Terror in Chch

Troubles at the Office of Ethnic Communities

Multicultural communities have lost faith in the Office of Ethnic Communities, with allegations of bullying and racism, high turnover, and a lack of leadership and direction. Laura Walters reports.

The Office of Ethnic Communities is being described as "ineffectual" and "irrelevant" by those it’s supposed to serve.

The office, which sits as a third-tier office within the Department of Internal Affairs, operates under the radar.

The director of ethnic communities reports to the deputy chief executive of policy, regulation and communities, who reports to the chief executive of DIA, who then reports to the minister.

Labour’s pre-election promise to upgrade the office to a ministry were recently scrapped.

An extra $9.4 million will lift the capacity from 24 staff to 42 in the next year.

But those who know the office have told Newsroom it’s plagued by internal issues, which have led to communities disengaging.

And the extra money will be “going into a hole” if systemic issues in the office are not addressed.

These issues include high turnover; a lack of diversity in top positions, an allegation of bullying and racism, a lack of clear direction, loss of direct community engagement, under-resourcing, and a lack of “clout” or “relevance”.

On Saturday, the office’s former community engagement manager, Tayyaba Khan, shared her resignation letter with Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa, following a community hui in Auckland.

It gives the reasons she left the position, after being head-hunted for the job two years earlier.

The letter, seen by Newsroom, details how she believed her managers questioned her mental health, officially assessed her as being “unfit for the role” without further explanation, and accused her of being biased towards the Muslim community.

Khan told Newsroom by the time she left the office early this year, she had no self-confidence.

“My bravest act was writing that [resignation] letter.”

Khan said she was accused of providing the minister with biased advice, in order to gain public funds for her Muslim women’s leadership organisation, the Khadija Leadership Network. But the network never applied for government funding.

She was also asked not to have any professional or personal involvement with the Muslim community.

“My connections meant I was inherently biased.”

In December 2018, Khan’s manager – acting director Anita Balakrishnan – told her there was a loss of trust and confidence. She was also told she lacked “public sector nous”.

But the turning point was March 2017, when the office was asked to send a representative to a full-day meeting with the State Services Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Muslim community, to talk about issues of safety and security facing the Muslim New Zealanders.

Some of the background of this event was covered by Islamic Women’s Council head Anjum Rahman in a piece she wrote for the Spinoff, following the Christchurch terror attack. Rahman declined to comment.

“I can’t even explain the tension and stress we went through going into that meeting. From the government side, there were arguments about who would attend that meeting. This meeting should have been focused on our community and its needs, but the Office of Ethnic Communities (OEC) chose to make it about themselves. The then-acting director resigned on the morning of the meeting and they sent no representative to hear us out,” she wrote in March.

The representative Rahman referred to was Khan.

Tayyaba Khan (left) has shared her experience at the Office of Ethnic Communities in an effort to highlight wider cultural issues. Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images

Khan had been chosen by acting director Maarten Quivooy to represent the office, but some community members pushed back, due to Khan’s previous work with advocacy group CAGE and her political views.

Quivooy refused to send someone else, saying Khan was the most appropriate person.

The internal struggle reached all the way to the deputy chief executive of the State Services Commission and Khan received a personal call from then-race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.

In the end, no one from the office attended.

Following the meeting, Khan said she felt targeted because of her faith, she felt bullied, and it was clear she was not wanted in the role.

Salesa refused to comment on her conversation with Khan or the resignation letter, saying “it would be particularly inappropriate for me to comment on specific employment matters, including the one you have raised”.

In response to questions from Newsroom, DIA deputy chief executive in charge of the office Marilyn Little spoke generally, saying DIA was “committed to building a positive and inclusive culture where we treat everyone with dignity and respect”.

“We take allegations of bullying and harassment seriously – this is unacceptable in any workplace,” she said, adding that there were specific initiatives in place to support staff.

Little said the current acting director – Balakrishnan - was building a positive and inclusive workplace.

Balakrishnan was not made available for an interview or comment.

Long-term issues

Khan’s experience did not happen in a vacuum and people who have worked at the office, or engaged with it through community work, have raised a number of concerns.

These included cultural issues and a lack of consistent leadership.

The office was established in 2000 as the Office of Ethnic Affairs. In 2004, senior public servant Mervin Singham took over as director, until 2013.

Berlinda Chin took over in 2014, and mid-way through her tenure, the office changed to the Office of Ethnic Communities, and underwent a restructure in 2016.

It was during these years, under the watch of National’s Judith Collins, community leaders say the direction of the office changed.

Multicultural New Zealand chief executive Tayo Agunlejika said in the early days there was little “ministerial interference”, and those in the community felt their voices were heard. This sentiment was echoed by others in the community, who spoke to Newsroom.

“There is a lot of resentment, disrespect, and almost no value seen for the office now, between organisations that would have once really pushed for the office to be established.”

But during the restructure the office went from a second-tier report, where the director reported straight to the DIA chief executive, to a third tier report – pushing the office and community voices further down the food chain.

This happened despite community leaders advocating for the office to be promoted to a ministry – something the government has ruled out, despite a pre-election promise from Labour.

Agunlejika said the office became a “policy shop”, with a strong focus on creating business links with Asian, and particularly Chinese communities. Some began referring to it as the “office of Asian affairs”.

This shift in focus resulted in an erosion of trust in communities.

“Communities disconnected from the office. They believed the office had become irrelevant,” he said.

Khan said before the change of direction, communities appreciated advisors from the office were “moving and shaking things around”.

“But there is a lot of resentment, disrespect, and almost no value seen for the office now, between organisations that would have once really pushed for the office to be established.”

Many were reticent to speak publicly, as shoulder-rubbing with public service was also about mana and respect, even if communities did not get tangible outcomes.

Chin left in early 2017 and Quivooy was seconded from within DIA. When he left in April 2017, Caroline Bridglandhill was brought in for three months as another acting director, until the appointment of Wen Powles in mid-2017.

Powles remained in the job for 18 months, leaving in December 2018.

At this time, the current acting director, Anita Balakrishnan, was employed as an acting director, on a fixed-term basis until June 2019, while the Government decided whether it wanted to create a new ministry.

The office was recruiting for a permanent director when the March 15 terror attack happened, so the hiring process was put on hold, and Balakrishnan’s contract was extended to September.

"We need a director that has a backbone."

While there had only been two people permanently appointed to the role of director since 2014, the constant turnover of acting directors has manifested in a lack of leadership and consistent direction.

Turnover within the wider office was also high, particularly following the 2016 restructure.

The annualised rolling turnover figure for the office at the end of 2018 was 42.9 percent and for the year ended June 2019 was 33.3 percent.

Little said these figures need to be viewed in the context of a relatively small group, where two or three resignations had a material effect on turnover.

Questions have also been raised around diversity and unconscious bias within the office.

When speaking to a Parliamentary select committee last month, Little said about 70 percent of office staff identified as having an ethnic background.

However, those in the community said there was also a need for a director from a diverse background, who understood the complexities of ethnic, cultural, physical and religious diversity.

“The director must have that connection in the community. The director must be seen as that community person; must have that experience and relationships with the community… and that will be a good start,” Agunlejika said in relation to the current recruitment.

“The person must also be open-minded… the person must be the face of humanity.”

Others said the director needed to be a role-model to young people from ethnic communities.

“We need a director that has a backbone,” Khan said.

Step change

In the months since the March 15 attack there has been a change of direction, and significant investment in the office.

Budget 2019 included $9.4m to lift the capability and capacity of the office, with the bulk of the money going towards expanding the community engagement team.

This follows years of what the community has described as under-investment.

There has also been more direct community engagement at an office and a ministerial level

While some leaders, including Agunlejika and Khan, stressed the point the office was for all multicultural and minority communities - not only Muslims - and the government needed to be careful to get the balance right, they were hopeful there could be change.

“Now we think they are on the right path. It is just a shame, and disappointing that we have to lose 51 lives to appreciate the importance of the office connecting to the community,” Agunlejika said

But many remain sceptical about how effective the new money will be.

Numerous people who spoke to Newsroom said without a significant change to the office’s culture and leadership, as well as clear direction, the money would be going into a hole.

It was “shuffling the deck chairs”, so to speak.

It was a crucial time for the country’s multicultural communities, and it was important the government and public sector were well-prepared to deal with the opportunities and challenges.

“It’s so important when we’re putting public service money into something, if it’s not doing for us what it should do, then it’s so important we talk about it,” Khan said.

Little said the attacks had highlighted many important conversation – “about ethnic diversity, cultural inclusion, hate speech and Islamophobia among others – that need to be elevated and discussed across New Zealand”.

And the office was focussed on its role of supporting ethnic communities and ensuring their voices were heard by government, she said.

* Yesterday Newsroom covered the government's decision to scrap its plans for an Ethnic Communities Ministry. You can read the full story here.

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