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Islamic Women's Council's battle for government attention

Emails reveal Islamic Women's Council's battle for government attention

Emma Hatton, Journalist

Emails released between the Office of Ethnic Communities (OEC) and the Islamic Women's Council (IWCNZ) show the frustration the council faced in getting the Office to take their concerns about violence against Muslims seriously.

Days after the Christchurch mosque attacks IWCNZ member Anjum Rahman penned an opinion piece for RNZ describing her heartbreak at what had happened, but also her anger that the government had been warned about violence against Muslims years ago and had failed to take any meaningful action.

Correspondence released under the OIA for the past two years prior to 15 March, 2019 proves the council wanted to implement a national strategy, had ideas for training teachers to be more culturally responsive to minority groups and explicitly warned 10 government departments of their fear of the alt-right, stressing urgent action was necessary.

The OEC is responsible for ensuring ethnic communities are included, understood and connected in New Zealand. They operate within the Department of Internal Affairs.

A meeting IWCNZ presented at, convened by the State Service Commission (SSC) and the Human Rights Commission (HRC), on 23 March, 2017 was attended by a raft of government management-level people, but no-one from OEC went along.

The then-head of OEC, Maarten Quivooy, was sent a scathing email the next day by the-then Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, criticising him for the no-show and for apparently telling another OEC staffer Tayyaba Khan that she was not welcome to go either.

Former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.
Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"Tayyaba contacted both [IWCNZ] women attending the meeting via text message on the evening before. Her message stated that she was uninvited because IWCNZ didn't want her there. This was obviously delivered from yourself. This was entirely inappropriate and was the cause of real concern," the email read.

"You need to understand Maarten that these communities are very grateful for the support they receive from government agencies... This is a classic example of the master servant relationship that exists between government and community. Not once did I hear any official thank them for their work and effort dealing with the issues at the coal face.

"Your office and Tayyaba need to apologise... Community engagement begins firstly with trust and respect."

In an email sent by an IWCNZ member it is stated there was never an indication by IWCNZ that Ms Khan should not go to the meeting.

The concerns presented at the 23 March, 2017 meeting do not come to light in OEC discussions until February 2019, in an internal memo.

They included; low level of employment - particularly for well-educated Muslims, negative portrayal of Muslims in the media, lack of funding, lack of robust data to inform policy and harassment and bullying of Muslim children at schools.

In February 2018, IWCNZ told OEC it had worked on the issue of bullying at schools and had some ideas around training teachers to be more culturally responsive.

Despite an indication from OEC at the time that they were keen to follow this up, the department said in a recent statement that it did work with the Ministry of Education but there was no reference to the council's specific concerns or training ideas.

A series of emails in August that year also confirm IWCNZ told OEC the issue of the alt-right should be an "immediate priority" saying they had already raised this in the March meeting and with Chris Finlayson, who was head of the spy agencies at the time.

Mr Finlayson has since told Insight he recalled the meeting with IWCNZ but not the talk about the risk of alt-right.

- Listen to the Insight documentary here duration 27:44
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In the same email, the IWCNZ bluntly tells OEC manager Marilyn Little that not enough was being done.

"We have engaged with the government in good faith over a period of time, stressing the urgency of the issues and the need for support, but to date have seen no results and, as we have said, engagement seems to have been quite one sided, with polite nods by Government and its agencies but no actual action or support as requested," the email read.

Two months later, IWCNZ had to supply OEC with a list of those who attended the March 2017 meeting - despite OEC claiming in the February 2019 memo that since that meeting a "cross-government work programme" had been underway.

"I'm a bit surprised that you don't have the list of people who attended the meeting last year. Given follow up etc., I would have assumed you'd all been in contact to ensure programmes were not being duplicated," an IWCNZ member said.

OEC declined an interview but its director Anita Balakrishnan said in a statement the group in charge of the work programme met regularly from March 2017 to October 2017, and identified existing initiatives underway across government departments broadly to do with "social cohesion", as well as identifying new ways to address the issues raised at the March 2017 meeting.

However, no specific policies came out of this programme.

Ms Balakrishnan said it had faced stretched resources and competing demands in recent years.

In the 2016/2017 financial year OEC was restructured. Twenty-two full time positions were disestablished, 21 re-established and seven staff made redundant.

The following year 10 people resigned.

This timespan was also marred by having a number of directors, many seconded or only in the job less than a year. The current director took over in December 2018.

Despite the apparent dysfunction in recent years, the OEC was never on the radar of the SSC or DIA management.

Documents requested from both these departments show in the last three years no assessment audits or reports were generated in relation to the ability of the OEC to perform its core duties.

Ms Balakrishnan said the Office was in a different place now and was making "tangible improvements" in how it served ethnic communities.

She said the issued faced by the Muslim communities were complex and not able to be addressed by a single agency.

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