'Racial discrimination' mars Auckland councillor's swearing-in

5:53 am on 3 November 2016

A newly-elected Auckland councillor says the refusal to allow his Samoan family into pre-arranged VIP seating to watch his swearing-in was racial discrimination.

Mayor Phil Goff and councillor Efeso Collins at the Auckland Council swearing in ceremony.

Mayor Phil Goff and councillor Efeso Collins at the Auckland Council swearing in ceremony. Photo: RNZ / Todd Niall

The Tuesday evening ceremony was a proud moment for Efeso Collins, who was the first in his family with a university education and was sworn in as one of two representatives in the Manukau Ward in south Auckland.

He was one of those who read his oath in Māori.

But the joy wasn't fully shared by his wife, daughter and elders, who were refused their allocated seating in the councillor's family area at the Auckland Town Hall.

"My family was told that they couldn't sit where they were because that was reserved for council guests, and that's when my wife said 'We are council guests', but no one believed them," he said.

In the formal atmosphere of a gala-style ceremony, Mr Collins had no doubt as to what happened to his Samoan relatives.

"The fact that we don't look 'normal', and that's the problem - too many people offering the suggestion, which is essentially racially discriminatory, that brown people don't belong there."

The councillor said he was disgusted when he learned later of the episode.

He said Auckland Council needed to break down racial preconceptions.

"If I'm still being challenged like that now, you can imagine the experience of the very people I represent, where every day we're confronted with this type of thinking."

The council's general manager of democracy services, Marguerite Delbet, said she was appalled and mortified after looking into the incident, calling the staff member's behaviour "completely unacceptable" and has apologised profusely.

Ms Delbet said the usher, who was employed by a council agency, had been very rude and tried to push away Mrs Collins.

"There really is no excuse," she said.

Mr Collins noted the strikingly Anglo-Saxon tone of the the inauguration ceremonies, of which this week's was the Auckland Council's third.

An emotional moment during Efeso Collins' maiden speech to council on Wednesday.

An emotional moment during Efeso Collins' maiden speech to council on Wednesday. Photo: RNZ / Todd Niall

From the opening fanfare to the now customary performance of Handel's Messiah, there are few signs of the evening being the work of a council elected by one of the world's most culturally diverse cities.

Māori protocol is a given at council functions and the ceremony included a rendition of Pokarekare Ana by the Stellar Singers.

Mayor Phil Goff thought the evening's mix was appropriate.

"From the people afterwards, from a cross-section of the community, they very much enjoyed the entertainment provided," said Mr Goff.

"If you look at the composition of the Stellar Singers, and Auckland Choral, that is where we did get a cross section with people from the Asian community very much participating in that event."

Auckland Council recently spent $1.2 million in a voting campaign trying to convince the city's different communities that it was relevant and important to them.

Mr Collins wants to see future council inaugurations do better.

"Because it's important that the wider population feels that they are being represented, that they can see their colours and flavours in it, and I think we need to do better to ensure that everybody feels a part of it.

"I don't think we've got the diversity right in those inaugurations."

Ms Delbet chaired the committee which organised the event and said they did consider groups such as Polyfest performers or a dance group but their cost, availability, or stage management created problems.

The budget for the evening was $53,000.

Ms Delbet said they had tried to acknowledge diversity and were open to ideas for the 2019 event.

Auckland Council Inauguration Ceremony

The traditional inauguration is the third staged by Auckland Council in the Great Hall. Photo: RNZ / Todd Niall

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs