Give us a fair go, Simon Power

The Justice Minister last week tried to tell the United Nations what a 'fair go' means in this country. He failed miserably

I wonder what TV presenter Kevin Milne would have made of Simon Power's words to the United Nations last week.

Our Justice Minister appeared before the UN's Human RIghts Council late last week offering a report on New Zealand's human rights record to the council's first annual review of member states. It was a down-page story at best in this country, but it's worth some attention.

The report comes as the government is reviewing the Seabed and Foreshore Act, which this council criticised, and considering whether to accede to the Maori Party's wishes and ratify the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People; something the previous government refused to do. It would be quite some concession. Just consider article four, which guarantees:

the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

Yet the latest murmurings from the Beehive's inner circle suggest that signing up is a real possibility. It seems unlikely given Foreign Minister Murray McCully's disdain for the UN in general and this council in particular, but the National-Maori Party relationship is full of oddities, so who knows?

While we're on the subject of McCully, this council is the very one that Labour had positioned us to join, before the new Foreign Minister pulled out of the vote, leaving the way clear for the US to seek a seat on the council. Our position was that the US, as a big fish, could push the oft-criticised council in the direction we both wanted more effectively than a small country than New Zealand.

It was an easy argument to make, but was dubious at best. Three seats were up for grabs, with Norway and Belgium the other contenders. McCully argued that we needed to withdraw to get the US on, but the word from the UN was that if all four countries had stood the US and New Zealand would have topped the polls, with Belgium missing out.

McCully, however, saw a way out of an election he didn't want to win and a chance to curry favour with the US at the same time. Labour MPs are furious, arguing it has cost us a seat at a very powerful table and that we, as a small independent country with no death penalty and no nuclear arms, would have had a different take from the Americans on many issues.

Yet there was Simon Power last week, standing before a council that we don't want to join and that this government doesn't respect.

What leaped out for me in Power's presentation was that he tried to explain what a fair go means in this country. According to press reports here, he said:

"A 'fair go' means that any person's future should be determined by their motivation, hard work and capabilities."

It's an interesting definition, but one that I think most New Zealanders would only vaguely recognise. It implies that people's lives are not determined by class or caste, ethnicity or gender. It suggests a meritocracy.

But neither does it recognise the very real impact such accidents of birth have on a person's life. It assumes that hard work and talent can overcome anything and everything, even bad luck. There is a judgement in Power's words, an abandonment of those who don't show the characteristics that Power values, a section of society who are excluded from his idea of fairness.

I find that disturbing. A 'fair go' is as close to a national creed as we have in this country, so I'd hoped a senior minister – the Minister of Justice no less – would have a better grasp of what it means to New Zealanders.

For me, the New Zealand concept of a fair go is much more inclusive. At least, it was when I was growing up and I hope it still is. It includes a recognition that we can't all make it on our own; that now and again we need a helping hand from each other. Some more than others. It also speaks of opportunity for all, even those who struggle with motivation; of giving everyone a crack, even if they have limited capabilities; of respect for every citizen, even if they can't find work.

If I think about a politician expressing what a"fair go" means in this country, I think back to the comments of Peter Fraser and Clarence Beeby as they set about reforming our education system in the 1930s:

“The government's objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their level of ability, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers.”

That's a sentiment that offers a fair go to all, not just to some.