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NZAF BOARD: Quotas "a big mistake" says former chair Stevens

Thu 23 Jun 2005 In: HIV

Micheal Stevens There's more stinging criticism for an NZAF board proposal to impose a 50% Maori governance quota, as well as two mandated HIV+ positions, and once again it's a former Foundation board chair speaking out. Hard on the heels of his predecessor Jonathan Smith, Michael Stevens has stepped into the fray, saying the proposal is misguided, and the work of an inexperienced board who are out of touch with the community, seeking to impose an ideology at the expense of the Foundation's work and credibility. "I think they've made a big mistake, and I think they're going to have to work very hard to rectify it," he told "I think a lot of it is due to inexperience and ignorance." Stevens criticisms aren't just his opinion, they're based on experience during his time as chair of the Foundation's board. When he was initially appointed, the Foundation was running a much larger board of eleven people. Of those eleven, five were reserved - two for HIV+ people, two for Maori, and one Polynesian. The Foundation's current deputy chair, Simon Robb, has said that quotas will not lead to board members being employed by race or health status at the expense of skills, but Stevens says that is precisely what happened last time quotas were in place. "There were certainly people who were appointed on that basis," he says. "Some were HIV+ and were a waste of space who didn't have the ability to fulfil their duties. There were some appointed who were Maori who didn't have that ability, and there were some appointed to the Polynesian position who did not have that ability. Simply reserving a place didn't work - that was our experience." Changes to the Constitution were proposed, and passed, which reduced the board to its current size of seven members, and policy quotas were abolished. "We decided that the board is not a parliament, and it's not there to act a representative body like a parliament is, so to talk in terms of representation is false, it's wrong," Stevens says. "There's no way of ensuring that people who are placed on the board for those reasons actually have a mandate from everybody. You can't have an election of all HIV+ or Maori people and say "choose a board member," so they don't actually represent anybody." An acknowledgement of the Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi has been part of the AIDS Foundation's Constitution now for over ten years. It is only now that an NZAF Board has decided to interpret that as a legal requirement for race-based governance quotas "There was never any intention that acknowledging the Treaty would impose a quota of Maori," Stevens says. "I totally reject the interpretation that the constitution has a legal requirement, I think this is a very forced and strange reading of it." So what did 'acknowledging the Treaty' mean? It seems that, just like the Treaty itself, interpretations differ, but in terms of the NZAF's work, has this job not been done already? It is worth noting the Foundation's highly effective Hau Ora Takataapui programme, a targeted gay men's health unit which is run by Maori, for Maori. NZAF executive director Rachael LeMesurier noted earlier this month that the success of this programme could account for the fact that the HIV infection rate amongst Maori per head of population in New Zealand is so relatively low - in fact, the statistics say, the lowest of any ethnic group. The board's decision to re-interpret what Treaty acknowledgement means in 2005 - a discussion that Simon Robb tells us has been going on for the last year at board level - has seen the 150-year-plus quagmire of debate and argument between Maori and the government brought to the doorstep of a non-government health organisation, and it couldn't have come at a worse time - the highest rates of HIV infection among gay and bisexual men in ten years, and a hardening of the political climate towards our glbt communities. Worse still, the argument has opened up the Foundation to criticism in an election year, when hysteria ramped up to eleven on the scale is par for the course. "I think this is misguided, to put it mildly," says Stevens. "The board itself don't have much experience with the NZAF. It's a new board, an inexperienced board, and I think they're driven by ideology, not the needs of the organisation. They're outsiders applying a particular ideological bent to things." Stevens doesn't just have a problem with the proposal, but is troubled by the way it was handled. The board's original plan was to simply impose the quotas with no consultation. An announcement was made to staff, after which board representatives were told by staff they couldn't make such a change without amending the Constitution. "They didn't appear to understand their own Constitution," Stevens observes. "When we changed the Constitution it took us over two years to do it, and our focus was on getting it right rather than rushing it through. I think that's something they could bear in mind." Also disturbing to Stevens is the cone of silence which has prevailed since the proposal's announcement, with NZAF staff being muzzled. "This has always been a very open organisation, and this runs completely counter to its culture," he says. "To try and impose their will with no consultation whatsoever with staff... I think that sends a signal. If a board is going to operate in that manner - do what we tell you to do and shut up - that's not a positive thing." With the recent announcement of a series of regional hui in July to gauge nationwide member opinion on the proposed changes, the board is now opening up the floor for debate. Stevens just hopes they're genuine. "I think they've got a lot of work in rebuilding goodwill. They've got to demonstrate that they're really willing to listen, and open to changing their mind." Chris Banks - 23rd June 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Thursday, 23rd June 2005 - 12:00pm

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