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Warts and All Picture of NZ For Intl Commissioners

Warts and All Picture of New Zealand for the World's Race Relations Commissioners

By Joris de Bres, New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner

Race Relations Commissioners from throughout the World got a warts and all picture of New Zealand during their international conference in Auckland last week.

Although the conference agenda did not include any specific sessions on New Zealand race relations, delegates had been advised that New Zealand issues would form a "backdrop" to the conference. This was meant to refer to the powhiri by Ngati Whatua at Orakei, a Governor General's reception for participants and community representatives, another reception with Auckland's media and business leaders, and attendance at Waitangi Day events in Manukau and Waitakere.

In the event, it was the newspaper before breakfast every morning as well as local radio and television which gave the Commissioners a taste of New Zealanders' acute interest in race relations issues.

In the course of one week they followed the intense controversy over Don Brash's new policy on the Treaty, the sacking of Georgina Te Heu Heu as National's Maori Affairs and Treaty spokesperson, Maori anger over the foreshore and seabed, the Government appeal against Justice Williams' decision that human rights should be considered in the review of Ahmed Zaoui's security risk certificate, the case of the Sri Lankan girl who, despite being a victim of sexual abuse, faced deportation, and of course the experience of both Don Brash and Helen Clark at Te Tii marae at Waitangi. The papers were also full of opinion pieces from various commentators about the significance of the Treaty in the lead up to Waitangi Day. If nothing else, they saw that race relations issues are vigorously debated in this country.

They also saw the happy face of one of the young Tampa refugees being reunited with his family after a long separation, and read how well these boys had settled into their new home. And they saw one of our supermarket chains, Progressive Enterprises (Foodtown and Woolworths), launch their "Celebrate New Zealand" promotion with, in what must surely be a first for a major company, a bilingual English and Maori advertising campaign.

At their welcome at Orakei marae, they heard the story of the occupation and police clearance of Bastion Point. On a beautiful evening, with a double rainbow at sunset over Rangitoto and the Waitemata Harbour, they saw how a bitter dispute between the tribe and the Government which deeply divided Aucklanders at the time was resolved through the Waitangi Tribunal in a settlement which now sees all Aucklanders grateful to have such a beautiful area conserved with such a thriving cultural centre at the heart of it.

They were deeply impressed with our Governor General, Dame Sylva Cartwright, herself active in international human rights fora before her appointment, speak of the importance of the Treaty and of an inclusive society.

The Attorney General, Margaret Wilson, at the reception with business and media leaders, drew their attention to the initiatives taken by advertising executive John Roberts and a variety of media outlets to combat racial stereotypes through a pro bono advertising campaign last year, to Progressive Enterprises for its Celebrate New Zealand promotion, and to the Gisborne Herald and Waiuku Post for their regular features in the Maori language.

They were warmly welcomed on Waitangi Day to Hoani Waititi marae in Glen Eden, where they heard the story of the development of this urban marae, cultural and educational centre, and to the huge celebration of Waitangi Day in Hayman Park in Manukau City. After reading the news about altercations at Waitangi, they were able to see how many hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders of all cultures come together throughout the country to commemorate and celebrate the Treaty.

That same evening, they saw the spectacular beginning to Asia 2000's Lantern Festival in Albert Park, with tens of thousands more Aucklanders marking the end of the Chinese New Year.

The conference itself discussed ways of working with Government, local Government, and political parties, the importance of responsible political leadership on race relations issues, working with the media and with the business sector to achieve racial equality and to promote the real benefits of cultural diversity.

Inevitably, there was discussion of "special measures" to achieve equality, and the controversy which sometimes surrounds them, not just here in New Zealand. Such measures are often perceived as "racial privileges" or "race-based" policies, but they are actually a means to achieve equality, not to confer privilege.

As Dr Bill Jonas, the Australian Race Discrimination and Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner put it: If you water all the plants in the world equally, some will die. Equal treatment can increase rather than close the social and economic gaps between different groups, and appropriate specific measures are needed to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity.

And as for the Treaty, it may be controversial here, but it was the envy of many of our overseas visitors. The relative size of the Maori, Pacific and Asian communities in New Zealand compared to ethnic minorities in many other countries means that issues are debated rather than ignored, and demographic trends mean that over time we will all have to listen to each other if we are going to build a cohesive and inclusive nation for the future. And the Treaty means that we cannot simply ignore the guarantees it gave that this would be a country in which the customary rights of tangata whenua are respected alongside the rights of other citizens.

For those who were able to stay for the weekend there was a visit to bicultural Rotorua, Ohinemutu, and Taupo. Mahinerangi Tocker's "The Mongrel in Me" concert at the Taupo Arts Festival in her home territory of Tuwharetoa, celebrating her multicultural (Maori, Jewish and Celtic) heritage with Shona Laing and Maori and Pakeha friends in the beautifully designed Pacific Crystal Palace was a moving experience.

Columbian Inca, Australian Aboriginal, African, Maori and Pakeha spent some hours talking with Ngati Tuwharetoa's paramount chief, Tumu Te Heu Heu. It was a fitting finale, where the measured conversation of people of great dignity, wisdom, compassion, and vision showed that the answers to the questions that preoccupy us are all available if we care to seek them out together in a spirit of respect and tolerance.


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