Joris de Bres says “No Big Stick”
to deal with Hone Harawira13th November 2009
The Race Relations Commissioner, Joris de Bres, says there is not always a legal recourse to deal with racist comments like those of Maori MP Hone Harawira.
He has commented on a request from Kapiti Independent News (KIN) for advice on how our community can help to deal with racial animosity caused by racist comments.
In his letter to KIN, Mr de Bres says: “It is true, as some have indicated that ‘inciting racial hostility’ is unlawful under the Human Rights Act.
“But it must be inciting hostility against a group of people on the basis of their race or colour.
“And I would ask people to consider who, apart from Hone Harawira himself and the Maori Party, have faced hostility because of his comments about white people.”
Much Heat, Little Light
Mr de Bres says “There has been a lot of heat, but precious little light in the discussion about how I should respond to the email by Maori Party MP Hone Harawira.”
The Commission says people began to contact the Commission immediately the email became public to call for action – and by late on Friday afternoon (November 13) more than 720 complaints and expressions of concern had been received.
“Most said they found Hone Harawira’s email offensive and a good number added that they found it divisive,” says Joris de Bres.
“As Race Relations Commissioner I agreed, and said so then and have kept saying so.”
The Commissioner adds that at the same time he has called for Hone Harawira and the Maori Party to acknowledge and address the damage to race relations caused by the email.
He says the complaints people make to the Commission are important.
“Barometer of Public Feeling”
As a barometer of public feeling they become part of the way to progress beyond the understandable first response of hurt and anger.
Mr de Bres says:
“Mr Harawira has apologised for causing offence, and for damaging New Zealand’s good race relations.
“He says he wants to begin bridge building. Can it end there? Not in my opinion.”
MP’s Bear Greater Responsibility
He adds: “Public figures enjoy a platform not available to ordinary citizens.
“Their words carry greater weight and it follows that public figures bear greater responsibility to think about their words and the impact they have.
“What does the law, particularly the Human Rights Act, say here?” he asks.
“First, it has never been the job of Human Rights Commissioners or the Race Relations Commissioner to stop people speaking their mind.
“Freedom of speech is a foundation stone of a free society, a freedom outlined clearly in the Bill of Rights Act.”
The Commissioner states: “As the French writer Francois Voltaire said, ’I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
“The truth of the matter is that there is not always a legal recourse to address issues of racist comments,” he says.
Mr de Bres says this is not to say that, as Race Relations Commissioner, his hands are tied.
“Hone Harawira is not the first public figure to use language that is racially divisive or offensive in public,” he says.
Paul Holmes’s Case
“When broadcaster Paul Holmes referred to the then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan as a “cheeky darkie” in 2003 there was a similar public outcry.
“My response then, as it has been today, was the same. Mr Holmes could say these words, but they were racially offensive,” he says.
“He and his employer, the Radio Network, needed to build some bridges afterwards to address the hurt they had caused and to acknowledge the damage to race relations.
“It was not just Paul Holmes, but also the company that needed to take action.”
“Issue for Maori Party to Address”
“Likewise this has been an issue for the Maori Party as well as Hone Harawira to address,” says Mr de Bres.
He says healthy race relations are more about how tolerant people feel towards difference.
“They are about how accepting Maori and Pakeha and all other New Zealanders are of each other,” he says.
“And at a personal level they are about how far people are prepared to speak out against racism when they encounter it in their daily life.”
The Commissioner says he does not want to bring Paul Holmes up again and apologies to him for doing so.
But it was clear in 2003, he says, that many New Zealanders saw his comments as an unacceptable racial slur on Kofi Annan and to a degree on anyone who happened to share his skin colour.
“Like Mr Harawira, Paul Holmes offered an apology. And like the present issue that left an essentially irresolvable argument over the sincerity of the apologies,” he says.
“As Race Relations Commissioner I became involved and had several discussions with the Manager of Newstalk ZB, Bill Francis, culminating in a meeting with him, Paul Holmes and the Manager of The Radio Network.”
New Radio Policy Agreed
“Following that meeting, Newstalk ZB issued a public statement that acknowledged the offence caused, the broadcaster met with representatives of the communities he had offended, and the station agreed among other things to put in place a policy that would not tolerate judgments based race, creed or ethnicity by staff who were in the position of shaping public opinion,” he says.
“By working with Paul Holmes and Newstalk ZB to engage with those they had caused hurt, bridges were built.
“We could all feel better about what had happened because of what happened afterwards.”
“Available to Assist” Talks
“As Race Relations Commissioner I am available to assist in such processes and discussions if the parties so desire,” he says.
“Often those involved resolve them by themselves given advice, the space and the time – as with the recent instances of racially offensive behaviour by Lincoln University and Auckland Grammar students,” Mr de Bres says.
“The Maori Party has itself been unequivocal in its condemnation of Hone Harawira’s comments, and is allowing time for the appropriate action to uphold its mana with both Maori and Pakeha.
He concludes: “Race relations can be harmed by words, but are healed by talking.
“Good race relations are not enforced by the use of a big legal stick. No stick exists, nor, I hope you agree, should it.’