Race Relations Commissioners and Conciliators mark significant anniversary

A special lunch is being held at the International Cultural Festival in Auckland on Sunday to mark the advent of New Zealand’s first human rights legislation.

Forty years ago this month New Zealand’s first piece of human rights legislation, the Race Relations Act 1971, came into force on 1 April, 1972.

The Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres has invited past Race Relations Conciliators and Commissioners to share lunch at the Auckland International Cultural Festival at the Race Relations Tent, Mt Roskill War Memorial Park from 1pm on Sunday, 1 April.

A number of former Race Relations Conciliators, Commissioners and Race Relations Office staff have accepted the invitation, along with guests from Auckland City and Parliament.

The 1971 act was promoted by the then National Government to foster New Zealand’s role in international forums as a keen and impartial advocate for human rights. New Zealand had been a key player in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948 and this was a further step on that path.

To enhance New Zealand’s international aims, the Government sought to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. To do that required enacting specific domestic law and so the first piece of race relations law was passed, but not without some anxiety. This was a time when many New Zealanders happily described their country as having “the best race relations in the world.”

The act created the Race Relations Office, later merged with the Human Rights Commission, to test that proposition. In its first six months the race relations team fielded 79 complaints, the majority from Māori and Pacific people. Today race related grounds make up about a third of the more than 1300 complaints that involve unlawful discrimination the Human Rights Commission seeks to resolve each year.

Through responding to complaints, advocacy and education, a succession of people in the role have worked to ensure that all New Zealanders, whatever their national or ethnic orgins, are treated fairly, have the opportunity to express their culture and are encouraged to participate in New Zealand society.

Race Relations Conciliators and Commissioners

Sir Guy Powles, 1972-73
Judge Ken Mason (Deputy Conciliator) 1972 -89
Harry Dansey, 1975-1979
Hiwi Tauroa, 1980-1986
Wally Hirsch, 1986-1989
Chris Laidlaw, 1989-1992
John Clarke, 1992-1995
Rajen Prasad, 1995-2000
Gregory Fortuin, 2001-2002
Joris de Bres, 2002- present


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