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Revolt against Trevor Phillips: UK human rights battle holds truths for Canada

July 27, 2009

Trevor Phillips, the charismatic CEO of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is in trouble – his senior staff are leaving in droves and U.K. media are once again questioning not just Phillips’ leadership but the nature of his organization. Founded in 1976 by a Labour government as the Commission for Racial Equality, the supra body was once three organizations dealing respectively with the promotion of equality between racial groups, disabled people, and gender equality.  The U.K. Commission now reels from a public feud and many questions about its governance.

Canada’s own federal Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial body, formed at about the same time – 1977 – and also covers a wide array of interests – women, Aboriginal people, the disabled and “visible minorities.” And as in Britain, both the federal body and certainly its provincial cousins routinely come under fire; a recent example, covered here by greenjenny: Mark Steyn (on behalf of The West!) versus, it sometimes seemed, the entire world of The Other.

Mr. Phillips’ recent troubles: a “radical, unpredictable thinker,” excellent public communicator but one with “poor organization skills.” That’s The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley; she calls for his head claiming what’s needed is a more diplomatic, appeasing central figure. Check out the Daily Mail (hostile to the very idea of a tax funded equality commission), plus the Times (a CEO explains why he quit), the Independent (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Phillips as all light, no weight) and the list goes on.

Mr. Phillips, in his last visit to Canada received laudatory press from our  media for his “get tough on too much sippy-sappy-multiculti”, particularly his advocacy for equality rights trumping “cultural” rights. But  his personal style would never be tolerated in Canada; combative in its refusal to shy away from calling racism, racism – not soft peddling with my preferred word, ethnocentrism, the R word being rather like Godzilla’s foot – it squelches everything in its path. More than anything, Phillips’  leadership style is now in question.

Many in his organization accuse him of “playing the race card” by not resigning in favour of Kay Hampton, a South African born anti-racism advocate. And a white woman. More significantly, his professional dealings have been caught in the U.K. media’s ferocious “public perks” dragnet. If only Canada’s media market combined both speak-your mind crankiness (which we have in spades) with a true diversity of voice (which we lack). We might get a more thorough airing of these sorts of messy but necessary discussions. Does Canada need government tax funded human rights and equality commissions and tribunals?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    July 28, 2009 9:51 am

    Thanks for opening a window onto what looks like a spectacular bureaucratic train wreck across the pond. It’s interesting that Britain’s human rights commission appears to be tearing itself apart from within, while Canada’s federal and provincial commissions are coming under increasingly serious pressure from without.

    In Canada most of the hostility seems to arise from the Commissions’ role in censoring “hate speech”, and indeed it’s hard not to feel that something has gone badly wrong when bodies supposedly devoted to human rights start trampling on free expression. The larger issue, though, is whether it makes sense to have Commissions with “quasi-judicial” powers at all. If people are breaking the law, why not simply prosecute them in a real court? And if they’re not breaking the law, why should any government body interfere with their activities?

    I don’t know if Britain’s EHRC has powers similar to those of our Canadian HRCs. But if it does, I would suggest that the EHRC is not just in revolt, but downright revolting.

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