MARK SAINSBURY: The truth about discrimination in NZ

To what degree are you entitled to make decisions based on your own values? And how far should the state interfere with that?

Taranaki farmer Hugh Wilson has helped clear this up by engaging in what he describes as “honesty”.

Wilson advertised for a sharemilker on his Inglewood property and stated in the ad that it would suit a married couple or "exceptional single person with family support". All good so far - but the next sentence landed him in hot water.

“NO co-habituating couples need apply”! At first blush this seems so out of touch with New Zealand in 2017. Aren’t we well beyond the days of discrimination? And as Hugh Wilson was soon to find out, there’s ample legislation in this country to reinforce that position.

The farmer said the reason he put in the advice for shacked up couples to not bother knocking was that he wanted to be honest. He wasn’t going to give the job to a couple in that situation and he didn’t want his daughters witness to that behaviour on his own property.

He said by being honest he was saving people the trouble of applying for a job they would never get.

As I said there’s plenty of law on this, both the Employment Relations Act and the Human Rights Act prohibit employers discriminating on that basis. But if he shut up Wilson could have gone ahead and discriminated by simply not hiring de factos - and no one would be the wiser.

So was it wrong for him to do what he did? Under the law yes.

But the more I thought about it, do we have a right to express our own preferences? And does it matter on what basis the discrimination is?

I can only presume that Wilson has strong religious or moral principles according to his own definition and may well be genuine in his desire not to have a situation on his property in front of his daughters that he doesn’t believe in.

But again the wisest course may well have been to keep schtum. He didn’t.

What is so wrong with having a moral position? Do we all have to be cookie-cutter versions of the ideal person? Does it really threaten our society for people like Wilson to say what he believes?

But turn this around a bit. What if the ad said same-sex couples need not apply? Or Filipino people need not apply. Would we then be more exercised about this?

The reason we have laws is to protect the rights of all New Zealanders to take part in society without discrimination. Yet law or no law we all discriminate every day. In little ways or not.

Have you ever pulled into a service station and the attendant makes you come in and pre-pay? If you’re in a flash car and wearing a suit I bet your life you could pump away to your heart's content and pay later.

So we all make judgments. Our own little prejudices impact on us every day in every way. We spent a day on talkback this week talking about fat people. About how we react to them and how they feel seeing that reaction.

The truth is we do discriminate against people on size, we make presumptions that we might not ever admit publicly - but we do it.

So was Hugh Wilson’s mistake being honest? Yes it was. I don’t want to encourage discrimination or prejudice but you know what: I’d rather know what people's attitudes are.

What if both sides were dishonest? Wilson didn’t reveal his problem with de factos and the couple that got the job didn’t reveal their status.

It could all go swimmingly until the truth came out!

Mark Sainsbury hosts Morning Talk from 9am-midday on RadioLIVE.