11 Jul 2019

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon 'must address colonial racism'

7:42 pm on 11 July 2019

The new Race Relations Commissioner needs to stop being a politician and start fighting the battle against racial abuse and discrimination, minority advocates say.

Gisborne District mayor Meng Foon

Meng Foon spent 18 years as mayor of Gisborne. Photo: New Zealand Government

Retiring Gisborne mayor Meng Foon has been announced as the next Race Relations Commissioner, taking over from Dame Susan Devoy who stepped down more than a year ago.

The Human Rights Commission works to encourage equal employment opportunities and resolve complaints about discrimination and related issues.

Meng Foon spent 18 years as mayor of Gisborne. He speaks Cantonese and Te Reo Māori fluently, and Justice Minister Andrew Little said Mr Foon had an outstanding record as a relationship builder.

But while his appointment has been welcomed by many, his interview on Morning Report this morning prompted some to raise questions about his approach to the new role.

Mr Foon was asked what his priorities would be in the new job, specifically after the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Mr Foon replied that there were important issues facing New Zealand including poverty, education, unaffordable housing, resolving Treaty of Waitangi issues, and the state care abuse inquiry.

"There's a whole range of multi-faceted issues out there and solutions that actually need to be implemented, and so race relations is just part of that," he told Morning Report.

Religious Communities Leadership Forum convenor Joan Buchanan said it was what Mr Foon did not say in that interview that raised concerns.

"We have a growing epidemic that is ubiquitous, that's pervasive, that is endemic in both government and the public - and it's called Islamaphobia.

"He needs to keep square on that ball."

She said the mosque attacks were a tragic illustration of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, and Mr Foon needed to keep the issue front and centre as he began his new role.

Mr Foon's record on racial issues during his time as Gisborne mayor has also come under scrutiny.

Last year a Gisborne City Councillor was accused by another councillor of making racist comments - something the man strongly refutes.

Action Station director Laura O'Connell Rapira said Mr Foon's public response to that controversy was inadequate.

About half of those living in Gisborne identify as Māori.

Ms O'Connell Rapira said she hoped Mr Foon would stand with Māori politically, and not just culturally.

"Meaning that he may feel comfortable on a marae, he may be able to speak reo Māori, which is really wonderful, but will he also advocate for Māori sovereignty to be realised.

"That's the part I think that remains to be seen."

She said it's important for people in positions of power speak up.

"Unless we have someone in the position of Race Relations Commissioner who's also going to address enduring colonial racism, then what we have is someone who's doing stuff that makes us ... feel good but it's not necessarily actually shifting where the power lies."

The role of commissioner has been vacant for a year after an unsuccessful applicant, Colin Henry, sought an injunction and then a judicial review of the appointment process - which was dismissed in May.

African Communities Forum Incorporated president Chinwe Akomah said she was happy someone has finally been appointed - and that it has gone to a person of colour who can speak to the issues minorities face in this country.

But she said Mr Foon's comments this morning did give her pause.

"When he [talked] about race relations 'just being a part of the job' that's not accurate - race relations is the job."

Islamic Woman's Council acting national co-ordinator Anjum Rahman said Mr Foon brings strong skills and experience to the role.

She said it was important that he took the time to learn about the issues facing Muslims, getting out and speaking to people in the community then using it as the basis of his work.

Mr Foon has been contact for comment.

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