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Commissioner Foon To Stand Down

Following the statement this afternoon from Associate Justice Minister Deborah Russell, Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission offers its utmost appreciation and gratitude to outgoing Kaihautu Whakawhanaungatanga-ā-iwi Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, for his services to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Foon today confirmed his intention to resign, following revelations in April that he and his family made donations to Labour MP Kiritapu Allan, including rent subsidy arrangements for her campaign office, in 2020, as well as a National Party candidate.

In addition, a company of which Foon is a director, MY Gold Limited, has been found to have received and still be receiving an income from the Ministry of Social Development for the provision of accommodation, including emergency housing.

This income has been received over several years, since 2019 and both before and after Foon became Race Relations Commissioner. It now amounts to a total of more than $2 million.

In 2021 the Commission launched a Housing Inquiry, which has been highly critical of the government’s emergency housing system, describing it as a breach of human rights. Foon did not declare any conflict of interest at this time, nor subsequently.

Foon has acknowledged his serious error of judgement in failing to adequately declare these activities, as required by the Crown Entities Act and Commission policies.

The Commission and Commissioners have an overriding constitutional role to hold governments to account without fear or favour.

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The Commission wishes to acknowledge the extremely valuable and unique contribution Meng Foon has made to race relations in Aotearoa.

Te Amokapua Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt described Foon as a man of the people and a dedicated Commissioner, who had made an unfortunate mistake.

“Apart from its staff and stakeholders, the Commission’s greatest asset is its independence from government – its impartiality, its political-party neutrality. Meng’s resignation is an important and courageous act to protect that independence,” he said.

The Commission’s Board took legal advice as it inquired into the matter and was careful to ensure a fair and robust process that respected natural justice. It concluded that Foon’s political donations in 2020 and his failure to adequately declare those donations and the activities of MY Gold were in breach of his duties under the Crown Entities Act and Commission policies.

Foon apologised to the Board for his misjudgements, and the Board passed its findings to the Minister in line with its statutory duty.

Fellow Board member and Kaihautū Ōritenga Mahi Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo expressed deep sadness at Foon’s departure. “We will miss his experience, wisdom, insights, energy, and commitment to the human rights of everyone in Aotearoa,” she said.

Rongomau Taketake Claire Charters praised Foon’s commitment to te Tiriti o Waitangi and his work on Indigenous rights.

“It is difficult to contemplate a Commissioner as dedicated to tangata whenua as Meng Foon, and he leaves a profound legacy,” she said, “Meng shone a spotlight on racism, speaking up frequently in the media for those impacted by racism.”

“Meng is familiar to many of us, for standing up for those affected by the harm of racism. He modelled how to listen and build bridges between communities,” said Charters.

Meng’s work led to the publication of Ki te whaiao, ki te ao Mārama and the subsequent report, Maranga Mai!, which outlined the impact of colonisation, racism and white supremacy on tangata whenua.

“These were immensely important documents, which provide insight into the experiences of community around racism and aspirations for a brighter future. Meng helped bring that together,” said Chief Commissioner Hunt.

Foon also played a key role in the work which followed the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, particularly in following up on the recommendations from the Royal Commission of Inquiry.

In lieu of an Indigenous Rights Commissioner being appointed, Meng Foon helped promote the realisation of te Tiriti o Waitangi as a human rights document for all and called on authorities to honour te Tiriti by bringing tangata whenua to the decision-making table.

Foon met with and advocated for the rights of many migrant and refugee groups, lobbying government ministers for greater resources to address their concerns.

Tatau-Uruora Chief Executive Kāwanatanga Leader Meg de Ronde said Foon’s personality, warmth and compassion in his role would be missed by staff within the Commission and community groups outside it.

“We wish him the best in all his future endeavours” she said.

Background

Meng Foon was appointed Race Relations Commissioner in 2019.

Before that he served Te Tairāwhiti as an elected councillor for nearly a quarter of a century, including 18 years as Mayor of Gisborne. He is one of a handful of people of Chinese descent to have become a mayor in Aotearoa.

He helped bring diversity to the council table and his fluency and passion for te reo Māori me ōna tikanga often brought a unique perspective to discussions and helped promote better understanding between different people.

Foon carried this ability to the Commission which helped in his drive to improve social cohesion and promote harmonious relations in Aotearoa. He has been instrumental in leading consultations with civil society and community groups around the construction of the government’s national action plan against racism.

Notes:

  • Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission is an independent crown entity, but neither appoints nor removes Commissioners. That’s the responsibility of the Minister of Justice. Associate Minister Deborah Russell became responsible for the Race Relations Commissioner, following Minister Kiritapu Allan’s register of a conflict in April in relation to the political donations from Meng Foon.
  • Potential conflicts of interest are the duty of Commissioners to identify and declare, on appointment to the Commission, or as they arise during a Commissioner term. It is not the responsibility of the Board to independently investigate Commissioners in terms of any potential conflict.
  • The Ministry of Justice obviously has its own vetting processes when appointing Commissioners, and it will have followed its own due diligence in this regard.
  • The Crown Entities Act is very clear in terms of conflict of interest. The Board has a statutory duty to notify the responsible Minister if a Commissioner is found to have failed to declare conflicts.
  • Commissioners are guided in terms of conflict by both the Crown Entities Act, and the HRC’s internal policies. There are multiple opportunities for them to make the declarations, both when joining the HRC, and in the course of their work in the Commission.
  • Rongomau Taketake Claire Charters is not a Commissioner and has no voting rights on the Board, but is party to all Board decision-making.

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