The Race Relations Commissioner is calling out the Government for inaction on racism and poverty. By Clare de Lore.
It's 18 months since Meng Foon was appointed race watchdog. He's spent much of that time travelling the country hearing stories of racism and other injustices.
He heard more on December 3 in Parliament, when Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer used her maiden speech to call on the Crown to apologise for genocide against Māori.
Not only does he back her comments, Foon also has a list of problems requiring urgent Government action.
Foon, 60, spent nearly two decades as mayor of Gisborne, where 49 per cent of citizens identify as Māori. The child of Chinese migrants, who worked as market gardeners and greengrocers, he was born and raised there.
He had a traditional Chinese upbringing and was expected to help with the family business, keep his head down and work hard. His marriage to Ying, 40 years ago, was arranged by his parents, Liu Sui Kai and Ng Heng Kiu.
It was while working in the family shop as a child that Foon took his first steps into Māori language and culture, as he served Māori customers whom he knew as "aunties and uncles".
Until his retirement to take up his present position, he was the only mayor of a New Zealand city fluent in te reo. He also speaks Cantonese and English. Whichever language he's speaking, Foon doesn't mince words about the problems facing Aotearoa.
Genocide is a strong term – it's a crime in international law. Do you support Debbie Ngarewa-Packer's claim?
Genocide did happen. When you take people's land, burn their houses and marae, suppress their culture and kill women and children like at Tauranga, yeah, absolutely, it's a deliberate act of the Crown. And so the call for an apology is appropriate.
However, I think as Treaty claims are being advanced and negotiated, the Crown is apologising to Māori for the desecration of the iwi in the past. It's already happening.
She mentioned Parihaka. I don't know personally what she wants unless I ask her to clarify it, but I know Treaty negotiations and claims have an apology to each iwi. Māori are not homogeneous. Each iwi suffered differently, and each iwi is a nation in its own right.
Ngarewa-Packer has also drawn parallels with the Holocaust. Are you comfortable with that?
Yeah, that is what she draws parallels with.
But do you?
I don't know about the sort of parallel, but definitely it was a deliberate act of government. The Māori Party is independent, and the MPs can speak their minds, because they are not in coalition. Therefore, they can call the Government out, and any other persons out, without fear or favour.
Do you think the Māori Party's return to Parliament will help speed up the process of redressing past injustices?
Since I've been in the job, there have been more upfront conversations on racism and upfront admissions, like from newspaper group Stuff, Oranga Tamariki and the police. I admire that, and it's good we are debating this in public. We're becoming more aware.
Anything that's hidden is not going to be addressed and there will continue to be structural racism, especially at the top levels of government.
One area where only an intense blaze of publicity from the media and Māori leaders seems to have brought about change is the uplift of Māori children from their parents. Are you involved in that, too?
The uplifting of tamariki without consent, without letting the mother know at the time, is appalling behaviour. Not giving whānau the opportunity to take care of their children – that's the wider whānau, rather than the child's immediate mum and dad.
It's positive to see that Oranga Tamariki is forming relationships with iwi, and I know that in the Gisborne/Tairāwhiti region, Ngāti Porou has an agreement with them. In Tūhoe, they have noticed a reduction of 50 per cent in uplifts of children from parents. So, that's got to be positive.
And I'm looking forward to solutions from Māori for Māori. I've been part of the [initiatives] from home, because the models they've had in the past have been disastrous.
The recent announcement of a climate change emergency has drawn comments that child poverty is just as pressing an issue, yet there's been no equivalent declaration. Are you one of the disappointed?
I hope the Government addresses the issue of child poverty. To still be at the bottom or not quite the bottom of the world in terms of our children suffering means there needs to be a strong message to the Government that action needs to happen now.
Look at Covid. Within a week of declaring the Covid emergency, everyone was housed, including the street people, the homeless people. They were housed by the Government, albeit some in motels. So, if the Government wants to act quickly, it can.
Another discrepancy is the living wage. The Recognised Seasonal Employer [RSE] scheme workers from overseas who pick fruit, work in factories and freezing works get the living wage of $22 or $23 an hour. But our own people still stay on the minimum wage. Appalling behaviour.
I expect the Government to treat our own citizens as well as it treats our visitors. Where's the human rights in that? Where is the equality? Our Equal Opportunities Commissioner has let the Government know our strong views on the living wage for many years. But all of a sudden, within hours, they can have RSE workers being paid a living wage, but not our own people.
So, the Government can make things happen if it wants to, but it chooses not to.
What about moving the dial on the disproportionately high rates of Māori imprisonment?
I wish cannabis was actually legalised. I am working with local iwi Ngāti Kahungunu for it to operate the [Hawke's Bay Regional] prison at Mangaroa. I can see the benefits, not just the prison benefits of cultural connection, but also when the people are released.
When people are released, they need housing, a place to stay, a job – having those things reduces recidivism by heaps. And in the Māori economy, iwi have land for houses and they can work with the Government to build houses. And Māori have jobs, because they've been very successful in fishing, horticulture, agriculture, apiculture, factories and energy generation.
The 2018 census shows 28 per cent of Aucklanders identify with an Asian ethnicity and 15 per cent with a Pacific ethnicity. Yet, at a recent event at Auckland Museum, there was little or no specific mention of the museum as a place for Asian Aucklanders …
I have continually lobbied organisations at the top level so that they become aware their boards and management should reflect the cultural diversity around the decision-making table.
If a Chinese person was sitting in management or on the Auckland Museum board, we would have had our Chinese stories there. While we are successful, we don't tend to apply for jobs in governance areas.
With Māori, Pacific and Eastern people, you need to appoint them and tell them "that is your job", providing you find the right skill set. Western people say, "Pick me, pick me."
How did you get to the top?
I had to say, "Pick me, pick me". I've changed my mindset to be successful in society. My cultural norms are not the norm of my culture. My parents never supported me for my council role or my mayor's role when I sought election. They said, "Stop dreaming, son, head down, arse up and continue to pick the potatoes."
It's a very difficult thing culturally not to be supported by your own, but it's just one of those things. My parents were monocultural, reserved, and they got on with the task of survival and success.
Were they bemused by your later political aspirations as well as your interest, from childhood, in the Māori language?
Our whole family had the shop and our customers spoke Māori to all of us, but only I took it on. Everybody has a place in this world, and my interest was in languages.
Do you understand how Māori think?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. The more you understand the language, the more you live with the people and work with the people, you learn that it's very similar to the Asian culture: long-term thinking, looking after family, education, environment, housing, health, all those sorts of things. We're pretty similar.
None of your family married within the Chinese community, despite your advice. Has that custom just died out?
It still happens in different cultures that come to New Zealand, but not in our family. Within my children, there are no Chinese [partners]. There was a strong lobby from Mum and Dad that they should do that.
My children are fantastic people, but it went in one ear and out the other. We're very happy that they're safe and well, and we've got a good mix of global diversity in our family. My grandchildren will be of those mixed blends and, hopefully, there'll be great-grandchildren.
Your work means travelling around the country constantly. Where do you call home?
Home is still Gisborne. I'll be heading home next weekend. There are lawns to mow, gardens to make, seeing friends, and having coffee and icecream and catching up with my son and his girlfriend. And having a chat with Ying to catch up on things.