If Consistency 2000 does not come into effect because of current government proposals, the best human rights policy in the world could find itself in a situation similar to that of 20 years ago, a time where discrimination against those of a different race, sex and religious belief was not illegal.
In 1993, a further six clauses were added to the act, which covered: Disability; Age; Political opinion; Employment status; Family status; and Sexual orientation.
These grounds were meant to stop unfair discrimination, with few exceptions, and cover all community organisations, private businesses and local government.
Consistency 2000 is the reassessment of the Human Rights Act (1993), undertaken independently by the Human Rights Commission, with close liaison with both the Race Relations Office and government agencies. It involves the evaluation of the Human Rights Act and an assessment of inconsistencies within government policies across the board. The brief is to propose changes and provisions to ensure consistency, to be introduced by December 31, 1998.
According to the Human Rights Commission, the aim of Consistency 2000 is to "consolidate an atmosphere of robust and effective Human Rights in both the public and private sectors." Effectively, it would consolidate and improve the present human rights situation in New Zealand.
Currently, government is expected to comply with the 1993 act (but even now has substantial exemptions), until the last day of 1999, when the recommended changes from the review would come into effect.
Originally, this meant that on January 1, 2000, the Human Rights Act would take "equal of superior status compared to all other legislation AND apply to Government policies and practices".
According to information provided by Labour's spokesperson for Human Rights, Tim Barnett, the preferred government option which emerged from cabinet discussion was, "a permanent government exemption, covering all legislation, policies and practices, except 'where the government is acting like the private sector'."
This exemption could quite possibly include the grounds in the 1977 human rights legislation, taking us back to the social situation prior to 1977, where tangata whenua, ethnic minorities, women, those of different religious and ethical backgrounds and marital status could be discriminated against, as well as those that fall under the additional grounds added to the act in 1993. Yes, this means you.
Current discriminations would take a further step backward and perhaps be ignored all together if the Consistency 2000 policy is abandoned by the government. This would include: marital discrimination in student allowances; inconsistency of minimum age for various activities; and testing parental income for students under the age of 25. The possibility of universal allowances would be neglected, inevitably becoming a subordinate feature of the fight for human rights.
If government is prepared to discriminate on various grounds, what hope is there for the wider community in years to come? The public argument, "if the government doesn't have to comply then why should we?" may take on a disastrous face, leaving the entire human rights policy foundation in jeopardy, seeing a nation involved in the social avalanche of what was an advanced human rights legislation.
Write "freepost" to the Prime Minister, Rt Hon Jim Bolger, or your local MP at Parliament Buildings, Wellington, expressing your concern over this extremely important and urgent issue. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or phone the information hotline on 471 9906.
Kate Walker, September 1997.