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Strong credentials for important role

Opinion Piece

His appointment as race relations commissioner marks another milestone-first for Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon and is a reward for his commitment to multiculturalism.

Announcing the appointment, Minister of Justice Andrew Little said Mr Foon had an outstanding record as a relationship builder and walked comfortably in the Pakeha world, the Maori world, the Chinese community and other communities making up New Zealand.

Race relations were a priority area for the Human Rights Commission, Mr Little said. “We need to continue to break down barriers to racial and ethnic equality in New Zealand.”

As the country’s only te reo-speaking mayor and with a long record of public service, Mr Foon fits the bill well. The man who often says he went from hoeing weeds to businessman to city leader has real credentials for what is becoming an increasingly challenging role.

One of his biggest challenges, and that of the council, was to find a way of dealing with the wastewater system upgrade in the face of the determination of Maori to get tutae out of the bay, now renamed Turanganui-a-Kiwa/Poverty Bay. That challenge is ongoing but is on the way to being met.

Race relations nationally are at a crossroads. The massacre at two Christchurch mosques produced a storm of disgust among New Zealanders who were desperate to show the Muslim community that they were part of New Zealand.

But behind that laudable reaction there are undercurrents between Maori and Pakeha, and a wave of immigrants with different cultures. Prejudices unfortunately remain prevalent in society.

Meng Foon will have to bring all the best skills that he has shown during his 18 years in local government to his new role. In a statement today he said he was keen to listen to and meet the various New Zealand communities.

Is the country ready for “Menglish”, his delightful if sometimes baffling relationship with the English language?

Will there be a “Sir Meng” at the end of his term, as seems to be traditional? In any case the genial true Gisborne character will remain what he has always been to his fellow Gisborneites — just Meng.