I also acknowledge the NZ Minister, Jenny Salesa and Australian Senator, Mehreen Faruqi, Parliamentarians from all sides of our Parliaments, and human rights practitioners on both sides of the Tasman.
I am glad that this is a Trans-Tasman event, as I believe it is essential that we work across borders to tackle issues like racism and discrimination, and to identify what needs to happen to promote active citizenship across all communities regardless of where we are born or what faith we practice.
There is nothing that could have prepared me for what happened on the 15th March this year. I was born and raised in Christchurch; I have lived there all my life. As I have said many times, I still cannot believe that such an atrocity was committed there.
When I speak about this time, I prefer not to talk about what happened on the day, other than to honour the 51 lives that were taken, those who were injured and the countless witnesses to the horror that unfolded at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre.
I prefer to talk about how we responded. Because it is in the response, that I believe we may have found some of the answers the world is looking for.
As a city and as a nation, we instinctively rejected hatred and said no to division – we embraced each other as one.
And we said to the world: peace, unity, love, compassion and kindness, these are our values – these are who we are.
That message reverberated across the world, and with it the image of our Prime Minister wearing a scarf – her pain and her compassion visible to all – embracing a Muslim woman. “They are us and we are them” were her words. Peace be upon all of us was the message to the world.
The aftermath of this atrocity could have been different if there had been an angry, hostile and divisive response. But there was nothing of the sort. And in this regard I must speak of those who spoke for the Muslim communities with such humanity and grace.
When Imam, Gamal Fouda, said at the Call to Prayer a week after the attack: ‘We are broken-hearted, but we are not broken. We are determined to not let anyone divide us’, we were both humbled and inspired.
And at the National Remembrance Service we heard of an infinite capacity to forgive. Farid Ahmed, whose wife was killed at the mosque, said “I want a heart that is full of love and care and full of mercy, and will forgive lavishly, because this heart doesn’t want any more life to be lost”.
And with these expressions of humanity, came a simple truth, this is how to respond to terrorism - not with retribution, but with generosity of mind and spirit, as we build bridges between communities across our cities.
Reflect on what the Prime Minister said the night this occurred.
“This is one of New Zealand’s darkest days."
"They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.
"The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in NZ. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented acts of violence."
"The people who were the subject of this attack today, New Zealand is their home. They should be safe here. The person who has perpetuated this violent act against them, they have no place in New Zealand society."
The response was instinctive and intuitive. Everything that followed had a firm footing:
- The visit to Christchurch the next day, where she shared the grief of the nation with the local Muslim communities
- Calling out the shooter as a terrorist
- Announcing changes to gun laws and enacting the ban on military-style semi-automatics before the gun lobby could intervene as occurred 27 years ago when the law should have been changed
- Establishing a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the work of our security services prior to the attack
- The Christchurch Call signed off by countries and tech companies - a significant step to the change we need to see in the internet platforms that can instantaneously disseminate extreme violence and hate
Every step of the way there has been intention. I remember telling one of the reporters that she had real empathy, and steel in her spine. She wasn’t afraid to show her emotion, and she wasn’t afraid to make the hard calls.
This is the kind of leadership the world has been looking for.
Imagine if this had been the response to 9/11 instead of waging a war on terror. Imagine the kind of world we might be living in today.
I say this because there has been so much that has confronted me since the 15th March. So much I hadn’t noticed about my home town.
The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, when she came, said much of the west’s perception of Islam and Muslim people since 9/11 has been viewed through the lens of extremism. This has helped promote an unholy war, not founded on faith, but on hatred of ‘others’ - those that are not us. And it has skewed our view of people we may never have even met. The narrative was one of extremism, not of peace.
The opposite of what we heard and saw from our Muslim brothers and sisters in the wake of what happened.
As I delved into what inspired this attack, I started to learn of the dark places on the worldwide web where extreme misogyny, racism, religious intolerance, bigotry and prejudice add fuel to an already corrupt and perverted view of the world that could allow such a monstrosity to occur.
I remember saying at the time that the shooter was not from here, that his hatred was neither born here nor nurtured here. He came with hate in his heart and with intent to kill already fixed in his mind.
A nagging set of questions were left hanging, what if he had been born and raised here, could he have formed these extremist views, could he have learned to hate others in this way, could he have found others who would provide him with comfort for his extremism?
The answer to that question is yes.
When I found myself having to answer questions about white supremacism, overt expressions of racism and religious intolerance within my own city, I was found wanting. I had literally dismissed the skinheads and the pathetic few, who rallied under the NZ National Front banner, as an irrelevance. This was not good enough. I started asking questions.
The first was about the experience of racism in Christchurch. The obvious was pointed out to me - I’m white - I’m not a minority. I will never experience racism anywhere in New Zealand, in exactly the same way that a man will never experience misogyny. I have no lived experience of racism, and never will.
I have been told my duty is to ensure that those who do experience racism are able to share their experience and to do so safely, and that voice be given to that experience. We need to shine a light on what is really happening, so we understand what it feels like to experience prejudice.
I have read the words of some of the participants today whose words have hit a chord. I have heard those same words in Christchurch. There are those who, for whatever reason, cannot speak out. We must stand together so no one stands alone, when they speak truth to power.
I asked another question - should I use the word racism - it might put people’s backs up - can I talk about inclusion and diversity instead.
A Maori woman gently explained why. She said to me that if she didn’t teach her children about racism - that there would be people they would meet who would judge them because of the colour of their skin - then when they experienced racism (as they would) - they wouldn’t know that it wasn’t about them personally, and that it was nothing to do with who they were as a person.
It struck me as incredibly sad that there are parents who have to teach their children to be prepared for racism. No parent would want that for any child.
I have started to use these answers as the basis to start conversations about racism that I never thought I could. I spoke at a Rotary Club the other night and I could see that by inviting them to see the impact of racism through the eyes of an innocent child being prepared by a loving mother for the skin deep assessment they would be judged by, well there is no answer to that. It is dehumanising and through the eyes of a child it is stripped bare, because no one would want that for any child.
It’s often overlooked that Islamaphobia doesn’t mean hatred of Islam and xenophobia doesn’t mean hatred of strangers – phobia means fear. And fear comes from ignorance, and together they fuel prejudice.
I read somewhere recently that the most multicultural parts of the UK voted to remain in the EU and that the least multicultural parts of the UK voted for Brexit.
People who live, work and play in diverse communities get to know people with a range of backgrounds.
And that’s why promoting active citizenship is so vital. We need to find ways to ensure that we get to know each other better. We learnt that after the earthquakes, and we need to relearn it now.
If people feel isolated and alone, and are not connected to their community - either where they live or a wider community of identity or interest - then it is unlikely that they will participate in activities that make a community. I always use Lyttelton as an example of a fantastically connected community. They have Project Lyttelton, which includes community gardens, a Saturday market and most importantly a Timebank where people value each other’s time hour by hour not dollar by dollar.
Neighbourhood by neighbourhood that’s how we do this. Reaching out to our neighbours and getting to know more about each other.
I have the honour of conducting citizenship ceremonies every month, and I always especially acknowledge those who have given up their citizenship of birth to become NZ citizens. I say: None of you gives up anything of who you are and where you are from. You do not sever your ties with with your country of birth. You bring your language, your culture, your history, your faith and you nurture them in your children. And we here in NZ are enriched by all that you bring, and you have another place to stand and call home.
I make the point that everyone who lives in Aotearoa New Zealand or their forbears made a journey to make this their home - whether they came by waka, by ship or by plane, each one of us has a story of those journeys, and it is in sharing these stories that we create enduring relationships.
And that’s what builds successful and resilient communities.
I remain very proud of the way our city and nation have responded to this terrorist attack. The bravery and professionalism shown by the Police, emergency services, hospital staff and many others; and the compassion and sense of shared humanity demonstrated by the people of our city, our nation and communities across the world, have shone a light through our darkest of days.
What happened in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, March 15, 2019 will never define us. It is the response that says who we are.
However it is time to reflect on what we want to be in the future. Do we go back to where we were - complacent about racism - or do we boldly step forward?
We have already shown we can be a place that leads social change in the world. I am not wearing my Kate Sheppard broach for nothing.
We can be that again, because there is a better way, and we know it. And it all starts in our neighbourhoods and communities. Governments can set the tone and I fully support the work they are doing, but we need to make it real on the ground. Wellbeing cannot thrive in a racist place - where a mum has to prepare her child for what we must say is unacceptable here. We can and should be the springboard for the change we want to see in the world. And we honour the lives that were lost and shattered on that day when we do.