The role of race relations commissioner has remained empty for over a year, and members of New Zealand’s ethnic communities are desperate to have the position filled. Laura Walters reports.

The Government is in the final stages of appointing a race relations commissioner, after Susan Devoy left the role more than a year ago.

But there has been frustration in New Zealand’s multi-cultural communities that the role has remained empty for so long, especially following the March 15 terror attack in Christchurch, where 51 Muslims were killed.

Susan Devoy left her role in June last year, following a major shake-up at the Human Rights Commission.

For more than a year, the Human Rights Commission was marred with internal struggles, following the failed handling of a sexual harassment case.

Since the staff overhaul, triggered by the damning report from retired Judge Coral Shaw in May 2018, Paul Hunt has been appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paula Tesoriero is the Disability Rights Commissioner, and Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo is Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

But the role of race relations commissioner has remained empty, largely due to human rights lawyer Colin Henry suing the justice minister over the selection process.

The New Zealand Federation of Multicultural Councils national president Pancha Narayanan said not having a race relations commissioner in the wake of the March 15 massacre had taken a toll.

Narayanan said it took strong community leadership, by mostly volunteers, to achieve a message of peace and solidarity, when the affected communities could easily have resorted to rioting or protesting.

However, this incessant work had taken its toll on those forced into leadership, advocacy and liaison roles, in the absence of a professional figurehead like the race relations commissioner.

“I had no counselling, and I’m not sure I completely recovered from it.”

Narayanan said as a volunteer he did not expect to be so involved in the response to the attacks, and the heavy load of meetings and emotional stories that went along with it.

While he had extensive community experience, he was not a professional.

“I had no counselling, and I’m not sure I completely recovered from it.”

Others have expressed similar sentiments, saying they were heavily relied on to represent and support their communities in the absence of officials and professional leaders.

They said it was emotionally exhausting, and their abilities to get acknowledgement and action from the top levels of government was limited.

Reading the pulse in New Zealand’s multi-cultural communities, Narayanan said he expected there to be a backlash against government, in the coming months.

The way departments had interacted and responded to communities’ concerns before March 15 has been an issue of frustration and contention, and while there was a Royal Commission, many were still feeling unheard and disengaged.

It was crucial to get the right person into the race relations role, as soon as possible, he said.

The race relations commissioner would be able to bring networks together, and act as a voice for communities at the top level.

Narayanan said it was impossible to know whether having a commissioner in the role earlier would have altered the events of March 15. But their presence would have made the country more aware of the tensions and problems of discrimination and racism.

In the fallout from the attack, it was important to have someone to constructively guide conversations, he said.

“At the moment, what we are having is an absence of a moderating effect.”

In a post-March 15 environment, and a debate over free speech and hate speech, it was important to have the right person leading the conversation, in order to help find solutions for the next generation, Narayanan said.

“I do think there is a real gap, and getting the right person is crucial.”

Meanwhile, the African Communities Forum has also raised concerns about the length of time it has taken to appoint a 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. The forum subsequently wrote to Justice Minister Andrew Little on April 20.

In the letter, seen by Newsroom, 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 listed high-profile incidents of racist and xenophobic behaviour that had taken place since Devoy stepped down.

The list included the deaths of 51 Muslims who were gunned down in the March 15 terror attack, but it also included the visit from far-right-wing Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneaux, racist speeches given by Don Brash, calls from ACT and New Zealand First to make migrants take a test on ‘Kiwi values’, the UN Migrant Compact protest rally, and a backlash over calls to include the voices of people of colour in the Pride Parade Board.

These incidents showed the role of the race relations commissioner was vital, the letter said.

“This gap is felt every day by thousands of people.”

The forum said ethnic communities were losing faith in the Ministry of Justice, and questioned Little’s reputation.

Dame Susan Devoy was well-respected and a fierce advocate but the African community says now is the time for a person of colour, with lived experience. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

A forum spokesperson said March 15 had highlighted there was always a level of racism and xenophobia in New Zealand that had gone unpunished.

The care and compassion immediately following March 15 had somewhat dissipated, and the political conversations relating to the issue were because it was the topic of the hour.

“For us it’s the issue of our whole life,” she said.

A race relations commissioner was the person who could keep these issues on the agenda, and advocate for multicultural communities at the top levels.

They were also the person who should be working with the Government on the current review of hate speech law, the spokesperson said.

Now was the time to appoint a person of colour, with lived experience, and passion, who would advocate strongly for new Zealand’s multi-cultural communities, she said.

“It would be very short-sighted and very myopic to have anyone else.”

On Friday, a spokesperson for Little said a preferred candidate had been identified and the minister would make an announcement in the next few weeks.

Newsroom understands the Ministry of Justice is in the process of working through the paperwork with the new commissioner.

The spokesperson for Little said the delay in the process was “regrettable’ but did not elaborate further.

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