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Dunne Speaks: Rising Hate Speech and Ethnic Slurs

Dunne Speaks: Rising Hate Speech and Ethnic Slurs

The unfortunate chapter of errors surrounding New Zealand’s non-attendance at the recent 5th World Holocaust Forum ranges from the bizarre and unbelievable, through to the downright sinister. The only constant is that as the various explanations have been put forward, our Minister of Foreign Affairs has been at his slippery best in defending them. But, at the end of the day, however, it has not been a good look for either our diplomacy, or international commitment to respect for diversity and racial tolerance, no matter what explanation is offered.

The 5th World Holocaust Forum was convened in Jerusalem by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation under the auspices of the President of Israel, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Nazi occupied Poland. It took place against a backdrop of rising racial intolerance and xenophobia-inspired terrorism in Europe in particular, where anti-Semitism is on the rise.

More than 50 Heads of State from around the world attended the commemorations. Among them were the Governors-General of Australia and Canada. Yet one of the first excuses offered by our Foreign Minister was that that the organisers had a "mistaken impression" of New Zealand's constitution, so sending the Governor-General to represent us was never an option. However, the same "mistaken impression" applied to both Canada and Australia but had not put their governments off from sending their respective Governors-General to represent them.

When that excuse fell flat, the Foreign Minister’s next line was to say that New Zealand had offered to send the Speaker of the House of Representatives to represent this country, but that offer had been rejected because the organisers said they could not guarantee security for him. Well, if sending the Governor-General could not be justified because of a "mistaken impression" of her constitutional position, how on earth could that have been rectified by sending someone further down the line of precedence in her place? That was simply a nonsense argument.

By this point, the Foreign Minister was looking more like an international bumbler than even many of his detractors had dared to imagine. What was to follow shifted the argument from Ministerial incompetence and bungling to something far more sinister. The Minister’s third excuse for New Zealand’s non-attendance was that even though the invitation had been received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in September last year, it had not been passed on to him to consider until earlier this month, leaving little time for it to be properly considered.

That is a very serious charge to make. If it is true, it raises important questions about the relationship between the Minister and his Ministry. Why did the Ministry keep this matter from the Minister for some months, and what other important foreign policy issues have been or are being similarly kept from the Minister? What are the Ministry’s reasons for doing so? Is it that distrusting of its Minister, and has their working relationship become that dysfunctional? Do the diplomats, who can be very over-bearing and “we know best” on foreign policy issues at the best of times, have so little confidence in their Minister, as to not only bypass him on an important international issue, but also embarrass him in the process? Or is this latest line just one more in the series of fabrications to justify non-participation in this significant international event?

However, whatever the reality, it pales behind the Leader of the Opposition’s reported response. National had been making good ground raising questions about New Zealand’s absence from the Forum before its leader tried to link it to the current anti-Semitism controversy dogging the British Labour Party. "I hope none of that is part of the Labour Party's calculus - that has no place in New Zealand society," he told Magic Talk Radio, in reality strongly implying the very opposite to what he was saying. The linkage was as irrelevant as it was cheap and despicable. It was also utterly unbecoming of his office.

Moreover, the timing was appalling, coming shortly after a report the incidence of hate speech in New Zealand has been rising since last year’s March 15 Mosque shootings. Just as we had never really imagined that a major terrorist attack could take place on our shores, until it happened, we have also never really considered ourselves racially intolerant like other countries, but international trends seem to be being replicated here. The pixie dust of tolerance that was sprinkled on the country after the Christchurch tragedy has now well and truly evaporated, leaving new, hard questions to be confronted and resolved. Our challenge now is to do so.

Attendance at the World Holocaust Forum would have sent a signal that New Zealand is concerned and is not just all talk about combatting racism and intolerance but does take these issues seriously. Instead, our response has left us looking pretty half-hearted and ambivalent.

All these events were a time for the Leader of the Opposition to seize the vacant moral high ground; to assert strongly New Zealand’s commitment to supporting diversity and upholding tolerance; and, to lead the charge in supporting moves to eliminate racially inspired hate speech in our society.

It is to his shame that he instead chose to respond to one slur, with a slur of his own. As a country, we deserve so much better.

ends

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