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Race relations commissioner faces perfect storm

Incoming commissioner Meng Foon has his work cut out. Navigating the perfect storm of race relations will be no easy task, writes Laura Walters.

Incoming Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon isn’t yet in the job but the rumblings have already begun.

On Thursday, Foon was named the new race relations commissioner more than a year after Dame Susan Devoy left the role amid a shake-up and controversy at the Human Rights Commission.

The Justice Minister was proud as punch to be finally announcing a replacement, after a court battle over the hiring process and anger from multicultural communities over the delay.

An initial scan of social media showed nothing but praise for what seems like a shrewd appointment of a man with a lot of mana and experience working with businesses, politicians, and Māori and Chinese communities.

But that glow never lasts long, and the outgoing Gisborne mayor was no exception to the rule.

Less than an hour after Foon's appointment was announced, head of the Māori Council Matthew Tukaki told Newsroom they didn't have the right person for the job.

Appointing a non-Māori was a “missed opportunity”, he said, despite the mayor's te reo chops and community links.

Tukaki’s point may have been grating, given Foon is well-liked and well-connected. But it is valid.

Excuse me while I point out the obvious, but those who think there is no racism towards Māori in New Zealand are burying their heads in the sand.

Those who don’t think colonisation continues to have a horrific effect on Māori and their chance of achieving success and wellbeing, are deluded.

In the past couple of months we’ve seen headlines that focus on the disproportionate number of Māori babies being uplifted by Oranga Tamariki, a Waitangi Tribunal report that found the Crown has breached Te Tiriti due to Māori health outcomes, a rising number of Māori suicides, and a damning justice sector report, not to mention daily instances of both overt and casual racism.

So it’s fair enough the question be asked, especially when the number of Māori in top tier positions - including the country’s state-owned enterprises - remains low.

The problem is, New Zealand’s race relations failures don’t only relate to Māori. This has become glaringly obvious in the past year.

It’s one of those nightmares we don’t seem able to wake up from, it’s been more than a year and we’re going round in circles, each side yelling into a void.

It started with a visit from two far-right Canadians - the stuff of Aryan dreams.

The furore over Auckland Council’s de-platforming of the pair, and Massey University’s subsequent banning of Don Brash, launched the country into what’s become a nightmarish debate, ostensibly about free speech.

Most of the time it turns to hate-fuelled arguments, which hinge on some bizarre notion that free speech is an absolute right, which is currently under threat.

It’s one of those nightmares we don’t seem able to wake up from; it’s been more than a year and we’re going round in circles, each side yelling into a void.

Every time we start to rouse, things like a misleading campaign against the UN Migrant Compact, ACT and New Zealand First’s idea of a ‘Kiwis values test’, and now ACT’s proposed abolition of hate speech laws, drag us back under.

All the while, the Justice Minister has been carrying out a review of hate speech laws, without a race relations commissioner to guide and moderate the public discourse.

But while white people yell for greater freedom, New Zealand’s minority communities are targeted.

Minority communities are frustrated and disillusioned in the wake of the Christchurch attack. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman receives death threats, Muslim women wearing the hijab are singled out and made to feel unsafe, Asian New Zealanders are told to ‘go home’ or become the target of xenophobic-fuelled tirades about driving and house prices.

It’s against this backdrop that 51 worshipping Muslims were slaughtered on March 15.

This horrific event has at least forced us to talk about our dirty laundry to some extent. But it’s also revealed wide-ranging issues affecting the country’s minority communities.

One community organisation head told Newsroom it was no easy task to keep Muslim community members from revolting, following the attack.

New Zealand was held up as a global example of how to react: with peace and solidarity. We now know this was the eye of the storm.

Beneath the surface people were angry. They had raised safety concerns time and time again, and those with the power to act, did not keep them safe. That anger is bubbling to the surface and there is a growing backlash.

It didn't take long for the Muslim community to become disillusioned with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attack. 

More than three months on from being established, the inquiry is yet to appoint a Muslim Advisory Panel. And as one tweeter pointed out, the list of submitters to talk to the commission so far includes more Pauls than Muslims.

When Foon arrives home from his London summer holiday, he will need to don his gummies and rain jacket, to help the country navigate its way through the storm.

Meanwhile, the shambles that is the Office of Ethnic Communities has failed to engage with the communities it’s supposed to serve.

While no one has been watching, bullying, high turnover, a lack of leadership and strategic direction, not enough resources, and a loss of community trust have marred the office, which is buried deep within the Department of Internal Affairs.

After considering upgrading the office to a ministry last year, Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa decided not to go ahead with the plan, despite years of advocacy from minority groups.

Another confusing decision was the disestablishment of the position of Parliamentary under-secretary to the minister of ethnic communities. During the recent ministerial reshuffle, Michael Wood was replaced by Priyanca Radhakrishnan. But Radhakrishnan holds the lower rank of Parliamentary private secretary.

All the while, the country has been without an independent, top-level advocate. Even taking the court process into consideration, it’s surprising the Government never moved to appoint an acting commissioner.

Combined, these slights have made minority communities feel under-valued and unheard - no matter what the Government says about wellbeing and inclusion.

Foon has his work cut out and there are high expectations - some of which he will inevitably not meet.

In a statement on his appointment, Foon said he was "honoured", but hopefully he's also prepared.

When Foon arrives home from his London summer holiday, he will need to don his rain jacket and gummies, to help the country navigate its way through the storm.

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