I recently attended the powhiri for the newly-appointed Human Rights Commissioner with responsibility for Disability Issues, Paul Gibson. I was delighted when Paul was appointed to this post – he is an advocate for disabled people with a strong tangata whenua perspective, and lived experience of disability.
I was also delighted because the appointment represented the fulfilment of a lot of my work in Parliament this term. My Human Rights (Disability Commissioner) Amendment Bill to establish the position of Disability Commissioner was due to be debated in Parliament when the Government announced they would adopt my proposal and create the position.
In recognition of the importance of appointing someone to the post as soon as possible, Paul was appointed on a fixed term contract before the law was officially changed to create his position. The Government has now introduced legislation to establish the permanent position.
Or has it?
It won’t be debated until the next term of Parliament, because the House has now risen for the year, but the Human Rights Amendment Bill has been tabled in the House so we can examine and prepare for it in the next term.
At first glance, I’m surprised and a little perturbed to find that the Bill does much more than just establish the position of Disability Commissioner. The Government seems to have taken the need for legislation to establish the role of Disability Commissioner as an opportunity to review and the whole Human Rights Commission (HRC).
The Bill would make quite major changes to the structure of the HRC and the roles of the Commissioners. Instead of having dedicated Race Relations, Equal Opportunity, and Disability Commissioners, they will all be Human Rights Commissioners, with particular “portfolio” responsibility for different areas. While the Bill stipulates that there must be a Commissioner appointed to lead the work in the three priority areas of Race Relations, Equal Opportunities, and Disability Issues, it actually allows for one Commissioner to lead work in more than one of these “priority areas”. So there would be no guarantee that the Commissioner working on Disability Issues would actually be doing so full time.
It’s even possible that Commissioners wouldn’t be appointed because of their specialist knowledge in these areas, but appointed as Human Rights Commissioners first, and then assigned to one of these portfolios. If that were the case that would run completely counter to the strong push from the disability sector that the Disability Commissioner should have lived experience of disability and a proven track record as a disability advocate.
Obviously this rings some pretty loud alarm bells for me! Other parts of the legislation – like those more clearly spelling out the HRC’s role in promoting and monitoring New Zealand’s international human rights record – might be perfectly reasonable and necessary changes to enable the HRC to operate efficiently. I intend to talk to people within the Human Rights and Disability sectors to find out what they think over the coming weeks and months.
What concerns me is that these changes haven’t been sold by the Government as a major review of the HRC, even though that is what they are. The press releases from both the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Disability Issues following the tabling of the legislation merrily celebrated the creation of the new Commissioner with responsibility for Disability Issues, mentioning the wider changes almost as an aside. Both also emphasised that the Bill would enable a full time Disability Rights Commissioner, despite the fact that as drafted, it does not guarantee that the Commissioner wouldn’t have another portfolio as well.
This is at best careless and at worst misleading. If we are going to have a wholesale review of the HRC, then let’s have it out in the open! And if we’re going to establish the full time position of Disability Commissioner, then let’s do that, not do something like that that doesn’t quite meet the description.
I will be following the development of this legislation in the next term of Parliament very carefully, and suggest anyone with an interest in Human Rights, Race Relations, Equal Opportunities, and Disability Issues does the same!