Race relations law marks 40th anniversary

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.

Dove-Myer Robinson was the mayor of Auckland. Jack Marshall was prime minister, followed by Norm Kirk later that year. Suzanne won the Loxene Golden Disc Award with “Sunshine through a prism” and in Munich, the men’s eights rowed all the way to golden glory at the Olympics.

The law 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.”

While routinely expressed, it was based more on good faith than deep analysis. The perception was acknowledged by Eric Missen the Justice Secretary who in his 1972 annual report wrote, “Hitherto this legislation (the Race Relations Act 1971) has been regarded with some suspicion in New Zealand, not because of any lack of commitment to racial equality but in part because of a feeling that the great degree of harmony and the genuine fund of goodwill between different races in New Zealand, and in particular between Māori and Pākehā, renders legislative intervention unnecessary.”

Some wondered what the new Race Relations Conciliator would actually do. As it happened, Sir Guy Powles, the first Race Relations Conciliator, his deputy Ken Mason and executive officer Pita Sharples and those who have served in the 40 years since, have found that the issue has been limited resources rather than lack of work.

When Prime Minister Jack Marshall opened the first Race Relations Office in Auckland at the YWCA building in Queen Street, he noted the vast urban migration that saw Māori and Pacific people settling in Auckland and Wellington. He saw the role of the Race Relations Office as an expression of the wish to “act to prevent a serious problem developing rather than react to one that has arisen.” He affirmed what many political leaders since have found, social problems “cannot be solved by pretending they do not exist” but nor did he think New Zealand need worry about its social attitudes. After a few months Sir Guy Powles reported that from the experience of the fledgling Race Relations Office the prime minister was mistaken.

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.

From the start Sir Guy Powles was adamant that complaints could only be one facet of the work. He believed good race relations flourished on three key foundations, education, awareness and research. Pita Sharples, in his first job from university, and the staff who later joined the office in those first years, carried out a great deal of advocacy work, explaining the law, discussing what good race relations entailed and exploring the real-life practices that could see someone, whether intentionally or not, treated unfairly because of their race or ethnic background.

They held regular meetings with those that could make a difference, from insurance companies to real estate organisations, educators, students and the police. They believed they held a responsibility to assist the minority communities in our society, to find a place and a voice. It is very much the kind of work that continues today

Rather than coming in with a stick, the goal has always been to produce the data and analysis and to rely on people’s sense of fairness supported the law. In just one example, in its first years, the Race Relations Office investigated accusations that the Labour Department was accepting discriminatory job advertisements from employers. This resulted in changed practices and extensive training for Labour Department staff. Workplace discrimination still happens, but when made transparent it is unacceptable.

First executive officer Pita Sharples has described the race relations work as providing an impartial forum for discussion and development of race relations issues. “Countries go through different things. We’ve had anti-Māori times, we’ve had anti-Pacific Island times, we’ve had anti-Asian times, anti-Irish and anti-English. In my eight years in race relations I experienced all those times.”

When interviewed in 1999, Sharples said in his time he found the worst case was antagonism towards English people in the 1970s. People told Sharples it was just a series of jokes, but he recalls, “It was getting out of hand a bit. What happened was this lady came in crying, she was in front of Whitcoulls and she spoke to her mokopuna in a broad Lancashire dialect and this person standing by her said, ‘Another f—-’ Pom’ and spat on her.”

Sharples consoled the woman and later called a press conference. “I said, ‘we don’t spit on people; we don’t bang on their cars and paint their fences’. I pointed these things out and said there was a danger we could go overboard.” Some newspaper editorials accused the Race Relations Office of lacking sense of humour, but many others supported the stand.

As Sharples, Powles and Mason found it then, so it has been. A succession of Race Relations Conciliators and later when the Race Relations Office was merged with the Human Rights Commission, Race Relations Commissioners, have worked to ensure that all New Zealanders, whatever their national or ethnic orgin, are treated fairly, have the opportunity to express their culture and are encouraged to participate in New Zealand society.

Society does not sit still. So in the 21st century, it would be very odd if the national anthem was not sung in Māori at an All Black test. You won’t lose your job if you answer the phone with ‘Kia ora’. If you are a Sikh and a police officer, then you can wear a turban. Our children can learn Mandarin along with French. New Zealand’s sense of place in the world has shifted to match the changing makeup of its population.

But it would be a mistake for historians to record New Zealand’s race relations as a series of sensational headlines: whether it be a radio station stunt for “bash a pom a day” or a prominent broadcaster calling the Secretary General of the United Nations a “cheeky darkie”.

Speaking authoritatively about race relations is not something you can take a course on. The role means searching for a path that relies not on populist sentiment; but on fairness, respect and human rights. The job is to inject balance when it is lacking and to speak on behalf of minorities and the vulnerable when the majority won’t listen.

Some former conciliators and commissioners will say that when offered the position they had to think twice. But it is also a role that offers rare satisfactions.  Harry Dansey, a gracious man, and respected journalist and writer, was the second Race Relations Conciliator. When asked about the most worthwhile achievements in race relations he said, “They may be counted as the things that didn’t happen.”

Joris de Bres, Race Relations Commissioner, Human Rights Commission

Race Relations Conciliators and Commissioners

Sir Guy Powles, 1972-73
Ken Mason (Deputy Conciliator), 1972-1989
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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