Ethnic rights advice stuns communities

Woman in burkha.
Woman in burkha.

Ethnic Affairs Minister Judith Collins has been told in a briefing paper that ethnic groups are pushing to have multicultural policy "entrenched" in any future New Zealand constitution.

But Collins, has been quick to dismiss advice one expert has described as a "blinking red light".

In a briefing paper for the new minister, the Ethnic Affairs Office said there was a push within some communities to have their cultural rights enshrined in law.

"Ethnic communities are keen to discuss the development of a multicultural policy to entrench the civil, political, social and language rights of ethnic people in New Zealand," the briefing says.

"The potential for multicultural policy, including legislation, is gaining voice within ethnic communities, and is likely to be raised with you [Collins]. If you are asked for a definite position, we will provide further advice on this matter."

At its most extreme, the call for "multicultural policy, including legislation" could include recognition for Sharia, or Islamic law.

University of Auckland constitutional law professor Bill Hodge said using the word entrench was a "blinking red light" and special privilege for one group went against the basic principle that accident of birth should not mean privilege.

Last year the government, as part of its deal with the Maori Party, set up a constitutional review panel to consider matters including the size of parliament, the length of the electoral term, Maori representation, the role of the Treaty of Waitangi, and whether there should be a written constitution.

Hodge said any constitution should offer equal opportunities and protection. "If we are setting up Sharia and special rules for certain people, does that mean a Muslim would not be prosecuted under the Crimes Act for a second, third or fourth wife?" Hodge said.

Collins dismissed the report.

"This briefing does not reflect government policy," she said. "It is not a policy document."

The briefing paper does not specify what ethnic groups want entrenched in any constitution, but points to the main inputs coming from the Federation of Islamic Associations, the Indian Association and the Chinese Association.

Speaking from Saudi Arabia last night, NZ Federation of Islamic Associations president Anwar Ghani told the Sunday Star-Times that any changes his body would push for would have to be "simple and workable".

When asked if that could include Sharia, he responded: "No, we are not talking about that."

Instead the federation backed transferring statutory holidays based on Christian festivals to dates of religious significance in their own culture.

"If there was recognition, particularly from a faith perspective, to substitute the holidays so they can enjoy the festivities without taking their annual leave, those are the kind of things which we were looking at it," he said.

"It has to be something simple which is going to work – we do not want to create layers of complications that might make it difficult as a nation for us to progress together."

And Indian Central Association president Paul Singh Bains said an ethnic constitution would be wrong.

"It is sending the wrong message to policymakers. Once we are permanent residents here, or citizens, we are Kiwis."

He dismissed any notion the Indian community wanted such changes. "There is no consensus for us to have a separate law," he said, although he acknowledged some community beliefs did come from "ancient days".

"We don't think there should be a law for each community. That would make a nonsense of things."

Auckland Chinese Community Centre chairman Arthur Loo was unaware of the briefing paper or if anyone within his community wanted legislation protecting their cultural rights.

Loo warned against any of the potential policy changes in the briefing paper.

"As a New Zealander, I think it should be basically one law for everbody, a law that reflects New Zealand and its core values," he said. "If you are talking about a `multicultural policy', I can't see it being any more than being a touchy-feely statement that we will be all embracing of different cultures, be welcoming and all that stuff."

Wellington constitutional expert Mai Chen said ethnic languages and rights existed in law. "I think an entrenched constitution is highly unlikely," she said. "I do not detect any appetite for a higher law constitution."

Section 19 of the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom from discrimination, and section 20 says ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities can not be denied their culture, religion or language.

Sunday Star Times