Continuing Newsroom’s Watchdogs series, the chief human rights commissioner explains why violence, and gender discrimination, are New Zealand’s biggest problems.

When David Rutherford shakes your hand, it’s likely you’ll struggle to match it.

The man in charge of protecting New Zealanders’ basic rights is an imposing figure; he used to play rugby, as lock.

They were shorter in the position back then, he says, but the game was also a lot rougher.

“If you go back to my rugby days, when I played, rugby was a violent game where you got your head kicked in regularly; the back of my head is full of scars. If you tried that now you’d be banned for life.”

Rutherford often closes his eyes when he speaks, searching for the right words to illustrate his point.

He wonders why, if rugby can improve its image and tone down the violence, the country can’t as well.

Before becoming head of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in 2011, Rutherford worked in various roles overseas.

Between 1999 and 2002, he was chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union.

The rights of women are now high on his radar, but at the time Rutherford says they were not something that were considered when he was in charge of the country’s most powerful sport body.

Last year the sport’s attitude towards women was thrust into the public glare, after a complaint from a stripper about how she was treated by players from the Chiefs rugby team.

Rutherford spoke out strongly at the time and believes New Zealand as a whole requires a culture shift.

“The challenge for rugby, the challenge for any environment actually where men meet as men, particularly hyper-masculine environments, is that we need to understand that we need to change.

“I think the best thing I’ve heard said was one of the army people down country who was a Brit…he said ‘David, I’m a Brit, class is our problem, race is America’s problem – but gender’s New Zealand’s problem and, David, you know that because you know how the conversation changes when women leave the room’.”

This challenge is one of many the HRC is tackling as it protects and promotes what Rutherford calls the “three Rs” – legal rights, respect of dignity, and the responsibility to stand up for each other.

What does the Human Rights Commission do?

Unlike many of its “watchdog” counterparts, the HRC has a complex structure.

About 30 staff work at the office, including six commissioners.

“The challenge for rugby, the challenge for any environment actually where men meet as men, particularly hyper-masculine environments, is that we need to understand that we need to change.

There’s race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy, equal employment opportunities commissioner Dr Jackie Blue, and disability rights commissioner Paul Gibson.

Two further commissioners, Karen Johansen and Richard Tankersley, work part-time, and Rutherford oversees the operation as Chief Commissioner.

That may seem like a lot of commissioners in one room, but the office is a busy one.

A large part of their work is dealing with complaints from the public.

About 6000 were received last year and they vary greatly, from racial discrimination to sexual harassment.

Cases are siloed off from other departments in the commission to protect privacy, so often Rutherford may not know the details of a particular case.

When a complaint is made, an attempt to get the parties together for mediation is the first step.

Most of the time, this is all that’s needed. The issue is hashed out, sometimes remedies are agreed to and the matter is closed.

But when this doesn’t work, parties have the option to make a complaint to the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

This is a big decision, however, as the Tribunal is often a slow-moving beast.

Take a case Labour politician Louisa Wall took against media company Fairfax in 2014 about cartoons it printed that she deemed offensive.

A ruling is yet to be issued.

The HRC also monitors New Zealand’s progress in adhering to international human rights and regularly reports to the United Nations, as well as acting as an amicus (or ‘friend of the court’) in human rights-related legal cases.

Another large portion of their time is taken up by what Rutherford refers to as the “water on stone work”.

He is talking about the large, research-based projects that can take years to complete or result in changes.

An obvious example is equal pay.

Former equal employment opportunities commissioner Dr Judy McGregor set the scene after going undercover to work in the aged care sector.

Her report painted a grim picture about the low pay received by employees, mostly women, in the sector.

Therefore, Rutherford says, there were serious fist-pumps in the office following the Government’s recent announcement it would stump up $2 billion in a historic pay rise for aged care workers.

Another piece of work, on seclusion and restraint, will be released this week.

It follows a similar report from the Ombudsman into restraint in prisons that was far from flattering.

“This report will come out, we expect a series of other reports to come out as well…given the sort of things that the Ombudsman and things have been saying I don’t think there will be any surprises about what’s in ours,” Rutherford says.

What keeps Rutherford awake at night?

When asked the question, there is no pause.

“Violence and bullying, across everything.”

“Unlike other countries it’s not racial, it’s men beating women, adults beating kids. That’s the hate crime in New Zealand.”

Unequal organisation of economic and social rights is also a concern, and Rutherford says if he had been asked two years ago the plight of people in Christchurch recovering from the earthquake would have also been on the list.

He describes New Zealand as a world leader across most rights, but that means it has a  responsibility to “cut the path” and there were areas where it wasn’t – such as bullying, disabilities, and the disparities between Māori and others.

There is no question, however, that violence is the country’s biggest problem.

Almost half of the prison population is incarcerated for that reason, he says.

“Again, it’s an area where we don’t talk about the fact that most of that violence is gendered.

“Unlike other countries it’s not racial, it’s men beating women, adults beating kids. That’s the hate crime in New Zealand.”

Rutherford is supportive of the work of Ministers such as Amy Adams and Anne Tolley in the area of domestic violence but believes a lot more needs to be done.

The focus should be on prevention and start at schools, teaching young people to respect others.

“We need boys to respect girls, we need boys when they see three of their mates taking some girl down the corridor to stop it.”

The Newsroom Watchdogs interviews can be found here.

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