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For many, the terror attacks on the Christchurch mosques seemed to come from nowhere. But not everyone was blind to the looming danger. In this seven-part series See No Evil, Stuff investigates how a group of women desperately tried to get the attention of officials – and why they failed.
This is Chapter 6: Change is Coming. The final chapter will be published tomorrow.
To get money out of the Government – even for its own agencies, let alone community organisations – can be a rigmarole.
There’s an entire entity – The Treasury – which is committed to keeping the public sector in line fiscally. Treasury, by the way, sits right across the road from the Beehive, so, yeah, it’s pretty hard to get anything past it.
Remember the hoops the Islamic Women’s Council had to jump through to try to get about $250,000 of Government funding to help the Muslim community?
Even after positive noises from senior civil servants in January 2018, 15 months later there were still hoops to be jumped if they wanted to get the money to launch the projects they believed would make a material difference.
There was a business case to be written, albeit with the help of an official from the Ministry of Social Development who specialises in writing business cases, but every step they took, there seemed to be another one. Eventually, it got too much.
“We were just burnt out,” says Anjum Rahman. “We couldn’t write the business case and we kind of just gave up.”
To them, money to help their community was always just out of reach.
And it wasn’t just Rahman and her colleague, fellow IWC council member Aliya Danzeisen, who were experiencing this.
For years, inside the Government, people had been pushing for more money for the Office of Ethnic Communities (OEC), an agency which sat inside the Department of Internal Affairs and had responsibility for marginalised populations.
The OEC was widely recognised as being a mess. It was repeatedly criticised for being “underperforming”.
One review noted that its strategy was poor, and it wasn’t doing its job properly. Another said it wasn’t effectively engaging with the community or other public sector agencies.
There were restructures in 2014 and 2016. Yet problems persisted.
Remember that meeting between the Muslim community and heads of government agencies in March 2017, the big one where leaders from the community had their chance to put their case for how the government could help mend the problems they saw? The one where OEC didn’t even have a representative there?
It turns out there were supposed to be two OEC officials there: its acting director, but he resigned on the morning of the meeting and so didn’t go; and another official who didn’t front either, after an internal discussion about who best to send.
“They should have been front and centre,” says one source. “It was absolute bullshit.”
The failure to front at the 2017 meeting was seen as OEC’s nadir.
And yet, if OEC was a mess, why couldn’t it be sorted? Well, it wasn’t through lack of trying on the part of some senior officials. There were those two restructures, and then there’s the question of money.
When asked why the failings of OEC over a number of years hadn’t been resolved before the Christchurch terror attacks, the Department of Internal Affairs (which oversaw OEC) pointedly referred Stuff to a line in the Royal Commission of Inquiry report: “… successive budget bids over a number of years … were turned down by the government of the day.”
In other words: we tried, but the politicians wouldn’t give us the money.
And it’s not like they didn’t have support from some heavy-hitters. Judith Collins, no less, the formidable former National leader, put through a Budget bid when she was Minister for Ethnic Communities in 2017, seeking $23 million, including money to boost the OEC. It went forward as part of the Budget process, but it didn’t make it across the line.
If Collins couldn’t squeeze money out of her Cabinet colleagues, it’s no wonder the IWCNZ struggled.
As much as there were consultations and meetings and talk of social cohesion and making the Muslim community feel safe, ethnic communities just weren’t a high enough priority.
Until, that is … yeah, until March 15, 2019.
Remember how Danzeisen received that text when she was walking across the tarmac the day after the attacks; the text in which a very senior official told her OEC was going to immediately get some money; the text which landed like a sucker punch for the women who’d been pleading for help for so many years?
We asked DIA if we could interview the official who sent the text, but the request was declined. We asked about the contents of the text, about the decision to approve funding so quickly. A DIA spokesperson replied that the official, “does not recall the details of conversations she had in the days following the Christchurch terror attacks as it was three years ago”. In any event, the spokesperson goes on to say: “The funding was Cabinet’s decision… to make and announce.”
The official might not remember, but Danzeisen and Rahman do. They remember how they hadn’t been able to get $250,000 to support the Muslim community, and yet, immediately after the attack, money started flowing. Initially, it was shuffled around within DIA to get things moving and then, just weeks later, in April, Cabinet signed off on an extra $1.8 million for OEC.
As Rahman put it: “Suddenly they found more than $1m to put into ethnic communities overnight. Suddenly the money is there after we’re all dead.”
The Cabinet paper from April that signed off on the extra money reveals that the attack had exposed OEC’s inadequacies – it was severely lacking in staff, its resources were stretched, and it didn’t have the money to help fund worthy community projects; the fund available to OEC for this purpose (the Ethnic Communities Development Fund) hadn’t been increased for more than five years, despite increasing requests from the community.
In addition to the $1.8m in emergency money signed off in April 2019, the community development fund was boosted again in December 2019 (to $4.2m), and in May 2019, Cabinet approved an extra $9.4m to hire more staff.
Ultimately, OEC was replaced by an entire new ministry – the Ministry for Ethnic Communities was established in July 2021, taking it out of the umbrella of Internal Affairs.
The money, so scarce, so seemingly out of reach, was abundant; the changes, so desperately needed, were enacted.
This wasn’t the only change from the top.
There were gun law changes. Less than a week after the attacks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern drew international praise for swiftly moving to ban semi-automatic weapons – a weakness that had been identified in those intelligence reports years earlier.
There were moves to finally have a proper go at a social cohesion programme, the likes of which had first been talked about by government ministers about 15 years earlier. Ardern herself proposed a big work programme to Cabinet in September 2019. (Interestingly, though, as the Royal Commission of Inquiry notes, there was no consultation with ethnic communities prior to the decision by Cabinet.)
There was that long-overdue focus from intelligence agencies and police on the far right.
Together with that was an increase in funding for the country’s spies – for starters, an extra $50m announced just two months after the Christchurch attacks – and new counter-terrorism legislation.
There were changes to the list of outlawed terrorist organisations and individuals, a list which has included groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda for years. The Christchurch terrorist was added to the list. But, when it comes to organisations, guess what?
Rahman points out that, since 2018, “organisations more identifiable to Islam” have been added, but “they put zero right-wing organisations on the list”. Not even outfits like the Proud Boys (banned in Canada), or The Base (banned in Australia). And not Action Zealandia, a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group based in New Zealand.
Danzeisen says there’s a reluctance from agencies and governments to swallow the reality. She recalls a presentation at a meeting with officials which showed the vast majority of extremist posts online were from right wing nationalists and white supremacists. And yet, she says, the focus remains on Islamic extremism.
She challenged the room of mostly white, non-Muslim people: “I said, ‘Hold up – you’ve been talking about my community for so long and calling us a suspect community – now you are the suspect community’. They were thrown. They didn’t want to see that [the extremists] came out of their community, but they were OK saying Muslim extremists came from my community.”
(Stuff asked Andrew Little, the Minister in charge of the intelligence services, about the failure to include groups like Proud Boys on the list of outlawed terror groups. He says it’s a decision for the agencies, but “in the end it’s not just [about] ideology – even completely outlandish ideology – it’s about a threat of mobilisation to violence”. Groups that were on the list were “terror groups that have a track record of terrorist action, violence with a view to creating fear in a population to a particular end”. However, he said, he could understand how it would look to people in the Muslim community.)
Within 10 days of the Christchurch attacks, the Government announced there would be a Royal Commission of Inquiry, to uncover what happened and how. It’s supposed to be all-seeing, and a mechanism to give the public confidence that there has been accountability and transparency.
Unlike other Royal Commissions, though, this one was held in private. Why? Because the terms of reference required the commission to “maintain the confidentiality of information that could be harmful to the public interest if it was released, including information about the operational practices of public sector agencies”.
Arrangements were made for government employees and contractors to contact the commission confidentially, and there were non-publication orders put in place covering large chunks of evidence.
The commission set up a Muslim Community Reference Group which met nine times. The commission talked about the importance of engaging with the community. Danzeisen and Rahman were in the reference group, supposedly at the heart of the engagement.
And yet they feel … like there are large parts of what happened behind the commission’s closed doors that remain secret when they shouldn’t.
Danzeisen says they asked about someone having access to the classified material, to see what was being said. “We weren’t allowed. ‘No, you won’t be able to get security clearance, it takes months and months’. So, what: we don’t have a single Muslim in the whole of New Zealand who has the security clearance to be able to see all this?”
Rahman points out, too, that the commission was delayed and delayed and delayed – originally its report was supposed to be tabled in December 2019, but the deadline was extended several times, until December 2020. Plenty of time to get clearance.
Also, as Rahman says, both she and Danzeisen have been vetted and have security clearance to be on other reference groups.
(The commission itself, in its report, let it be known that it wasn’t happy about some of the attitudes to secrecy from some of the agencies, noting: “Our impression from the large quantities of information we have handled and our dealings with public sector agencies is that there is a lack of thoughtfulness about when information needs to be highly classified and a marked tendency to over-classify information.”)
There’s something else that happened in connection with the Royal Commission that has left Danzeisen and Rahman wondering if anything has changed, if they are still talking and talking and talking to officials who solemnly nod their heads, but, ultimately, ignore what the women have to say.
It concerns the release of the report. The commission completed the report on 26 November 2020 and handed it to the Government. Senior politicians and officials then had to decide how best to make it public (which they eventually did on December 8, 2020).
Officials from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet were in contact with the Islamic Women’s Council, and they had questions. “They wanted advice about the release of the report,” says Danzeisen. There was lots to consider – the public interest, but also, importantly, the sensitivities of the victims and their families, and the wider Muslim community.
Rahman: “We said, ‘This is how you should do it’. Then suddenly every piece of advice we gave went out the window.”
Danzeisen: “They did the exact opposite.”
(Stuff asked DPMC about the distribution of the report, and in a written response it said: “DPMC sought advice from a wide range of community representatives, including the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, and this advice helped determine engagement with communities.”)
That’s not how Rahman and Danzeisen see it. For example, they say, when it came to handing the report over to the families, their advice was: give the families time to consider the report, give them time to digest it, give them space.
“We said, ‘Don’t get in their faces, give them time to process it, and give them a lawyer because it’s going to be difficult to understand it’,” says Danzeisen. “And none of that happened.”
The families were given an advance copy of the 800-page report in Christchurch on the afternoon of Saturday, December 5. The next morning, Ardern and other Cabinet ministers met with the families at a marae, and told them they could ask any questions.
“How many people can read an 800-page document overnight, especially when English is a second language for many of them?” says Danzeisen. “They had no legal expertise and no time to process it, whereas the Government had two weeks, plus they had lawyered up in April 2019 with the best lawyers.”
There was an emphasis on putting on the right spin, the women believe.
Rahman: “They did it in a way that allowed them to influence the interpretation of the report. They were in their faces right away.”
It leaves you wondering: after all that happened, has anything really been learnt?
And that wasn’t the only example which made them wonder that.
This is Chapter 6: Change is Coming. The final chapter will be published tomorrow.
© 2022 Stuff Limited

See also  'Follow Me': Iranian Muslim Sees Jesus in a Vision, Abandons Islam for Christianity - CBN.com

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