding that the council conduct a poll on a separate Maori Ward seat. (4)

The Environment Waikato vote was eight-to-four in favour. The council was to notify the decision publicly, advising that a poll can be held on the issue if five per cent of electors call for it. The Hamilton City Council voted to retain the status quo for its 2013 and 2016 elections and will instead look at better ways to engage with Maori. (5)

Margaret Forsyth, who strongly represents Maori in her role as a Hamilton councillor, said she did not think Maori should be given special treatment. "All my life I have always played on an even playing field ... I have never felt that I needed to say, 'What about me, I'm Maori, I would like some special treatment here.' I have always felt you get the best people for the job with an all-out open process." (6)

Nelson and Waikato are not the first local bodies to set up separate representation; Environment Bay of Plenty regional council established three Maori seats in 2001. Details of how and why those seats were established make up much of his 2010 report since De Bres presents the Bay of Plenty set-up as a precedent for all councils.

Environment Bay of Plenty’s Maori Regional Representation Committee in 1996 proposed Maori seats, arguing for some sort of affirmative action since there were no Maori councillors at that time despite Maori constituting 28 percent of the population in the region, the De Bres report said.

A joint Maori-council working party proposed legislation to establish a Maori constituency based on the Maori roll to elect three councillors. The council
called for submissions, receiving 760 in favour and 252 against. Judge Peter Trapski, who was appointed to conduct hearings, reported in 1998 that the submissions reflected a very strong desire of Maori to proceed with the proposal. He listed arguments both for and against, the report said.

Legislation in the form of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council (Maori Constituency Empowering) Act 2001 prescribed a formula for calculating the number of Maori council members as Maori electoral population divided by the total electoral population times the proposed number of members of the council.

The report includes details of a private member’s bill proposed by Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell seeking to enhance the provisions for Maori representation. The bill was defeated on its first reading in June 2010.

Environment Bay of Plenty Maori voter turnout in 2010 for the two candidates for the Mauao constituency was 27 percent, or 2404 votes, 32 percent or 3072 votes for the eight candidates for Okurei, and 41 percent, or 3788 votes for the three candidates for Kohi, according to details supplied by Environment Bay of Plenty.

By comparison, nationwide local body election voter turnout that year was 40.11 percent. General elections draw a bigger turnout; 73 per cent of general roll voters cast a vote last November, and only 48 percent of enrolled Maori voters turned out.

Electoral Commission figures for the Bay of Plenty in 2011 show that of an estimated eligible voter population of 53,100, a total of 47,356 were on the general roll, and 4739 were on the Maori roll in November 26, 2011. (7) A total of 9264 electors voted in the three Bay of Plenty Maori constituencies in 2010.

Environment Bay of Plenty confirmed that voting for Maori constituency members was limited to only those voters registered on the Maori roll. The council also noted that the boundary areas that make up the Bay of Plenty Regional Council constituencies not directly match general electoral boundary areas, a possible reason for the disparity between regional council and Electoral Commission Maori roll figures.

Judge Trapski predicted possible problems with separate Maori seats. He said separate seats could: Create conflict or an apartheid situation; increase the overall running cost of local government; and could sideline issues of Maori concern to only being the business of the Maori constituency councillors. (8)

A more fundamental question is that in an age when councils are more of an impediment to rather than a catalyst for progress, can a further coterie of racially allocated local body politicians enhance or inhibit effective local government? Ask any builder or developer what it is like dealing with a council.

The race relations commissioner has been part of the Human Rights Commission since 2002. The term of the current commissioner, Joris de Bres, ends in September.

1. Bid to scrap race relations office,
2. “Maori Representation in Local Government – The Continuing Challenge”.
3. Nelson and Waikato agree to establish Māori seats on Council, Whitiwhiti Korero, Human Rights Commission,
4. Cr Barker on Maori ward row, Nelson Mail, November 22, 2011,
5. Regional council votes in Maori seats but city against, NZ Herald, October 28, 2011,
6. Regional council votes in Maori seats but city against, NZ Herald, October 28, 2011,
7. Elections NZ, Enrolment statistics.
8. Maori and local government. Dedicated seats: Challenges or opportunities.


Nikki Romney said...

I have just answered my own question... Joris de Bres Report - Maori seats are affirmative action (google it).
The International guidelines for Affirmative Action - basis, guidelines and remedies, clearly seems to demonstrate that NZ's basis for implementing affirmative action in allowing for Maori Wards & seats is 'disputable' at best.
On the matter of the treaty, I have found an early report of Joris de Bres, certain statements are interesting, and one wonders why he hasn't sought to rectify certain problems during his appointment as RRC. eg:

1. The really contentious issue appears to be about the contemporary relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi.

2. Asians are identified as the most discriminated against, less likely to find jobs after studying, high unemployment, twice as likely to be jobless as europeans or maori....

3. Of concern is NZ's narrow interpretation of the provision of affirmative action programmes... (so this allows for affirmative action, outside International guidelines?)

4. The treaty in itself is NOT a race relations document

5. The treaty does not give Maori a veto over government decisions.

5. Without a treaty, NZ would still be expected to give recognition and protection to Maori under International standards for Indigenous peoples. (THIS IS FALSE)

Nikki said...

my earlier comment didn't get posted..... here it is...

I have been looking into Affirmative Ation, policies... through HRC, Ministry of Justice, reports... and cross-referencing with International convention policy and guidelines, and also a multitude of reports..
There are numerous discrepencies in how New Zealand implements AA, along with serious issues relating to 'entitlement' to Affirmative Action programmes.

Statistical disparities prove little about discrimination or reasons for being 'less fortunate', apart from sweeping statements and a stance of placing blame at past wrongdoings.
Does an uneven distribution of income and desirable jobs indicate discrimination? No.

And of course we all know that Affirmative action has been in place since 1977, with no studies done to prove benefits either way, which is against the Convention outlines...
One thing they do say.... If these policies are in place and over time the same patterns of 'less fortunate' emerge, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something else is at fault.

Is Affirmative Action a treaty obligation?

Joris de Bres is also confused according to reports and statements he has made...

Chuck Bird said...

Why not get rid of the whole Human Right's Commission while you are at it?

Anonymous said...

Just make sure racists don't get the job. And stop focussing on one-sided bi-cultural issues when we keep being told that NZ is a multicultural society. Furthermore, stop asking loaded and leading questions in surveys that tell a story of perceived racism rather than reality. It is not for others to define and frame racism but for the targets of racism to build the framework for the public and paint the pictures. And lastly, it is time for both the race relations commission and the human rights commission to prevent clear breaches of the legislation by the government of the day, so that minorities don't have to live with breaches of their rights until they can collectively afford to seek legal redress, when it is actually the authorities that are breaking the law of the land. Otherwise, what is the point of funding such public institutions in the first place? There is far too much talking, writing and paper shuffling, and far too little action in respect of making sure people's rights are protected and defended. Leave investigations of individuals to the police, and start working for the interests of NZ's communities by working against racism in the media, in the workplace, and by public institutions and officials.