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On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon

Members of the Christchurch Muslim community have been calling for inclusiveness.

The person in charge of promoting that is Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon.

After the Christchurch terror attack Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said ‘this is not New Zealand’.

Simon Shepherd began by asking Meng Foon if, a year on from the attack, we can still believe the Prime Minister’s statement.

Meng Foon: This is not New Zealand, and she is right in terms of values and principles. Very important that it does happen in New Zealand, though, unfortunately. It can happen anywhere, and so we have a strong focus in ensuring that harmonious communities are advocated and enhanced throughout our nation.

Simon Shepherd: Because the phrase ‘this is not New Zealand’, is it just a way of showing that we don’t really want to acknowledge this is New Zealand; this actually is New Zealand now.

Well, this is New Zealand, but this is not the New Zealand that we want. It’s a peaceful, harmonious community that we’d like to actually aim for, and however, these terrible things do happen in our country.

We did see an immense outpouring of compassion after March 15. At the same time, has your office seen, like, a spike in racist behaviour or racist complaints in the last year?

It’s been consistent. I’m going to say it’s been consistent from hate crime reports and also through our info line, and it has been consistent.

So when you say consistent, you mean post-March 15 and pre-March 15, is that what you’re talking about?

Yeah, yeah, there’s around about 5,000 complaints regarding racial discrimination, and there’s a few hundred in Islamophobia, and so it’s been fairly consistent.

Okay, so they haven’t risen. In terms of other areas of racial complaints, we’re talking about several hundred for Islamophobia. What is the most common form of racial complaint?

The most common form, really, is street and workplace discrimination, and so it’s very important that we’re actually asking the police and the government to actually—for the government to actually make separate legislation for hate crime and also for the police to collect data on hate crime and hate speech so we actually know where we are and where to apply the resources.

Yeah, so—that’s right. So without those kinds of data—without that kind of data collection, we don’t have an idea of how prevalent racism, say Islamophobia or whatever form it takes, is in the community.

We do have an indication through the Human Rights Commission, so there’s disabilities and racial discrimination are the highest of all the categories in the Human Rights Commission.

At the moment, those racially motivated attacks are not recorded as common—are recorded as common assault, but there’s no, as you say, specific categories. Are you saying there should be? How have other countries managed to do this and we don’t?

Well, I’ve done some research, and 12 OECD countries – Germany, Australia – they do have hate crime legislations separate from adding it on to another crime, and so that’s very important for the government to actually legislate and follow the lead of other countries, and maybe it’s because it’s gone under the radar, because this massacre—murder has not happened in New Zealand like it has on March 15, so it time for that.

Yeah, so if ever there’s a time, you’d say it’s now?

And same as the gun reforms. You know, automatic weapons, they’re all banned now.

Do you think there’s a sense of urgency to get on with this? If we’ve done the guns, but we haven’t done the hate crime. Is there a sense of urgency here?

Yeah. Well, the Minister of Justice is actually reviewing that at the present time, and I think they will be due a statement soon, but they also could be waiting for the Royal Commission on the March 15 massacre.

Okay, can I move onto something else? Shane Jones on this programme made comments about Indian students ruining our tertiary institutions. Now, you’ve called those racist, so what kind of effect do those comments like that have on the country, have on New Zealanders?

Well, it’s very demeaning, and by choosing a particular race is harmful, and, you know, other—in other times, it’s been Chinese; it’s been Pacific people; it’s been Muslim people. And so it’s very important that people in leadership actually show some good values and actually choose the issue of the day, rather than choosing the people, cos that’s being mean.

Okay, well, you talked about leaders showing the way. Are you disappointed that the Prime Minister has refused to call those remarks racist?

Well, that’s up to her what her interpretation is, but definitely from my office, it is a racist comment.

Do you think she should be tougher?

Yeah, I think she could be.

Right, so Shane Jones getting away with it again, and you’d like to see the Prime Minister actually step up to the mark?

Well, I don’t think he’s got away with it, because we’ve called it out, and other community leaders have called it out, and now he’s actually changed his tune a bit.

Right. So you think he’s backing away as a result of your influence.

Well, he’s moderating, and he’s actually dealing with the issue at the present time, and the issue is immigration, which is a big topic for our country.

And which we are going to see a lot more of in this election year. So, what are your concerns about that?

Well, one of the things that I’m going to do is actually write an open letter to the presidents and the leaders of all political parties when the election campaign starts and give them the opportunity to read that first and then publish it in the newspaper so that it is transparent of the values that my office expects from the politicians.

So, you're putting the politicians on notice that you want a clean election campaign.

Yeah. Clean. Not to deal with any racist issues or choosing LGBT or choosing disabilities as a vote gainer.


Definitely deal with the issue and definitely, I will call you out or call the people out, should they actually break those rules.

Well, what about one of the politicians – ACT leader David Seymour? He doesn’t want hate speech to be a criminal act. He’s fighting against that proposal, which is under review at the moment by, you say, the Justice Minister. What do you think of that?

Well, you’ve got to ask David, does he actually support hate speech that incites violence, hate speech that actually could cause people to commit suicide, hate speech that actually could cause harm to people? Twelve other countries have done this, and so, why don’t we actually try and project a safer country going into the future? We’re not saying stop freedom of speech. Freedom of speech, definitely. Deal with the issue. But not on hate speech when you’re going to say, ‘I am going to kill somebody,’ or incite violence.

Right. How effective can you be on tackling that without the social media giants playing a bigger role on, say, hate speech online?

Well, definitely, if that particular legislation comes to parliament, we will be making a strong submission, and we will be getting a coalition of people to actually make strong submissions on the piece of policy that’s coming through and support hate speech legislation. And also on the social media front, there has been a lot of conversations. Before, there was zero. And the Prime Minister has called the Call of Christchurch and ensured that the various channels are talking to themselves. And I was at a meeting yesterday with dotNZ, and they’re looking at what are the values that we want to portray in terms of social media and the use of the internet and their webpages.

Yeah, but do we have the power? We are just a small country down at the bottom of the Pacific. Do we have the power to curb this kind of influence that these massive countries have?

Look, other countries have been very strong, like Germany and the US. They actually can push the button, and there are massive fines. It’s not just tens of thousands. It’s actually millions of dollars of fines if they do not follow the laws of the country. And that’s very important that we must produce our own laws to our own values and be strong about that and make sure that they actually hold a big fine ticket.

Okay. Just finally, the Police Commissioner said on this programme in 2015 that there was an unconscious bias towards Maori in the police force. He says that they’re addressing that, but Maori reoffending rates, Maori prison population rates are still very high. What do you think about his statement that they’re addressing that? Would you agree?

Well, there’s two parts. One is internal, right? I've actually written to Commissioner Bush and actually asked him what is his plan. What is his plan for addressing racism, discrimination in the police force? But I’ve also asked him what is he going to do on the public side. And so, I'm just waiting for that meeting.

Okay. Commissioner Meng Foon, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you very much. Kia ora.

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