The Government has been asking the public for feedback on how to better protect minority communities and build social cohesion – but its own consultation processes have not been as inclusive or authentic as needed

The ministerial advisory group overseeing the Government’s response to the Christchurch terror attack says a rushed and limited consultation process for proposed policy changes did not represent authentic engagement.

In late June, the Government launched parallel consultation processes on a proposal to strengthen hate speech laws through incitement provisions, and a work programme to build social cohesion in New Zealand – the former overseen by the Ministry of Justice, and the latter by the Ministry of Social Development. Both pieces of work come on the heels of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attack.

In a July 30 letter to Andrew Little, the minister responsible for coordinating the Government’s response to the Royal Commission report, Kāpuia ministerial advisory group chairwoman Arihia Bennett said the group’s “firm view … is that the Government’s current consultations on social cohesion and incitement are not operating effectively”.

The group felt the timeframes for the consultations were too short given the extensive interest of numerous community groups and the wider public, while relatively few organisations had been “effectively engaged or even invited to participate”.

Community meetings were only held in four major city centres, with Christchurch the only South Island location, and not in locations where people naturally gathered such as mosques or temples, universities and council buildings.

“Many of the consultation meetings are being held at times when people who are working or studying are not able to attend (for example, many meetings have been held 10am-1pm on weekdays). Kāpuia does not consider this represents authentic consultation,” Bennett said.

The consultation material, especially the incitement material, was difficult to understand and should have been translated more widely into other languages, while the use of more non-written material such as animated videos should also have been considered.

“Government departments need to be quite considerate of those processes, very similar to when we work with iwi Māori looking at protocols and practices … I was quite surprised at the really narrow focus that had been taken by the ministries.”

Kāpuia recommended the consultation processes for both incitement and social cohesion be extended by at least a month from their August 6 closing date, while the Government addressed its concerns.

However, while the Ministry of Social Development did extend the closing date for submissions on its social cohesion work to September 10, the Ministry of Justice did not do the same for its incitement work programme.

Bennett told Newsroom the group was extremely disappointed by the government consultation processes, which seemed to overlook “what I would consider are really quite important principles of engagement”.

“Government departments need to be quite considerate of those processes, very similar to when we work with iwi Māori looking at protocols and practices … I was quite surprised at the really narrow focus that had been taken by the ministries.”

Bennett was confident the Government was taking Kāpuia’s feedback on board, describing Little as “a full participant” in the group’s work, and said the group would continue to keep a close eye on its wider Royal Commission work programme.

“As an advisory group, we need to engender change … and the only way to do that is to work with – not around over the top or underneath – it’s to work alongside those government agencies…

“There’s no point clobbering everybody: the point should be, you’ve got a collective of fabulous independent voices, reflecting the wider community, let’s together use those voices to bring about some positive change within those government departments.”

Andrew Little says a ministerial advisory group’s criticism of consultation processes has served as “a wake-up call”. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Little told Newsroom the group’s feedback was a sign it was already working well, and he had already shared its concerns with a number of ministers.

“In Cabinet, when these significant policy initiatives are approved for consultation – and hate speech was one of them – we give a period of time, we expect a consultation process that is going to get the best feedback is put in place, [and] that clearly hasn’t happened.”

Little said Kāpuia would play a vital role in ensuring those community concerns were heard and addressed, with the Royal Commission recommending the group’s creation precisely because “government had become way too clumsy in engaging with those communities.”

“The New Zealand population has changed in the last 30 years, a lot of government processes really haven’t adapted to reflect the change in our population makeup.

“We’ve had the Office of Ethnic Communities, now we’ve got the Ministry of Ethnic Communities, but it has been asked to do a really tough job with minimal resources, when actually what is needed is for government departments to adjust and adapt the way they engage with communities across the board.

“So it was a wake-up call and timely, and important that we respond effectively.”

Little would report back to Cabinet on the wider work programme later this year, but said he was pleased with the Government’s response so far to the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

Ministries respond

Kathy Brightwell, the Ministry of Justice’s general manager for civil and constitutional policy, said the six-week consultation process had led to over 20,000 submissions, and was a standard timeframe for a consultation at this stage of the policy development process.

Brightwell said the ministry had carried out “targeted engagement” with the Human Rights Commission at the start of the consultation process, focusing on groups likely to experience hateful communication, while the Royal Commission had also undertaken “a significant engagement process” before reaching its conclusions.

Hui and focus groups had been held during the day and in the evenings, with timings adjusted in response to community feedback, and online submissions rather than face-to-face engagement were the primary consultation mechanism.

Brightwell said the ministry recognised the hate speech proposals were “complex and technical in nature and may have been difficult to engage with”, and it had translated its discussion document into 17 languages and five accessible formats to assist.

Ministry of Social Development policy general manager Molly Elliott said the ministry agreed with the feedback from Kāpuia and other organisations, and had extended its consultation period by four weeks to give communities more time to share their views.

Following the recent Covid-19 lockdown, it was further extending the duration of an online survey on social cohesion until the end of October, and had translated the survey into more languages.

“We are planning our future engagement processes taking into account the concerns and advice of Kāpuia,” Elliott said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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