Terror in Chch

Ethnic Communities office overhauled

The dysfunctional Office of Ethnic Communities has undergone a significant restructure six months on from the March 15 mosque attacks. Laura Walters reports.

The Office of Ethnic Communities has undergone an overhaul, following years of dysfunction.

The office, which is the first point of contact for New Zealand’s ethnic and minority communities, has been described as inefficient, with the Department of Internal Affairs chief executive Paul James admitting the office has lacked “stable leadership, direction or a work programme”.

Following the March 15 terror attacks - which resulted in the deaths of 51 Muslims in Christchurch - members of the Muslim and other minority communities raised concerns about the office.

Members of ethnic communities told Newsroom they had lost faith in the office, citing high turnover, a lack of leadership and direction, as well as allegations of bullying.

They had found it difficult to interact with the office or get results. The failings of the office was one of the issues raised by those who criticised the lack of focus put on the safety of Muslims in New Zealand before the attacks.

Those who spoke to Newsroom were also disappointed the Government and Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa did not make good on Labour’s pre-election promise to upgrade the office to a ministry.

Since these frustrations were publicly aired, the office and the minister have met with community groups to better understand the issues and move towards fixing the internal disarray.

As a result, the office will no longer sit as a ‘third-tier report’ within the Department of Internal Affairs – with a director reporting to the deputy chief executive who in turn reports to DIA’s chief executive. Instead, the office will now report direct to DIA chief executive Paul James.

Salesa said this change reflected her expectations of the office, and recognised its status and visibility were important to the communities it served.

"We need people in the Office of Ethnic Communities who are connected with ethnic communities, not the bureaucracy."

She said, in the past nine years, the office had been limited in its ability to perform its role, due to a lack of staffing resources.

“The Office of Ethnic Communities is in a much stronger position than it has been for the past decade,” she said, referring to the change in reporting lines, and the increased funding in May’s Budget.

Larger regional engagement teams had been established in Auckland and Christchurch, with a third team being created in Wellington. Salesa said the staffing boost would protect the vital link between ethnic communities and the Government.

The office also had a new senior leadership team, and a new strategic work programme was being finalised.

Part of the office’s issues stemmed from a revolving door of directors. The current director, Anita Balakrishnan, will leave her role at the end of the month and Caroline Bridgland will fill the role until a permanent director is appointed. Community members will be part of the recruitment process.

A step in the right direction

Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) spokesperson Anwar Ghani said on the day of the Christchurch attack the office was "missing in action".

There had been a disconnect between the office and the communities it was supposed to serve. No-one knew what it was, or understood the structure, he said.

"We need people in the Office of Ethnic Communities who are connected with ethnic communities, not the bureaucracy."

As New Zealand's diversity grew, it was important to have greater engagement with communities, and greater cultural competency in government departments.

FIANZ has commended Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa for her work in talking to Muslim and ethnic communities, but says the Office of Ethnic Communities has more work to do. Photo: Supplied

Ghani said there was a lot more work to do, but these changes were a step in the right direction, and were "long overdue".

African Communities Forum president Chinwe Akomah said the changes showed DIA had listened to the concerns of the community.

“I have had some really engaging, progressive and positive conversations, which demonstrates an elevated level of thinking. We are eager to see what happens next."

Akomah said she expected the office to bring “an ethnic lens” to all policy design.

And the new reporting line – direct to the chief executive – showed the office was now a priority.

Six months on

In the six months since the terrorist attack, government departments and ministers have been meeting with ethnic and faith communities to build understanding of the effects of the attacks in Christchurch, and what needs to change.

Salesa said during the meetings, recurring messages from Muslim communities included: the need for education institutions to take the lead in fostering acceptance; the need for media to highlight positive stories and normalise diversity; and the need for society to acknowledge people had diverse and complex identities.

The office would report back with recommendations on how to address these issues, in order to build a greater sense of safety and wellbeing, improve inclusion, address discrimination and Islamophobia, and create greater interfaith and intercultural unity, she said.

In October, the minister would also embark on a series of interfaith dialogues.

“The attacks highlighted that many important conversations, about issues such as ethnic diversity, cultural inclusion, hate speech and Islamophobia, need to be elevated and discussed across New Zealand,” Salesa said.

“I think that we all need to reflect on what we can bring to the table: what actions we can each take to increase social cohesion in New Zealand and value our country’s diversity?”

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