Outside the Orakei Marae on a watery, chilly May morning, a crowd begins to gather. People stand around talking quietly, then, beckoned forward by a waiata, they slowly make their way on to the marae.

First comes Rosslyn Noonan, newly appointed chief Human Rights Commissioner. Next, in a knot of black and grey, three new commissioners - Warren Lindberg, Ella Henry and Michael Powles - flanked by Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane (who has worked so adroitly in this super-political field that he is one of the few to be reappointed), Chris Lawrence (also a reappointment) and, like a splash of sunlight in his African print shirt, Gregory Fortuin, the new Race Relations Conciliator.

The appointment of a glaringly left-wing Human Rights lineup (all three are former Alliance or Labour candidates) did not come without controversy. When their names were announced with blunt haste six weeks ago, opposition politicians (who reportedly had attempted to promote former Disabilities Commissioner Robin Stent to the top job before the November 1999 election) squealed.


Richard Prebble said the Labour Government's claims of consultation were a fraud. "Such overt politicisation of what should be an independent office is unacceptable and sets a disturbing precedent."

Now, however, after the CVs have been circulated and the appointees assessed, those in the field are cautiously optimistic. "Some might claim they're political appointees, but they're good choices," says human rights specialist lawyer Sylvia Bell. "If anyone can make it work, they can."

As people bend to take off their shoes and move into the meeting house, the waiata floats down over Bastion Pt like a clarion call.

The appointment of a new set of commissioners is particularly important as we approach the December 2001 deadline for bringing government departments, state-owned enterprises and quasi-governmental organisations within the scope of the Human Rights Act.

There are also signs that the Act itself - which has been dubbed a Claytons Human Rights Act - will be strengthened to become more than just a flimsy signal of good intentions, subordinate to almost all other laws, and will be injected with real rigour.

Loopholes in the Human Rights Act allow exemptions for such things as benefit targeting (employed during the user-pays era of the past decade) and positive discrimination (a favoured social engineering tool of the left).

For example, up at Auckland Medical School, an affirmative action programme now assures that roughly 19 per cent of students must be Maori or Pacific Islanders. While the aims behind the practice - to ensure that people are treated by doctors aware of their cultural differences - may be laudable, many see such discrimination as unjust.

Another area of potential conflict is a proposed merging of Human Rights and Race Relations offices pooling clerical staff and facilities, yet allowing each commission to retain its own role. The new office, if it happens, will probably be based at the Human Rights Commission's spacious headquarters in downtown Auckland. Those against the move suggest that loss of autonomy will weaken individual offices.

All of which makes these new commissioners, with their good intentions, flawless marae protocol - and left-wing activist backgrounds - much more important.

Leader of the team - with her beautifully cut and polished fair hair, which falls in a curved curtain across her cheek, glasses, wide-spaced brown eyes, lack of lipstick, and carved bone pendant - is Rosslyn Noonan, who arrived home from Brussels on May 16, the day before she was officially sworn in.

Under Prime Minister Helen Clark's regime Noonan, who was working for an international teachers' organisation, is an obvious choice. And she was "delighted and honoured" to receive the letter from her old acquaintance, Attorney-General Margaret Wilson.

Noonan's history with the Labour Party goes back to the party's Princes St branch, favoured by Auckland University students and lecturers. When Noonan was studying trade unions and history (her MA thesis was on the Depression riots of 1932), members included her history professor Michael Bassett and Richard Prebble. Later would come Roger Douglas, Jonathan Hunt, Helen Clark and Phil Goff.

Noonan's instincts were always liberal. Her parents were journalists (her father, Trevor Shaw, worked for the Herald); her childhood was spent in Nigeria and the then Belgian Congo, followed by the A stream at Auckland Girls Grammar alongside Sandra Pearce [Coney], writer Anne Else and economist Susan St John.

This was where she developed an abiding love of history. "I discovered history was such an important tool - not solely for contemplating the past, but for helping to understand the present."

The first in her family to go to university, Noonan was one of the team who exposed an SIS agent posing as a student in the political studies department. Next came marriage to actor and television script writer Michael Noonan, their first child, and feminism. As she says, "I got into trade unionism via the Kindergarten Teachers' Association."

It was a move that drove her not just along the trade union path with the New Zealand Educational Institute, of which she was national secretary from 1988-96, but also to become a champion of Maori teachers and supporter of the kura kaupapa (Maori language secondary schools) movement throughout the state system.

As teacher Jim Perry said in his marae oratory, "Ros is one of the best tightrope walkers we have in New Zealand. She had to be seen as supportive of mainstream education ... but her guidance meant things that were important to Maori children - kohanga reo and kura kaupapa - saw the light of day."

Noonan replied: "One of the obstacles to a free and just society is fear - fear which has denied our children the chance to grow up bilingual in the two official languages of our society."

Noonan's election to the Wellington City Council in 1980 on a Labour ticket brought one of her proudest victories. "It was during the move to privatise city council housing. We argued that providing low-cost housing was of enormous benefit to the city - and Wellington ended up one of the only councils that held on to its housing at that time."

How did she convince them? She fixes me with those calm brown eyes: "It was a matter of working through the issues and arguments, making the case and showing the benefits to ratepayers. Healthy decent housing affects people's ability to access so many other aspects of life."

These are the kinds of skills Noonan will need over the next six months as she prepares the entire public sector for changes to human rights legislation - and probably streamlines the legislation to accommodate Labour ideals of fairness.

She is not too PC to be interesting, she smiles a lot, and she and her husband are housesitting in Ponsonby for artists Dick and Judy Frizzell, who are on an art tour of Tuscany. Her two grown children - Matt who is in the television industry and Sarah who is in Melbourne - sound refreshingly normal.

Noonan also brings some international perspective to the role, talking about the successes of France's 35-hour working week, partly driven by a belief that "you work in order to support a decent life, to make people more profitable, create better communities. My experience in Europe made me very positive about shutting down over Christmas," she says.

"It also became extremely clear to me how extreme the New Zealand [economic] experiment was and how little regard there was for people."

Noonan would like to see New Zealand's human rights culture - which she says depends not on Government nor the Human Rights Commission, but on "a very active and courageous civil society" - help to harness globalisation.

"By that I mean work so that people can shape it, harness it, so its benefits can be fairly shared - otherwise it'll be a catastrophe for many, many people and the planet as a whole," she says.

"We need to put a robust framework around human rights. One part is making sure that fundamental labour standards - one convention on freedom of association (the right to join trade unions), one on the right to collective bargaining, one on the elimination of forced labour, one on equality and equal pay, two around child labour and one against all forms of discrimination at work - are in place."

"We're very good at saluting the Declarations of Human Rights around the world, but not at doing it."

Back home Noonan has more urgent housekeeping tasks. The Government wants to move fast. "They're hoping to have legislation [on changes to permit some exemptions from basic anti-discrimination clauses] in the House by July, allow the maximum possible period of public involvement and have something in place by then end of the year," she says.

"The whole thing requires quite intensive examination. On one hand, we don't want it to come down too broadly in terms of exemptions. We're now looking at all areas where removing exemptions will have an impact. "Clearly immigration law is discriminatory - we discriminate against the poor, sick, old, inadequate ... Now I hope the exemptions will be much narrower ... always remembering that establishing what standard of human rights legislation should apply to Government involves not just the Human Rights Act but the Bill of Rights.

"And the Bill of Rights is a very weak piece of legislation, every other act overrides it, which is not a good basis for a robust human rights culture. On the other hand," she smiles, "it's a beginning."

Looking further out, Noonan sees the commission as providing one of the few checks and balances in our society. She is cautiously in favour of a constitution - we should at least be debating the issue, she says.

Noonan's fellow conciliators bring their own history. Warren Lindberg's career includes 10 years running the Aids Foundation, followed by a short stint as manager of a project at the Ministry of Health to counter the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.

He was number 48 on the Labour list last election and his speech at the powhiri is thick with tales of discrimination he suffered growing up gay in New Zealand.

Ella Henry, with her wide smile and squirmingly happy small children, is a lecturer in management studies and the research director of the Maori research unit at Auckland University. Executive director of Greenpeace from 1994 to 1996, she is also completing a PhD. Of Ngati Kuri, Ngati Rehia and Te Rarawa descent, she stood for Te Tai Tokerau last election.

Only Michael Powles, with his Foreign Affairs background - which includes stints as New Zealand Ambassador to China and Indonesia, High Commissioner to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu, plus a posting as a deputy secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade - does not have a strong Labour-Alliance background.

Son of our first Ombudsman and Race Relations Conciliator, Sir Guy Powles, his most recent position (1996-2000) was as New Zealand ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations.

Then there is Gregory Fortuin, who, after just 10 years in New Zealand, was appointed Race Relations Conciliator. Why a son of South Africa amid this collection? Probably because he impressed the Beehive's inner sanctum with his visionary charisma.

It is impossible not to warm to Fortuin. His ideas, his energy, the way he balances his laptop on his bended foot and fiddles with speech notes while we speak, draw you in.

Since he arrived here Fortuin has become South Africa's first honorary resident consul, chairman of the Youth Suicide Awareness Trust, a director of New Zealand Post, Industry New Zealand and Axa Superannuation Services (which brought him to New Zealand in the first place).

Last year he was asked to launch the Graeme Dingle Trust in Wellington and help drive moves towards restorative justice. And still, despite calls back to South Africa, Fortuin waited for the right, God-given opportunity "to take my philosophy of making a difference to the society I live in to a higher plain."

He wanted a chance to improve the big picture, and when the Race Relations job came along, he grabbed it. "I want to be involved in something that changes the national psyche, to make a difference."

How precisely? Partly through his work with Industry New Zealand, partly through helping New Zealand to build an inclusive society."I see economic development for the betterment of New Zealand," he says. "Things that make us angry and frustrated every day [like no job and marginal money] cause us to hit out."

Similarly, Fortuin's dream of an inclusive society is appealing. "This Aotearoa New Zealand is a treaty-based Pacific nation. It must, in a meaningful way, honour the agreement with the tangata whenua. What this means in practice is that as New Zealanders we should have this discussion.

"Let's do it rigorously, with dignity, honesty and responsibility. Let's allow some room for the fact that somebody else could be right and that I don't know all the answers. And then, when we've had the discussion, let's grab hold of the results and enshrine it in some form of legislation.

"Bolger [former PM Jim] and Clark are saying a republic is going to happen in New Zealand. If that means constitutional reform, let's include the treaty."

Like Noonan, he brings international ideas: "There are good international conflict resolution models. Canada is doing pretty well, and South Africa.

"You can't mandate people to love each other, attitudes need to change, responsibility goes two ways," he says. "I'm responsible for the tangata whenua, people should be responsible for me.

"And when we've had the discussion I want to capture it in legislation ... The last thing we need is a talkfest."

So that's why Gregory Fortuin is in Helen Clark's human rights lineup.

Which brings us back to the powhiri, and the new commissioners, some fighting back tears, moving across the meeting house to take their place alongside Maori elders such as Sir Paul Reeves and Sir Hugh Kawharu. As Sylvia Bell says, "Despite their politics, this is an interesting lineup. Let us hope they can make a difference."