Labour has abandoned its plans to upgrade the Office of Ethnic Communities into a ministry. Laura Walters reports.

The Government will not upgrade the Office of Ethnic Communities to a ministry, despite a pre-election promise from Labour, and the national focus on issues facing ethnic communities following the terrorism attack in March.

Community advocates and organisations are disappointed at the decision, as they believed a dedicated ministry would add clout and visibility to the challenges and opportunities faced by ethnic communities.

Labour’s 2017 election manifesto included a commitment to upgrade the Office of Ethnic Communities – previously the Office of Ethnic Affairs – to the Ministry of Ethnic Communities.

However, this was not included in the coalition agreement, confidence and supply agreement or speech from the throne.

Last year, Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa considered the upgrade, but the Government decided not to go ahead with the plan.

“While it is something the Government may consider in the future, my immediate focus following the March 15 Terrorism Attack has been to improve the capability and capacity of the Office of Ethnic Communities to ensure it can better address the needs of New Zealand’s ethnically diverse and multi-faith communities,” Salesa said in a statement.

Currently the office is a ‘third-tier report’ within the Department of Internal Affairs, where the director of ethnic communities reports to the deputy chief executive of policy, regulation and communities, who reports to the chief executive, who then reports to the minister.

Community groups have long advocated for the establishment of a ministry, in recognition of the growing number of Kiwis from diverse, multi-cultural backgrounds, and the challenges and opportunities that has created. They believe the office lacks relevance and credibility in its current structure.

When the office was created, about 200,000 people belonged to New Zealand’s minority communities. This number rose to about 800,000 in 2018.

The largest growing groups are from Asia, with Asian community members numbering just 48,000 people 30 years ago, and growing almost tenfold to 472,000 by 2013. That population is projected to reach more than 1.2 million in another 20 years.

The 2013 Census also recorded a combined Asian and MELAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American and African) population of 519,000 people, representing 13 percent of the total population. The rapid growth in those populations has also had an impact on the size of New Zealand’s religious minority groups, particularly Islam and Hinduism.

With this massive growth comes hyper-diverse communities, like Auckland. And it has brought significant economic opportunities in terms of trade, travel and the international education market.

But there are also challenges, such as a lack of inclusion, and racism and xenophobia. Complex issues such as terrorism and China’s rise in the region are also brought to the fore.

Meanwhile, social issues like family violence and elder abuse also have significant impacts on ethnic communities.

“Otherwise all these resources that have been put in now – all this investment – there’s no point if it’s not able to report directly to the minister.”

Multicultural New Zealand’s briefing to Jenny Salesa as an incoming minister laid out five key challenges: a lack of sustainable investment in socio-cultural infrastructure; the lack of a Treaty-based multicultural New Zealand framework; structural discrimination; exploitation of temporary migrant workers; and a lack of support for migrants and international students.

The organisation advocated for the establishment of a ministry in order to ensure there were adequate resources, adequate grassroots community connection, adequate staffing capability, and direct communication with the minister.

Multicultural New Zealand chief executive Tayo Agunlejika said following the March 15 attack, where 51 Muslims lost their lives, the Government recognised the need for further funding and resources, and the importance of community engagement. But without a ministry, and the ability to report directly to the minister, there was no guarantee those resources would be effectively distributed and put to use.

“Otherwise all these resources that have been put in now – all this investment – there’s no point if it’s not able to report directly to the minister.”

Budget 2019 included $9.4 million over four years to respond to the impacts of the terrorist attack, and increase staffing and capability at the office.

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

A further $1.8m was made available immediately following the Christchurch attack, including $1m for ethnic community groups to access through the Ethnic Communities Development Fund.

“Now we think they are on the right path. It is just a shame, and disappointing that we have to lose 51 lives to appreciate the importance of the office connecting to the community.”

Agunlejika said come 2020, his organisation would work with the Government of the day to continue to advocate for a standalone ministry.

“Now we think they are on the right path. It is just a shame, and disappointing that we have to lose 51 lives to appreciate the importance of the office connecting to the community.”

Others who worked in the ethnic communities space in both professional and volunteer roles held similar sentiments about the office.

When it was first established as the Office of Ethnic Affairs under Helen Clark’s Labour Government, the director reported to the chief executive of DIA, but that status and ability to relay priorities straight from the community to the top of the food chain was lost during restructuring.

The low status of the office, along with other internal leadership and culture issues, showed the office was not meaningful to the Government, Agunlejika said.

In its current form, it was “tokenistic”.

Former Office of Ethnic Communities community engagement manager, and Khadija Leadership Network founder, Tayyaba Khan echoed Agunlejika’s sentiment that the office’s current structure and issues meant extra funding would essentially be going into a hole.

There needed to be a clear direction for the office, in order to get the best return on the public money.

“There’s no point in increasing staffing, when it’s what the staff is doing is critical,” she said.

Muslim leader Tayyaba Khan (left) says without direction and the correct structure, any public money going into the Office of Ethnic Communities will be essentially going into a hole. Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images

“It’s so important when we’re putting public service money into something, if it’s not doing for us what it should do, then it’s so important we talk about it.”

Labour’s community portion of its 2017 manifesto also included the restoration of adult community education to support language learning, making broadcast content more diverse, and ensuring the mandatory collection of data regarding offences that may have been based on prejudice or intolerance.

“Labour will ensure that our rich cultural fabric is given voice, and that our proud tradition of respect and tolerance continues to be a hallmark of life in New Zealand,” it says.

News the Government has decided not to proceed with a Ministry for Ethnic Communities comes as the country grapples with the fallout from the March 15 attack on Muslims, and the Royal Commission of Inquiry gets underway.

Since July 1, the commission has met with a range of Muslim community leaders and groups, as well as academics, security experts, and senior public servants.

The commission is still in the process of appointing its Muslim Community Reference group.

* Tomorrow Newsroom will report on the internal disarray at the Office of Ethnic Communities, including allegations of bullying and racism, a lack of consistent leadership, and its impact on ethnic communities.

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