Why we still need a Race Relations Commissioner

The National government has signalled its intention to do away with the office of Race Relations Commissioner, although the duties of the incumbent may be integrated into the office of the Human Rights Commissioner.

The move, an offshoot of the proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act, currently before Parliament, has stirred emotions throughout the minority ethnic communities, many of who feel alienated. The main opposition party (Labour) has also come out strongly against the proposal, while a number of community organisations have expressed their angst, saying that abolition of the title of the Race Relations Commissioner would undermine the importance of the office.

The Race Relations Commissioner has been part of the Human Rights Commission since 2002. Current Commissioner Joris de Bres, whose term ends in September, says he will oppose the change during public consultation.

It may be possible for some people to argue that the office has outlived its purpose and that multiculturalism is accepted form of social life in New Zealand. It is indeed an accepted factor in all the countries that depend on migrants either for their demographic strength or to enhance their worker strength, as in the case of the Arab Gulf countries.

The Urban Institute, a Washington, DC, think-tank, recently compiled a report card on a range of measures of racial and ethnic equity in the country’s 100 biggest metropolitan areas.

The ten best cities for black-white equity are mostly in the South and in the West, while the ten worst were in the northeast and in the Midwest.

Margery Turner, who compiled the report, hastened to say that there were still significant gaps to address. Even in metro areas scoring high marks, the average black American is more likely to live in poorer neighbourhood, go to weaker schools, less likely to find a job and is less likely to own a home than the average white. However, these gaps are two to three times bigger in the worst metro areas.

Such inequalities exist in New Zealand as well; which is why, political observers, thinkers and analysts say that the Race Relations Commissioner performs significant duties and that these can be dispensed with, at least for the time being. They therefore hope that the government would desist from abolishing the post.

That would be wishful thinking, given the fact that the government has the numbers in Parliament to push through the amendment to Human Rights Act.

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