Justice

Non-Māori race relations commissioner ‘missed opportunity’

The head of the Māori Council says the appointment of Meng Foon as race relations commissioner is a ‘missed opportunity’. Laura Walters reports.

After more than a year without a race relations commissioner, the Government has announced retiring Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon will take over the role, but reactions are mixed.

Multicultural communities are glad the role has finally been filled, and say regardless of the court cases surrounding the appointment process, someone should have been in the role sooner – even if in an acting capacity.

They say it is unacceptable no-one was in the high-level advocacy role after Susan Devoy left in June last year.

That gap was felt deeply by a range of communities, struggling with racism and xenophobia and the March 15 terror attack, in which 51 Muslims were killed.

But there are mixed views on whether Foon, a relatively well-known mayor with mana in his community, is the right person for the job.

Māori Council executive director Matthew Tukaki said it was a “missed opportunity” for the Government to address longstanding issues facing Māori.

“The dominant landscape in race relations is between Māori and non-Māori,” he said.

And while Foon was a great mayor and spoke fluent te reo – the only mayor in New Zealand to do so – he was not the right person for the job, Tukaki said.

“They should be looking for someone of Māori origin and Māori background.”

The country was currently grappling with racism, where people felt emboldened to say racist and hateful things towards each other, he said.

Māori Council executive director Matthew Tukaki says speaking te reo isn't enough, the race relations commissioner should be of Māori origin. Photo: Supplied

He named Don Brash’s comments and Hobson’s Pledge, as well as recent comments and policies from ACT’s David Seymour around ‘free speech’, as creating the “operating environment" where Māori, people of colour, and minority groups were targeted.

In May, the Māori Council asked the Human Rights Commission to investigate Hobson’s Pledge, saying the lobby group incited racism and violence.

Immediately following that call, Tukaki received dozens of abusive and racist messages.

Māori director and filmmaker Taika Waititi also called out New Zealand’s racism last year, which brought backlash from some corners of the country. He was backed up by then-race relations commissioner Susan Devoy.

“We need to continue to break down barriers to racial and ethnic equality in New Zealand society.”

Other current issues such as disproportionate representation in suicide statistics, and child uplifts from Oranga Tamariki, needed to be part of the conversation led by the commissioner, Tukaki said.

“This is nothing about Meng… he’s a wonderful human being,” he said, adding that Foon was a fantastic mayor and had experience working with Ngāti Porou and the Chinese Association.

“But they’ve lost an opportunity.”

In announcing Foon’s appointment on Thursday, Justice Minister Andrew Little said it was “an exciting appointment to a role that presents enormous challenges but tremendous possibilities”.

“He has an outstanding record as a relationship builder and walks comfortably in the pākehā world, the Māori world, the Chinese community and other communities making up New Zealand,” Little said.

“We need to continue to break down barriers to racial and ethnic equality in New Zealand society.”

Meanwhile, Foon said his degree in Iwi Environmental Management had enhanced his understanding of the Māori world-view.

“I use this mauri to encompass every aspect of my life.”

Time for a person of colour

Other communities are embracing the appointment of a person of colour, at a crucial time for New Zealand race relations.

African Communities Forum president Chinwe Akomah said the appointment of a person of colour was well overdue.

Communities who worked with Devoy appreciated her fierce advocacy, her heart and her hard work, but the time was right for a person of colour to take up the role of advocating for multi-cultural communities, at the highest level, Akomah said.

Foon also brought with him political experience and nous from his 18 years as mayor.

“It’s a bit too early to say how he will perform. But we hope he will have an open mind to the issues, is able to really advocate on our behalf for change and for fairness, and we look forward to working with him,” she said.

Like others, the forum was frustrated at the length of time it took the Government to fill the role of race relations commissioner.

“The optics of that and the lack of public advertisement of the position suggests to ethnic and religious communities that we do not matter; that our issues are not important."

In April, the forum launched a petition to get a commissioner installed by May, which was signed by 757 people. It subsequently wrote to Justice Minister Andrew Little on April 20, but received no response.

In the letter, the forum expressed frustration other commissioners at the Human Rights Commission had been replaced in a timely manner, but not the race relations commissioner.

“The optics of that and the lack of public advertisement of the position suggests to ethnic and religious communities that we do not matter; that our issues are not important,” the letter said.

Akomah said she was glad the appointment had finally been made.

'Big shoes to fill'

The issues currently facing the country are complex and far-reaching.

Akomah said that, along with dealing with the issues raised by Tukaki, the race relations commissioner would have to make working with those affected by the Christchurch terror attack a priority.

He would also need to be involved in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attack, she said.

"Good luck to him. He has some big shoes to fill… welcome on board.”

The African Communities Forum expected the new commissioner to take a leading role in the current review of the country’s hate speech laws, to ensure it was thorough, and not a “light touch”.

On top of that, there were issues at the Office of Ethnic Communities within the Department of Internal Affairs, which raised questions about whether the Government saw ethnic communities as a priority.

Akomah also encouraged Foon to continue Devoy’s work in the Give Nothing to Racism campaign.

“Good luck to him. He has some big shoes to fill… welcome on board.”

Creating a fairer and harmonious society

In a written statement, Foon said it was an honour to have been appointed through such a thorough process.

“I acknowledge there is a lot of hard work in front of us. I am looking forward to working with my fellow commissioners, commission staff and the diverse communities that make up this country to get that work done.”

Foon said his role as mayor enhanced his understanding of community and issues regarding racism and other discrimination.

“As a proud New Zealand Chinese, I was brought up with values of inclusiveness.”

As well as being fluent in te reo, Foon also speaks Seyip, Cantonese and English, and is learning Mandarin.

“We are all looking forward to working with Meng to help create the fairer, more harmonious society so many people have been calling for, particularly in the wake of the terrible events in Christchurch.”

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said Foon's experience working across cultures, in business and at the community level would be a boost to improving race relations.

“We are all looking forward to working with Meng to help create the fairer, more harmonious society so many people have been calling for, particularly in the wake of the terrible events in Christchurch.”

Foon will begin in the role on August 26.

Foon was first elected onto the Gisborne District Council in 1995, and became mayor in 2001. He is a member of a number of community organisations including the Ngā Taonga a nā Tama Toa Trust, the New Zealand Chinese Association, Aotearoa Social Enterprise Trust and MY Gold Investments Ltd. He is also a member of the New Zealand Rugby League Board.

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