As a Royal Commission report looms, the Muslim community worries about a Cabinet reshuffle, including one big change. David Williams reports

A much-delayed Royal Commission report into the Christchurch terror attack will now be considered by some inexperienced ministers, sparking concerns within the Muslim community.

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a Royal Commission within 10 days of last year’s March 15 attack, Stuart Nash was Police Minister, Andrew Little held the Justice portfolio, and Jenny Salesa was in charge of Ethnic Communities.

After yesterday’s post-election Cabinet shake-up, Poto Williams has been handed Police, Kris Faafoi has Justice and Immigration, and Jan Tinetti is Internal Affairs Minister. (Ardern remains Minister for National Security and Intelligence, while Little retains his Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau portfolios.)

The biggest shock for the Muslim community, it seems, is Ethnic Communities, going to Priyanca Radahkrishnan, which has been broadened to include “Diversity and Inclusion” but will now sit outside Cabinet.

The Office of Ethnic Communities, which sits within the Department of Internal Affairs, had a huge budget injection In the wake of the terror attack, taking on extra staff in Christchurch to help the local Muslim community with its recovery and grief. Some 18 months later, it appears to be greatly diminished.

Anjum Rahman, of the Islamic Women’s Council, says it’s important to have a minister pushing for changes at the Cabinet table. Without that, Ethnic Communities will be weaker. “It also does send a signal, in terms of where you see the seniority of that whole portfolio.”

New ministers will have to be up to speed when the Royal Commission report lands later this month, says Rahman, who lives in Hamilton.

“The issues that will come through with this report are going to be crucial, and the recommendations of that Commission need to be taken extremely seriously and implemented.”

Federation of Islamic Association president Ibrar Sheikh, of Auckland, says his group has been advocating for several years for Ethnic Communities to become its own, separate ministry – “but now it’s gone this way”. Another concern is its good relationship with the previous minister, Jenny Salesa.

That’s not to say new ministers can’t do the job, Sheikh says. “We’ll have to engage with them and see how they react to the outcome of the Royal Commission.”

Ardern’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Christchurch Cabinet Minister Megan Woods sends a reassuring message. She says regardless of who the responsible ministers are, the Royal Commission report will be a priority. “It’s the very reason why we commissioned a Royal Commission into the attacks”.

The same ministers intimately involved in the Government response to the terror attack will be sitting around the Cabinet table, Woods says.

“The Prime Minister, who was intimately involved with those communities at the time of the attacks, and was part of the impetus for commissioning the report, will be one of the people considering the report, as will I, as will a number of colleagues.”

“The whole country deserves to know what was in there and what the failings were.” – Anjum Rahman

In March last year, a gunman stormed two Christchurch mosques, killing 51 people and injuring almost as many. In August, the Australian terrorist, who eventually pleaded guilty to 92 charges, was sentenced to life without parole.

The Royal Commission was tasked with considering the gunman’s activities leading up to the attack, and whether state agencies, including intelligence agencies, could have done more to prevent it.

Originally, the Commission was to report back last December. It has been delayed several times, including by the Covid-19 pandemic. Its final report is now expected to be presented to the Government on November 26.

They delays have frustrated Rahman. “Some of these issues are crucial and urgent, and the quicker that they could have reported the better.”

The Islamic Women’s Council spent more than five years trying to get its concerns about increasing harassment, discrimination and threats, taken seriously. The council raised the prospect of the potential loss of life, and the threat from the alt right, at a heads of government meeting in 2017.

In July, the Council made public its submission to the Royal Commission. In it, it accused the public service of repeated major failures. If those agencies – particularly the police and security services – had done their job, the attack might not have happened, the council said.

Rahman points to police gun licensing, Customs checks into the countries visited by the gunman, his online activity, including on social media, as areas that should have caused concern. Every watchdog failed to pick him up, she says.

Agencies and ministers ignored warnings from the council, its submission said. Its recommendations include: establishing a new independent ethics board to oversee what’s known as countering violent extremism, or CVE; devolving funding to communities; and making the public service more service oriented.

“I hope that there are some really concrete and solid recommendations [from the Royal Commission] over a wide range of areas, that the Government just cannot afford to ignore – this is about everybody’s safety,” Rahman says.

In August, during the terrorist’s sentencing hearing, Rahman watched the police summary of facts via video link.

She felt it was light on detail about the terrorist’s activities leading up to the attack. “I’m hoping that the Royal Commission will give us a true and accurate picture of what was and wasn’t happening in Government and what the failings were.”

Rahman hopes the whole Royal Commission report is made public, and the Government isn’t allowed to hide behind national security concerns. “The whole country deserves to know what was in there and what the failings were and what needs to be done differently. I don’t see that there’s any justification for withholding any of the report.”

Her message for the Prime Minister? Responding to the Royal Commission needs to be a priority – and can’t be lost in the Christmas rush. “I know that there are so many issues going on with the world, but this issue needs to be a priority. If she gets this stuff right here, in terms of those recommendations, it will actually benefit the whole of New Zealand.”

Is Ardern’s reshuffled Cabinet up to it? Rahman’s giving it the the benefit of the doubt, for now.

“It could be with fresh blood there’s fresh motivation, there’s a willingness to make changes that wasn’t there previously. I hope that that is the case, and I want to leave open the possibility for that to be the case. But, absolutely, we need to start seeing some action.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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