(Meng Foon. Screengrab: Julie Zhu/Steven Chow)
(Meng Foon. Screengrab: Julie Zhu/Steven Chow)

The BulletinJune 19, 2023

Wanted: One race relations commissioner

(Meng Foon. Screengrab: Julie Zhu/Steven Chow)
(Meng Foon. Screengrab: Julie Zhu/Steven Chow)

The shock resignation of Meng Foon has given the government another headache it didn’t need writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A good time to bury bad news

The announcement that Meng Foon was resigning as race relations commissioner landed on Friday at 4.30pm, a textbook Friday news dump that sent the nation’s half-empty newsrooms scrambling. Making it all the more chaotic was the confusion caused by Foon himself, who initially denied he’d resigned before clarifying that he was planning to do so on Sunday but “the news has beaten me”. Foon stepped down from the Human Rights Commission (HRC) over a failure to properly disclose a conflict of interest over $2 million in government funding, including for emergency housing, that went to a company he directs. Associate justice minister Deborah Russell says the matter was serious enough that Foon would probably have been sacked had he not resigned.

The hunt for a new commissioner begins

While Russell says it’s “important the public is aware of the circumstances” in which Foon resigned, it’s not yet clear if or when the HRC investigation that prompted her to act will be made public. Expect to find out this week, along with information on an expected timeline for the appointment of Foon’s replacement. While the “process and panels” used to appoint commissioners are independent and involve consultation with parliamentary party leaders, the appointment ultimately falls under the remit of the justice minister, currently Kiri Allan. Foon was appointed in 2019, a year after the resignation of his predecessor Dame Susan Devoy. He is famously fluent in te reo Māori, along with Seyip, Cantonese and English. Chief commissioner Paul Hunt said Foon’s resignation was “courageous”, calling him a “man of the people” who had made “an unfortunate mistake”.

Conflict of interest allegations beleaguer government

It isn’t the first time questions have been raised over Foon’s financial disclosures. In April it was revealed that Foon donated thousands of dollars to Allan’s election campaign, prior to her becoming a minister. On Friday, Foon said that while he did declare the emergency housing interest before his appointment in 2019, he had erred in not raising it during the HRC inquiry into the sector. But he also said his resignation was the result of being “chucked under the bus”. Coming on the heels of Michael Wood and his airport-share saga, it seems that some figures “associated with or appointed by Labour” have a problem grasping when they have a conflict of interest, says Stuff’s Luke Malpass. They aren’t “crimes of the century and there’s no evidence of any graft,” he writes, “but the accretion of them just gives the whole government – and some of those it appoints – an entitled, arrogant and slightly smelly vibe”.

Nash cleared of more serious wrongdoing

Former cabinet minister Stuart Nash is among those called out by Malpass, though he “at least copped to the fact he did the wrong thing each time”. A report into Nash’s relationship with donors released on Friday found no breaches of the cabinet manual, “other than the ones that had led to his dismissal as a minister”. However the report did find that Nash had been lobbied by donor Phil McCaw requesting an exemption from the IRD’s high-wealth tax study. Following his appointment to a government advisory council, McCaw emailed Nash asking that he be removed from the IRD study “in order for this project to have my full attention”. The request was unsuccessful.

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