As a former Minister of Immigration I was really proud of what we managed to achieve by establishing strong working relationships with migrant and refugee communities and focussing our attention – not on the numbers of migrants or refugees arriving – but
on the quality of the settlement or resettlement outcomes.
I spoke at a previous NZ Diversity Forum in 2006 as Minister of Women's Affairs, the Ministry having sponsored the forum that year.
But the last time I spoke to one of these forums was actually in Christchurch in 2010 just 12 days before the earthquake that shook our world in more ways than one.
This year's theme: 'Migrant and Refugee Employment: valuing diversity' is very
relevant to a session that was held at that Forum. It was called "Migrant Workers & the
Recession – the South Island Experience", organised by Migrante Aotearoa.
As an MP I already knew the impact of the recession on skilled migrants who were still
in the process of working their way to residence when the recession hit.
Skilled migrants were not having their permits renewed (having been subjected to a
fresh labour market test) and were being forced to leave New Zealand even though they
had a job and were on the pathway to residence. This meant we were losing these
people, despite the fact that we knew we would need them again.
How quickly we learned how true that was.
I think it's important to remember that around 40% of our permanent residents are on a
temporary visa in New Zealand when they apply for residence.
This means we need to be very mindful of the fact that, although many are part of the
global transient workforce, there will be any number of the migrant workforce here for
the rebuild who will want to stay permanently.
We should be really open and transparent about our approach to this – we cannot
simply leave things until the point of no return for those who had a legitimate
expectation they were working their way to residence.
Some have taken on debt to pay an agent to come here and they will tolerate working
conditions we would not accept here so they can pay that back as well as send money
home to the family.
When I spoke at the Forum in 2010, I addressed a session called Barriers to Asian
Equality in NZ.
I mentioned an anti-racism rally here in Christchurch back in 2004, which had sparked
a debate about whether it should be named as such. I personally think that was
because most people don't agree with racism and naming what was happening as
racist felt like a challenge to everyone.
It arose from an instance where a young female Asian student had been assaulted in the street and people just walked by. It was a tipping point among the various migrant communities and that's why the march and rally were organised.
I attended and was talking to one of my friends and asked him if he had ever
experienced any racism – he had lived in Christchurch for over 20 years.
He told me about returning to Malaysia for a holiday the previous year and on his
return he had tried to strike up a conversation with the border customs officer at
Christchurch Airport – observing that it was cold. The response was "you can always
go home if you don't like it". He was coming home – Christchurch was his home. I was
shocked because I was completely oblivious to this type of behaviour that turned out to
be much more prevalent than I had realised.
I started asking other friends who had migrated from Asian countries and I was
appalled at what they told me – being yelled at to "go home", obscene gestures and
having rubbish thrown at them from moving cars were all common experiences.
I then realised that the reaction to the anti-racism rally may have been based on a lack
of knowledge about what Asian migrants and students were actually experiencing on a
regular basis rather than the denial of racism in our city as it was portrayed to be.
And it was that experience which makes me worried when I hear about how migrant
workers are being treated here now.
Recent news reports have highlighted examples of exploitation of migrant workers and
of workers living in inadequate and over-priced accommodation.
Do we really know what's going on? Do we care?
Or are we turning a blind eye because we need the rebuild workforce and we can let
them go when the job is done?
I am glad you are holding this Forum here.
It is an opportunity to be honest about the challenges we face and seek to engage
directly with the diverse communities that make up Christchurch about the solutions.
I am not the same person I was four years ago. The earthquakes did not just teach me
words I didn't know before – like liquefaction and lateral spread.
More importantly I now know the true meaning of words like community, leadership
These are the words on the small beads on this necklace that was given to me by my
former staff at my electorate office.
Community is not the co-location of houses – that is a suburb. It's the relationship
between the people in those houses and their relationship as a group with decision-
makers – that's community.
Leadership is not a position you hold – it is a mark of character.
And resilience is not strength in the face of adversity – that's stoicism. That's why so
many of us are sick of being called resilient when they mean stoic.
Learning the true meaning of resilience has been a revelation for me.
Four years ago, I probably would have said it's about bouncing back after something
knocks you down.
Then there is the textbook definition – the capacity to plan and prepare for, absorb,
recover from and adapt to the consequences of an adverse event.
But to me resilience means more than this.
And this is where I come to the expression co-creation. What sets us apart from the
form of resilience we find in nature is our unique human capacity to think for ourselves
– to imagine what might be – and to create new things and new ways of doing things
Working cooperatively with each other – governments whether local or central, businesses large and small, entrepreneurs, artists of all kinds, communities of location, identity and interest, people who literally thrive in the face of adversity guiding the way – we can co-create our future. That is the truth that lies buried in the word resilience.
And that is the world of opportunity we will explore as a city as our contribution to the
Rockefeller Foundation network of 100 Resilient Cities which you will hear about today.
Back to the necklace, the pendant has a quote which reads: "The most courageous act
is still to think for yourself. Aloud". It is a quote from the famous philosopher Coco
Some people are still afraid to think aloud. A different point of view is shot down as a
challenge to authority.
And that's why we have valued the way the Human Rights Commission has stood by us
and given voice to the issues that must not be swept under the carpet.
They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. And you have helped shine the light on the
plight of migrant workers by holding your Forum here.
And it gives us an opportunity to say, we as a city will not have migrant workers treated
as second-class citizens while we aspire to build a world-class city.
Thank you again for being here.