Terror in Chch

51 deaths to secure funding boost for ethnic communities

Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa received just a quarter of what she asked for to increase the capacity and capability of the Office of Ethnic Communities through this Budget, and it seems it took 51 lives to be lost in order to get the extra funding.

Budget 2019, branded as the Government’s first Wellbeing Budget, included $9.4 million over four years to respond to the impacts of the terrorist attack, and increase staffing and capability at the Office of Ethnic communities.

Salesa told the Social Services and Community Select Committee this was the first time there had been this level of investment into the office, which sits within the Department of Internal Affairs, under the deputy chief executive responsible for policy, regulation and communities, and run by a director of the Office of Ethnic Communities.

But following the committee hearing, Salesa admitted she asked for increased funding in Budget 2018, based on concerns consistently raised by the community, and was unsuccessful.

This year's funding would lift the number of staff from 24 to 42 over the coming year. It would include 15 extra community-facing officers spread across the three main centres, and a further eight staff in Christchurch.

Ahead of the terrorist attack on March 15, which resulted in the deaths of 51 Muslim people, there were just two staff in the Christchurch office, who were responsible for the whole of the South Island.

The $9.4m over four years has been heralded by the Government as part of its promotion of “social cohesion, inclusiveness and diversity”.

“In the last nine years, the Office of Ethnic Communities has been limited in doing its role. We are changing that by giving the Office of Ethnic Communities the resources it needs to perform even better than before," Salesa said when announcing the funding last month.

“This boost in staffing resources will improve the Office of Ethnic Communities’ ability to proactively address issues affecting ethnic communities throughout New Zealand. It also protects the vital link between ethnic communities and the Government.”

Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa has embarked on a series of dialogues with Muslim communities - specifically women and youth - in the wake of March 15. She is also creating an ethnic communities ministerial advisory group. Photo: Supplied

However, a Budget estimates document, which included details of failed bids relating to the department, showed Salesa initially asked for $45.9m over the four years for this programme.

National’s ethnic communities spokesperson Melissa Lee said she welcomed extra staff for the office, as the number of people in New Zealand’s ethnic communities grew – from about 200,000 when the office was established, to about 800,000 in 2018.

However, there needed to be a clear strategy and vision to go with the taxpayer dollars used to fund this increased capacity.

"It’s lucky that she got the increase in funding, but does she have a vision or programme for the communities?”

Holding unfocused talks with community members, and continuing with business as usual would not be a good use of the extra funding and staff, she said.

In addition, Salesa asked for $16.5m (plus $1.25m in capital) for an initiative called Investing in Digital Safety to Combat Online Hosting and Sharing of Objectionable Material that Encourages Extremism.

This was aimed at supporting the Attorney General’s proposed work programme to address issues arising from the Christchurch terror attacks. This bid was unsuccessful.

In a separate proposal, Salesa asked the finance minister for $13.7m over four years to increase the ethnic representation in the state sector, by directing funds towards training, internships and scholarships.

New Zealand has about 400 state sector boards, and ethnic communities are significantly under-represented. And at December 2018, the ethnic diversity among state sector chief executives was 93.1 percent European, 17.2 percent Māori and 3.4 percent Pacific Peoples.

During the select committee hearing Salesa also said Cabinet had commited to increasing the representation of ethnic communities in the public sector.

However, the bid for $13.7m was also unsuccessful.

Why did it take a terror attack?

During the hearing Salesa spoke about her engagement with ethnic communities over the past year, including the inaugural safer communities ministerial forum, held in May 2018. It is understood the forum focused on dairy robberies and domestic violence.

Lee raised issues with the forum at the committee, saying no National Party representatives were included, and she was unsure whether all ethnic communities had been invited.

If the minister truly wanted to serve communities, it was important to include representatives from those communities across the political spectrum, she said.

As Salesa and the Prime Minister embarked on a series of community meetings with Muslim New Zealanders, and moved towards setting up an ethnic communities ministerial advisory group, Lee urged Salesa to also work with opposition parties.

Part of the funding in Budget 2019 would go towards a series of community dialogues, which kicked off in Wellington last week, before moving onto Dunedin. The focus was on Muslim youth and Muslim women. The series of talks would finish up in Christchurch.

“Because of what happened on March 15 that was successful right away – the $1.8m – and I’m pretty confident that the fact that I got then $9.4m that March 15th was an encouragement that we should definitely invest in this and ensure we address things moving forward.”

Salesa said she had consistently heard the same issues raised by the Muslim community during her time as minister.

“They don’t feel as though they are totally accepted by society.”

Those wearing the hijab feel particularly vulnerable, she said.

Newsroom asked why it had taken so long to get extra funding, and launch new initiatives to improve the safety and inclusion, given these issues had been consistently raised for a number of years.

This was when Salesa said she had attempted to get funding to address these issues in last year's budget, but was unsuccessful.

She admitted the terrorist attack was a driver in the office being given increased funding.

“Because of what happened on March 15 that was successful right away – the $1.8m – and I’m pretty confident that the fact that I got then $9.4m that March 15th was an encouragement that we should definitely invest in this and ensure we address things moving forward.”

Extra funding for mosque security

In addition to the $9.4m, $1.8m in new funding was secured following Christchurch as part of the immediate response.

This included a one-off $1m boost to the Ethnic Communities Development Fund.

“This initiative will do this by supporting our ethnic communities to develop and lead their own initiatives. An increase in grant funding will help programmes that promote leadership, culture and connectedness,” Salesa said when the boost to the fund was announced in May.

Office of Ethnic Communities director Anita Balakrishnan said almost all of the money had been allocated to a diverse range of projects.

One of the successful projects was a security assessment of some New Zealand mosques. The project had been allocated $220,000.

Balakrishnan said it met the requirements “in that it was what the community was feeling after the attacks, which is we want to feel a sense of safety”.

The office was supporting the organisations so they could go through a robust, transparent and credible process, she said, adding that this did not preclude any other organisations from putting in similar grant requests.

The project was separate to the recent installation of artificial intelligence cameras at Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque.

The cameras, made by US company Athena Security Services, are able to alert authorities within seconds once a threat is detected.

It is part of the Keep Mosques Safe initiative – run by Qatar-based Al-Ameri International Trading - which will pay for the cameras to be installed in mosques around the world.

The system costs US$100 ($152) a month per camera, and the footage can be recorded and viewed live and in high definition.

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