Professor Judy McGregor, Head of School of Social Sciences and Public Policy at AUT University and former Equal Opportunities Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, says New Zealand is a country in denial. We have a self-image of ourselves as inherently good and a political narrative that positions New Zealand as a global human rights leader – but it’s a narrative that suffers under scrutiny.
In her inaugural professorial address at AUT University this week, Professor McGregor spoke about the fault lines developing in New Zealand’s human rights record – which were documented in three-year study she co-authored – but also about her recommendations for change and a pathway to a human rights record that truly stands up to scrutiny.
An agenda for change
What will help New Zealand retain and revive global leadership in protecting and promoting human rights? I have four suggestions.
First, at a societal level we need more self-reflection and honesty that allows cultural and political acceptance of the notion that we are not as good as we think we are in promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights. How can we possibly say that we are the poster child for indigenous rights with our extraordinary rates of imprisonment of Māori men and women? The constant beating of a rhetorical drum about women’s suffrage is reinforced by Kate Sheppard’s motif on our $10 banknote. There is a great irony in Kate Sheppard symbolism as the illusion of our invincibility. Of course we are proud of our history, but granting women the vote was about achieving civil and political equality 122 years ago. A modern inconvenient truth over a century later is the continuing lack of equal pay. We must acknowledge our contemporary denials.
Second, at a political level, legislation like amendments to the Public Health and Disability Act will continue to be stampeded through Parliament when there is political and media indifference to human rights concerns. The current startling lack of parliamentary scrutiny in New Zealand could easily be cured. Add the role of overseeing human rights issues and international treaty body reports to the functions of an existing select committee. This would address concerns about cost and a plethora of select committees. The Justice and Electoral Select Committee could become the Justice, Electoral and Human Rights Select Committee. This might also catalyse a hibernating news media to consider the human rights agenda in thoughtful journalism.
Third, at a community level we need to start “joining” and re-invent associational life to take account of limited time and different family responsibilities. In Fault lines we note a renaissance of civil society activism in a number of areas, around issues such as the Living Wage and by women’s groups, disabled people, groups campaigning against child poverty and even single issue campaigns around school lunches for hungry kids. But we need more “joiners”, in part to reduce an over-reliance on parliamentary politics to fix everything. Michael Edwards, writing about civil society says: …civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for, a means to achieve it, and a framework for engaging with each other about means and ends.
Fourth, the big question when human rights issues seem so overwhelming in our ‘fallen world’, is what difference can I make as an individual? But we need to look no further than disabilities advocate Cliff Robinson or equal pay campaigner Kristine Bartlett to see that human rights struggles are often advanced when ordinary people do extraordinary things – and transform human wrongs to human rights.
Samuel Moyn in his history of human rights, The Last Utopia, suggests that the human rights programme “draws on the image of a place that has not yet called into being”. He says human rights “evoke hope and provoke action”. But perhaps hope is too distant and abstract a concept. I prefer that human rights should also “invoke optimism.” I think optimism is a special New Zealand behavioural norm that underpins much of our small-nation-shows-the-world attitude about peace, security and indispensable freedoms. In the bleakest of times, optimism allows us to use human rights as the politics of our humanity. But let our optimism not be blind.