Kerry Dalton, Citizens Advice Bureau: Social Justice as a Human Right

League of Live Illustrators capture of Kerry's talk

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa

I start my speech with the whakataukī  - "Titiro ki muri kia whakatika a mua" - look to the past to proceed into the future

As is so often the case, when we are looking for wisdom and guidance for the future, the answers and lessons lie in our past.  And I certainly think this is the case when we are looking at creating an optimistic future, which to me means a future where everyone can thrive.

In 1948 in the aftermath of the second World war which had seen such atrocities, the world came together and agreed on a set of inviolable human rights that every human should expect to have protected.  It is a uniting vision, an inspiring framework that recognises that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  

NZ played a visionary role in ensuring that this universal framework of human rights included economic and social rights.  When these were included in the final version of the Declaration, our representative at the General Assembly of the UN said

“We regard with particular satisfaction the place which is given in the declaration to social and economic rights. Experience in New Zealand has taught us that the assertion of the right of personal freedom is incomplete unless it is related to the social and economic rights of the common person. There can be no difference of opinion as to the tyranny of privation and want. There is no dictator more terrible than hunger. Colin Aikman

And I know that we are here to talk about and envisage an optimistic future but in order for us to know what we are up against, I need to talk about some of the most desperate aspects of our current reality. 

Human rights are not optional

In 2015 we, the Citizens Advice Bureau identified that people coming to us in situations of homeless had doubled in 5 years and often we couldn’t find them somewhere to stay for the night.  We also identified that very vulnerable people were in this situation including children and pregnant women. 

And the worst thing was that often there was nothing we could offer, there was no emergency housing available.

We identified that an important part of our social security system was broken and for many of the people coming to us in need of emergency accommodation, there was no safety net. 

Today, almost exactly 70 years after the Declaration was signed, we have poverty, homelessness and social deprivation in this country which stood up and argued that freedom from this kind of want is a fundamental human right - not something to get around to fixing when the conditions are right, but something we have guaranteed to all of our people.  

So how do we get from the current situation to an optimistic future for everyone, what is the answer?

The answer lies in that inspiring framework of human rights and ensuring that NZ meets the commitments that it has already made, as a minimum. 

In 1978, the NZ Government ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Article 11 of this Covenant states: 

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right.

And today, these should not be aspirational for our country.  We are not short of food production, we do not suffer from civil war.  Surely it is not a high bar make sure everyone has food and adequate shelter. 

And a place to start is to identify barriers or areas where the government itself is contributing to poverty and hardship and address those.

For example - What does it mean for the government to sanction a beneficiary with children and take away half of their benefit, which is already a very low income when we have guaranteed a decent standard of living, freedom from want and we have signed the convention on the rights of the child?  What does it mean to sanction a beneficiary without children, 100% of their income, leaving them with no income?? 

What does it mean when combined debt repayments and penalty payments to government are set at a level that is creating hardship and deprivation in a family?

If the commitment to ensure an adequate income for all was front and centre of mind and considered a real obligation by government, this would not be Ok, it is not OK in the framework of the commitments our nation has. 

These things are within the ambit and control of government.   

It becomes harder when the private sector is part of providing something that our government has guaranteed to be provided to all people, what then is the responsibility of the government to intervene - and here I am thinking of the private rental market, which in many instances is not delivering affordable or adequate housing?

An optimistic future is one where government prioritises ensuring and guaranteeing all of the rights it has signed up to, and no matter what political party is in government, these rights are front and centre in their decision making.  These stated human rights and the obligations transcend politics, they even transcend nations - they are international and global and already agreed upon. 

An optimistic future is one where public servants are supported to give life to these rights, and address any barriers or inconsistencies with these rights and treat every person in a way that ensures their dignity.

An optimistic future is one where we have a vibrant civil society that is supported in our role of promoting civic engagement, participation, inclusion and social justice,  This , underpins a healthy democracy and the accountability of government.

And we already have wonderful building blocks in place in our communities.

For example in the CAB we have over 2400 volunteers who provide a free service of information, advice and support to anyone.  These volunteers mobilise every day in 85 physical locations throughout NZ to support everyone to access their rights and services face to face, via the phone and web.  Last year we had over half a million client interactions.

Astoundingly 22 of our CAB volunteers have volunteered for over 30 years and 2 for over 40 years.   This community spirit, this commitment  to supporting others is the kind of material we have to work with in communities throughout NZ to help us create a future where everyone can thrive. 

Eradicating poverty and deprivation in our country and ensuring the well-being of everyone are not ‘liberal leftie’ values and concerns, these are the commitments we made and championed as a nation.

We have strayed off the pathway set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent follow up obligations, a pathway that we helped emblazon.  But the pathway is still there and if we give life to it, if we create an active culture of human rights within government, within communities and within the hearts and minds of our citizens, then this will provide the way for an optimistic future for everyone.