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Fortuin's Challenge

by Huw Turner

G21 Asia Contributor

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Photo of Gregory Fortuin. Gregory Fortuin has his hands full in the next few years. South African-born, he took up the post as New Zealand Race Relations Conciliator, in succession to Rajen Prasad , on May 1st, and has been in office as one of New Zealand's five new Human Rights Commissioners since May 16th.

A veteran of the struggle against South Africa's brutal apartheid regime, then subsequently appointed by Nelson Mandela as Honorary Consul to New Zealand, he is far too humble and wise to claim he knows everything there is to know about combating racism, but there is no doubt that his background and experience will come in handy when dealing with the 1300 complaints he can expect to receive annually here in New Zealand.

Fortuin spentÝ much of the 1970's and 1980's in senior management positions with NML and Norwich Union in South Africa, moving to Australia with the former in 1987 as Corporate Business Services Manager. He has been in New Zealand since 1991, when he was appointed Managing Director of AXA Corporate Superannuation Services. He sees a symbolic link between the insurance industry and the role he will be required to play in race relations in New Zealand. I shall return to that.

He became a race relations professional through being troubled by four youth suicides in the area in which he was resident. ( New Zealand suffers one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, especially amongst 14-24 year olds). FortuinÝ involved himself in work to try to understand and begin to address that problem and is still Chairman of the Youth Suicide Awareness Trust.

G21 Asia logo.During the term of his office he will be at the sharp end of political debate and action in his role as Race Relations Conciliator, such as the ugly dispute which confronted Rajen Prasad in Taranaki in April 2000.

A police officer at Waitara shot dead Steven Wallace , a 23 year old Maori, in disputed circumstances. The shooting led to racial tension, which was investigated by the Human Rights Commission.

In August of last year, a police inquiry found that the shooting was lawful, and that "race was not an issue." According to the police, Steven Wallace had been acting in an irrational, destructive and threatening manner and had smashed the windows of a police car and various buildings before being confronted by two armed officers. About one minute later, one of the officers fired four shots at Steven Wallace, allegedly as he came to within six metres of them holding a baseball bat. Police admitted that there had been delays in providing medical attention.

When I spoke to Fortuin in his office in downtown Auckland in early June of this year, I wanted to find out how he would approached the challenges of his new job, what his priorities were and how he sees the role of the new Ministry of Ethnic Affairs.

I found him a man with a clear and bold vision , one which asks some very fundamental questions about the direction this small Pacific nation should take in its search for a post-colonial future which accommodates the aspirations of the indigenous Maori, the established immigrants from Europe and the Pacific Islands and the new wave of Asian and African immigrants. There are some tricky constitutional issues to negotiate, and some well-entrenched vested interests to shift if Fortuin's strategic vision is to progress, never mind succeed.

The new Department of Ethnic Affairs joins those for Maori affairs and Pacific Island affairs and is intended to cater for those new immigrants arriving largely from the Far East and Indian sub-continent whose first language is unlikely to be English.

New Zealand is no longer a bi-cultural society. There is a rich multi-cultural mix amongst its 3.8 million population.

There was a National Census earlier this year, the country's 31st in all, but statistics from that will not be available until early in 2002. The most up to date figures come from the Census of 1996 and make interesting reading. Between 1986-96 there was significant change in the ethnic make-up of New Zealand. The number who identify themselves as European dropped from 81.2% to 71.7% in that period, those recorded as New Zealand Maori, from the Pacific Islands of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands and Niue or Asian increased. Maori increased from 12.4% to 14.5% , Pacific Islanders from 3.7 % to 4.8 % and Asians from 1.5 %to 4.4 %.

The 2001 Census seems bound to reveal further increases in the proportions of non-Europeans and I have seen projected figures for the year 2046 which suggest that by then 50 % will be European, 20 % Maori, 12 % Pacific Islanders and 12 % Asian.

Fortuin's role sees him as answerable to the Associate Minister of Justice and with a responsibility to oversee the interests of all the constituent ethnic groups of New Zealand.

When speaking with G21 Fortuin said:

"We are a treaty-based , Pacific nation, we should respect the agreement with the Tangata Whenua, we should aim to be characterized by the celebration of the vibrancy of harmonized diversity. It goes without saying that we have to work towards ensuring equal opportunities for all, and we must have an inclusive society to achieve that."

Huw Turner
Photo of Huw Turner.
The Treaty of Waitangi , signed in 1840 by representatives of Maoridom and the British Crown , gave birth to New Zealand but is still being grappled with. Brief in content, but deceptively slippery in its interpretation because of conceptual misunderstandings, linguistic inexactitude and downright deceit, is it an anachronism or does it remain an essential element of the future foundations of the state?

Fortuin has some robust views on this.

"What is the endgame for the treaty? I want to establish a debate in which we move towards an endgame. I was at a meeting of the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal just the other day and I asked that very question."

The worry being, of course, that the myriad of complex claims and counter-claims being made under the provisions which established the powers of the tribunal to look at redressing perceived breaches of the Treaty, could take years to resolve. During which time race relations and Fortuin's all-inclusive vision could take a real hammering.

"Australia is moving steadily towards a republic and even Helen Clarke (the current Prime Minister of New Zealand) and Jim Bolger (Prime Minister until 1998 and now Ambassador to the USA) have talked about the possibilities and inevitability of a republic here.

"But, constitutionally, what would happen to the treaty then, bearing in mind that it was an agreement between Maori and the crown? I see myself as offering leadership, rather than just dealing with complaints. I am in the business of nation building , of clarifying the vision with regard to that nation building, ensuring robust education on all the issues, rather than dealing with the complaints, and there tend to be about 1300 of those a year!"

This is where the insurance background provides a neat analogy. After a fashion, insurers are in business to pick up the pieces , to respond to claims made against them when things go wrong. But Fortuin does not see himself conciliating in that way.

"I am more interested in the strategic vision, helping to shape the agenda, rather than just dealing with claims.

"Diversity is an issue and what happened in Oldham recently serves as a warning. We can't invite migrants to New Zealand as first class citizens and then see them battle to gain suitable employment. Doctors and other professionals working as cab drivers as they struggle to convince the authorities of the validity of their qualifications. In places like Oldham people came to work in the cotton mills. But those jobs have disappeared, for all races and ethnicities, and when pressure arises the battle lines are drawn along racial lines. I want to see a human rights culture develop in New Zealand, and this should be aided by the merging of the Race Relations Office and the Human Rights Commission."

The challenge of Gregory Fortuin's period in office as New Zealand's Race Relations Conciliator is going to be to convince the majority population of European descent that the national project is not to continue with the obsession of replicating an Anglo-Saxon outpost but to embrace a multi-cultural future in which a different and unique identity is the synthesis of all these diverse ethnicities. He has the vision, but do enough New Zealanders have the will and energy to make this happen?

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