Mar 22, 2013

Dame Susan Devoy: race relations "not complicated"

Anyone who thinks Aotearoa’s race-relations culture isn’t complicated is by definition not equipped for the job of guiding and guarding it. Not only is our new Race Relations Commissioner ashamed of our national day, but as far as she’s concerned it’s just another ism — revealing how little she must know about disability, employment or gender issues into the bargain. 

That’s from Lew, and he’s nailed it. He was referring to the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy – the new Race Relations Commissioner. Lew, Tim Selwyn, Bomber and No Right Turn have covered why the appointment stinks, but the commentary has missed a few key points.

The world is embracing different forms of bicultural and multicultural pluralism. Witness Canada and the developing “Nation to Nation” relationship with indigenous people, notice positive constitutional recognition in Australia for Aboriginal people and turn towards the United Nations and their endorsement of and advocacy for indigenous “self-determination”. New Zealand is no different. We’re no longer a cultural and political monolith. Tuhoe is inching closer and closer to mana motuhake*, the government is devolving power to ethnic authorities** and the Maori, Asian and Pasifika populations are projected to increase significantly. That’s going to push against our social fabric. The Race Relations Conciliator – and I’m deliberately using that term – is becoming more important, not less. Devoy has neither the weight nor the depth to deal with issues at this level.

Of course, this is an outstanding appointment from the government’s point of view:

Dame Susan has little or no high-level experience in the field, and I suppose the thinking is that she brings a clean slate to the role or, to put it another way, her thinking and the degree of her engegement with the issues will be more easily influenced by the prevailing governmental culture. [link]

That’s right, but I think it’s worth mentioning that New Zealand doesn’t have a strong human rights tradition. In many respects, it’s part of our colonial hangover. We’ve inherited the English suspicion of human rights and the idea that the protection of any rights – should they exist at all – lay with “representative and responsible government” and not the Courts or legislation.*** That’d seem to brush against Kiwi egalitarianism, but it’s worth remembering that our egalitarian tradition has and is suspicious of rights available to some and not all. Human rights, let alone indigenous rights, are not sewn in our social fabric. Contrast that with, say, the United States and their furious veneration for First Amendment rights. I wouldn’t be surprised if Collins knew she could get away with a patsy, pro-forma and pathetic appointment.

And it’s pathetic. I’m not going to dance around it. The primary role of the Race Relations Conciliator is, essentially, to protect minorities. All evidence suggests that Devoy is incapable of that. After all, this is a person who finds Burqa “disconcerting” and thinks that Waitangi Day should be scrapped because it is a day of “political shenanigans” and not one of “true celebration and pride”.**** I can’t trust her to protect me or anyone like me from discrimination, the tyranny of the majority or anything else. This is a person who doesn’t understand – even at the lowest level – what it means to be Maori or a minority. A brain of feathers, as they say.

With that in mind, I support Annette Sykes call for Devoy to resign.

Post script: I recommend reading Catherine Delahunty's piece on the sham appointment too.

* If you missed it, it’s worth watching Guyon Espiner’s story on Tuhoe plans – and apparent government acquiescence – for mana motuhake. 

**Whanau Ora is the most prominent example, but there are Pacific providers as well. It’s also worth considering the role of iwi in their provincial economies and the New Zealand economy as a whole. Power, if only a little, is shifting. 

***See The New Zealand Bill of Rights 
(Oxford University Press, 2003) by Paul Rishworth .

****Anyone that doesn't understand Waitangi Day in its historical, political and social context should be immediately disqualified from going anywhere near race relations. Waitangi Day is a fundamental part of our racial politic and social fabric. Anything less than full understanding of that is unacceptable. 


  1. Dame Susan Devoy is part Maori but she is conservative it’s like putting Winston Peters the leader of Wogistan First party in the role. Where did she do her Diversity training or Human rights laws degree or even partake in Kapa Haka. This is Nationals attempt to scrap the role because the majority are not being discriminated against who cares about the ethnic minorities e.g Muslims, Maori, Pacific etc

  2. Who cares? The RRC Office is just another piece of institutional twaddle. Where race/culture and every other kind of diversity matters is at society's ground zero - in the home, on the streets, in the workplace etc Why take our cues on our behaviour and etiquette from above? It's not like they're saints.



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