Events Centre. Auckland Museum
9.15am Tuesday 28 August 2007
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa
Distinguished guests and Parliamentary colleagues. It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the Human Rights Commission’s fourth Diversity Forum. The theme this year is New Zealand Aotearoa: 4 All of Us, Diversity, Community, Prosperity. It is a theme that is inclusive of all New Zealanders. It reflects our bicultural heritage, our multicultural development, both of which are part of our community, and all of which are necessary for our prosperity. Prosperity is something every New Zealander strives to achieve. Sustainable economic prosperity can be achieved however only if the spiritual, cultural and social life of our community also prospers.
The diversity of our communities must also be expressed in our Parliament. It must be expressed in the representatives elected to Parliament. MMP has given Parliament greater diversity. There are now 23 Maori MPs (19% of the total); 39 women (32% of the total), 4 Pacific Islanders (3.3%); 2 Asian MPs and 1 Rastafarian.
Our diversity must also be expressed in the laws enacted by the Parliament, and the distribution of the communities’ resources. It is also important that the community supports the Parliament. The Parliament is the place where the differing points of view in the community are expressed and challenged through the peaceful process of debate, discussion, and decisions based on the majority. Under our MMP electoral system that majority may comprise many different community interests. No Parliament is going to effect change without the support of the community and no community is going to achieve meaningful change without the support of government. Parliament and communities must work together.
New Zealand’s first Diversity Forum began from Parliament unanimously passing a resolution that deplored acts of vandalism at two Jewish cemeteries in Wellington in 2004. The resolution expressed unequivocal condemnation of all forms of racial and ethnic hatred, persecution and discrimination. A statement signed by Maori, Pakeha, Pacific, Asian and other ethnic community leaders, religious leaders, mayors and councillors, business and trade union leaders and community groups was also tabled in the House supporting the resolution. There was a public meeting on Parliament’s forecourt; sanctioned by my predecessor Jonathan Hunt who also invited community representatives to a forum on the way forward for racial harmony. Second and third fora followed, and we are here for the fourth.
I’ve chosen to outline the history, because it is important to acknowledge the prejudice that lies within our community. Religious attacks are rare in New Zealand, but following the attack on the Jewish cemeteries a 53-year old man was arrested and imprisoned for six months after sending letters stuffed with pork and hate slogans to members of Wellington’s Muslim community, many of them Somali women. Last year a mosque in Lower Hutt was spray-painted with swastikas – the 5th such attack in one year. So we are not immune from such ignorant and destructive behaviour.
We live in a highly culturally diverse region where all of the world's major religions are represented. Our common enemies are ignorance and bigotry. At the inter-governmental level we have many regional institutions – in the South Pacific, the Pacific Islands Forum; and, in East Asia, ASEAN, and now the East Asia Summit. Along with APEC which spans the Pacific, these organisations keep government leaders, ministers and officials in regular contact, and help build greater understanding.
But it’s important that regional conversations aren’t restricted to the government level. To advance development, peace and security our peoples need to engage – just as faith leaders and representatives did at the Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue at Waitangi in May. An appreciation of the need to act to build greater understanding motivated those who gathered at Waitangi and the Government’s decision to host and support both the Regional Interfaith Dialogue and the Alliance of Civilisation’s Symposium in Auckland in May.
There is nothing inevitable or unavoidable about tension and conflict between ethnicities, cultures, and faiths. It is up to responsible nations and people of good will to build bridges across the divides which have been created. Most people yearn for the same things – peace, security and opportunity for our families and communities. Bound by our common human aspirations, we can contribute to building a better world.
Parliament has an important role in the promotion and maintenance of human rights between diverse groups. It can do this in many ways, but primarily through a clear statutory framework that outlines peoples’ rights and an accessible means for enforcing those rights. The Human Rights Act 1993 provides such a framework. The Human Rights Commission established under that legislation has a clear mandate to promote understanding within all communities the importance of human rights for all individuals.
One of the primary functions of the Human Rights Commission is to encourage the maintenance and development of harmonious relationships between individuals and among the diverse groups in our society. Human rights deal with how people relate to one another. They are about how we live together and about our responsibilities to each other. Respect for each other's rights helps diverse groups to share New Zealand in harmony. In particular, these rights set a basis for the relationship between the individual and the State.
There is one human right not in that legislation and that is the right to work. New Zealand has a record low unemployment rate. What is important however is not only that people have work but have work equal to their skills and qualifications. There is a concern that this is not always the case. The time has come to look at the ethnic composition, skills and experience of our workforce. If New Zealand is to improve its productivity then it must utilise the skills and qualifications of every employee. Recent recognition of the importance of migrants to the New Zealand economy is seen in Immigration Minister David Cunliffe’s new Immigration Bill. It acknowledges that migrants bring skills, trade, links to export markets, investment, ideas and cultural diversity to New Zealand.
Apart from the ethnic community, there is another sector of employees that are under-utilised – that is the disability sector. I was pleased to hear a spokesman for Business NZ on National Radio’s Insight programme a couple of weeks ago urging employers to take a new approach when it comes to recruitment of workers with a disability. There is still some way to go however even in Parliament.
Alexia Pickering, a long time advocate for people with disabilities recently spent a morning back in Parliament, filming with the Attitude TV film crew for an item on access to public buildings for people with disabilities. Unfortunately she found that not much has changed for visitors with a disability since she was in and out of the Parliamentary complex more regularly in the late 50s and early 60s. As someone who works in the Parliament Buildings I can testify to the fact it is not disability friendly. The preservation of our historic building takes precedence over access for people with disabilities.
However some progress has been made in this area. For example, Hon Ruth Dyson, Minister for Disability Issues, welcomed a young deaf woman Kaitlyn Gulland as a Youth MP at Youth Parliament in July.
Ruth Dyson has been a very effective advocate and Minister for the deaf community, having overseen the introduction of:
The Telecommunications Relay Service which helps deaf, hearing impaired and deaf-blind people make phone calls
The New Zealand Sign Language Act which recognises sign language as an official language and provides deaf people with access to interpreters
Sign language into the school curriculum
In March the Minister signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – having taken a delegation including disabled people to the negotiations in August last year.
It is not only Parliament that recognises the importance of New Zealand’s growing diversity. It is also the government that has allocated specific ministerial responsibility for sectors in our community. The Minister of Maori Affairs and the Minister of Women’s Affairs have been a part of governments for some time. More recently the government has appointed a Minister for Ethnic Affairs, and a Minister for Disability Issues. All these Ministers are accountable to Parliament and responsible for the promotion of their particular sector.
Because New Zealand has always believed in the separation of the state from religion there is no Minister responsible for religious issues but the Ministry of Social Development, the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the Auckland City Council have some specified programmes on interfaith communication. Ethnic Affairs Minister Chris Carter last launched Islam Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago. It is interesting to note that Iast year’s census showed 51% of the population identified as Christian, 32% as no religion, 5% other and 13% did not say. Back in May Amnesty International, the Development Resource Centre, the Children’s Commissioner, the Human Rights Commission and the Peace Foundation combined to sponsor the initiative Building Human Rights Communities in Education.
There is no shortage of new initiatives. As Speaker I am getting more requests from journalists from the ethnic community for accreditation to the Parliamentary Press Gallery so they can cover events of particular interest to them and their readers and viewers. More Maori, Pacific Island and Asian reporters are working in the mainstream media. We are opening up the proceedings of Parliament, increasing the coverage of radio broadcasting, web-casting all proceedings from the House and hopefully, before long, televising all debates.
A shortage of signers means we are not able to sign all debates, but we do the ones that are of particular relevance. In addition, I have secured funding for a trial of the simultaneous Maori to English interpretation of proceedings in the House. We continue to look at our Select Committees to ensure the facilities and the manner in which they conduct their business is not disadvantaging anyone.
Democracy and human rights are two of the most fundamental prerequisites for an endurable life and a sustainable development. A real democracy must be based on good governance and rule of law. We can always do better, but here in New Zealand there is much that is positive going on to ensure our increasingly diverse citizens can fully participate in their democracy. Parliament is the people’s place and as such has always been seen as the No 1 place for people to gather and express their opinions directly to Members of Parliament. It is rare that a request to protest peacefully is declined. In fact it is not uncommon to have both sides of an issue protesting in the grounds at the same time. Only in New Zealand, you say. But why not?? In the spirit of tolerance, it gives both sides the opportunity to hear the other’s point of view.
I thank you for the opportunity to speak to the theme this year - New Zealand Aotearoa: 4 All of Us, Diversity, Community, Prosperity. May I wish you all the very best for the sessions you will participate in during the day. I cannot help reflecting that the reason there is emerging a ‘New Zealand’ way to the creation of harmony and tolerance to issues of difference is because we work hard at it. A special thank you to you Joris and your team who work tirelessly and positively for what so many take for granted. It is always a privilege to join with you to work towards those values we hold so dear as a people.