21 Mar 2019

Christchurch terror attacks highlight need for a new race relations commissioner

7:01 pm on 21 March 2019

The Christchurch terror attacks highlight the pressing need for a new race relations commissioner to be appointed as soon as possible, some ethnic communities say.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy

Former race relations' commissioner Dame Susan Devoy. Photo: Supplied

Today is Race Relations Day, but there is no race relations' commissioner to articulate its theme of Our People, our cultures, our languages.

There has not been a permanent one for the last nine months since Dame Susan Devoy stepped down.

African Communities' Forum (ACOFI) president Chinwe Akomah said the delay was frustrating, as it meant ethnic views and concerns, especially about racism, were not being heard by the government at the highest levels.

"So many really disgusting racially-charged events have happened since June and now...the final nail in the coffin is this awful atrocity in Christchurch. There seems to be nobody at that government level who is speaking on our behalf.

"It shows us that we do not matter," Ms Akomah said.

Former commissioner Dame Susan Devoy stepped down in June amid a shake-up at the Human Rights Commission, after a highly-critical report found sexual harassment at the agency.

The job was advertised in June but the process was put on hold following a legal challenge by an unsuccessful candidate. The position was re-advertised earlier this month.

An online petition calling for a new commissioner by May has collected just under 500 signatures.

In the meantime, there was no one to challenge the racism that migrants and minority groups faced on a regular basis, Ms Akomah said.

"Things like being called the n-word, having your hijab pulled out, being overlooked for jobs..." she said.

Union Network of Migrants coordinator, Mandeep Bela, said many migrants were scared or had been the victims of racism themselves since the Christchurch attacks.

There were various Facebook groups promoting hatred and migrant bashing still in operation and had become more aggressive since Friday's shootings, he said.

"I've reported one page - Immigrants Greed and Corruption NZ - as every single post on that page is against immigrants."

One migrant contacted him last night after someone she did not know posted on her Facebook page telling her to "go back to India," Mr Bela said.

"A lot of migrants right now are feeling very unsafe."

He had also been the subject of racism recently when a neighbour told him to "go back to his own country," following a dispute about a fence between their properties.

"I'm a New Zealand citizen. I told him I had as much right to be here as him," Mr Bela said.

He said these incidents highlighted the pressing need for more progress on race relations and the appointment of a permanent commissioner.

Healing process needed

Ethnic and race relations' expert Professor Paul Spoonley, pro vice-chancellor of Massey University, who helped to set up the Human Rights Commission, agreed.

The delay in appointing a new commissioner meant communities' concerns weren't being heard, he said.

"We also need people who can contribute to the healing process that now needs to take place, and I would have thought a commissioner is absolutely essential in that environment."

The Human Rights Commission said its chief commissioner Paul Hunt was acting in the role until an appointment was made by Minister of Justice Andrew Little.

The justice minister said a preferred candidate for the race relations commissioner role withdrew their application in mid-November 2018 and it was decided to wait until the New Year to advertise again.

In November, the High Court dismissed the unsuccessful applicant's claim for an interim injunction, but he had progressed with a substantive claim, which was due to be heard later this month, Mr Little said.

The role was re-advertised again on 2 March, 2019, and the closing date has been extended to Monday, 25 March, 2019, due to the circumstances in Christchurch.