Selections matter

Justice Minister Judith Collins has appointed Dame Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner.

She replaces Joris de Bres, who has served two five-year terms and is very well-regarded in Māoridom (at least) because (in part) he understands the importance of his own Dutch whakapapa, and the complexity of his place as an immigrant in Aotearoa. As Bryce Edwards and Morgan Godfery have noted, he has also shown an unusual willingness to comment on issues related to his mandate of opposing racism.

No doubt this fact has informed Collins’ decision to appoint someone less feisty. 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. But Dame Susan is not a blank slate. A week ahead of Paul Holmes’ now-infamous Waitangi Day a complete waste column, she wrote one of her own that, although it employed language more befitting a Dame, nevertheless expressed similar sentiments. One year ago our new Race Relations Commissioner wished that instead of Waitangi Day we could have “a day that we don’t feel ashamed to be a New Zealander” and pined after a holiday like that celebrated in Australia, where — a few recent and grudging obeisances aside — 50,000 years of history and the brutal facts of the settlement of that land are blithely ignored in a jingoistic celebration of Ocker Pride.

That would be bad enough, but it gets worse: Dame Susan doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing:

Jacob McSweeney: “She admits she doesn’t have a wealth of experience in race relations, but she says the job isn’t overly complicated.”
Susan Devoy: “I don’t think it’ll make it any more difficult than dealing with any other issues, I mean, you know, this is all under the Chief Human Rights Commission [sic], and so therefore whether it’s disability or gender or employment or race, you know, the issues are not dissimilar. This is just about making it right for every New Zealander.”

(From Checkpoint.)

This is a terrible appointment. 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.

So as far as that goes, she looks like the perfect post-ideological, post-identity selection for such a job: a common-sense managerialist who, to the limited extent that she understands the issues in play, finds them distasteful.

What a good opportunity for Labour! The National government, at a time when racial and cultural tensions are a major issue, clearly doesn’t value race relations sufficiently to put anyone competent in the job. But the Labour party has selection problems of its own: an Ethnic Affairs spokesperson who is a former race relations commissioner (Rajen Prasad) so far down the list that he doesn’t get a ranking; and a Māori Affairs spokesperson — and former minister — Parekura Horomia, also unranked. Labour is perilously short on brown faces, with none in the top five and one — Shane Jones — in the top 10, and him only recently returned from purgatory. Morgan Jack McDonald has some advice on this topic.

The hard truth is that Labour isn’t in a position to criticise the government on race relations issues. This is due to their internal failures of strategy, not due to exigencies forced upon them. For all that the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy to Race Relations Commissioner is terrible, the Key government has done a lot more than expected in other areas of race relations, particularly with regard to progressing Treaty settlements. That gives them cover. They’ve gotten away with worse than this appointment, and they’ll keep getting away with it as long as the major party of opposition lets them.


(Thanks to James Macbeth Dann for drawing my attention to Dame Susan’s column, which was plucked from obscurity by Coley Tangerina.)

31 thoughts on “Selections matter

  1. Chris, not an area of my expertise, but many countries have statutory agencies for the protection of human rights generally — National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) — mostly under the UN framework. Of course the mandate and quality of these varies immensely. I’m aware of a Race Relations Foundation in Canada, appointed by the government, with similar functions to NZ. In addition, many post-conflict societies have reconciliation agencies of one sort or another, the most notable being South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But this agency is a pretty far cry from our RRC.


  2. Lew: Agreed. Her comments on Radionz devalued the work of all previous HRC.

    I was less impressed with Radionz not following up on her less-than-intelligent statement.

    Yet Mary Wilson )Radionz drive-time) viciously attacked Annette Sykes for correctly analysing the emptiness of Devoy’s comments.

    And Wilson continued to demonstrate her impatience by continually deriding Sykes doing exactly what Wilson is renown for. Go figure.

  3. Lew: Agreed. Devoy’s comments on Radionz devalued the work & reputation of all previous HR Commissioners.

    I was less impressed with Radionz not following up on Devoy’s less-than-intelligent statement.

    Yet Mary Wilson (RNZ drive-time) viciously attacked Annette Sykes for correctly analysing the emptiness of Devoy’s comments.

    Wilson impatiently derided Sykes doing exactly what Wilson is renown for. Go figure.

    Judith Collins mirrored Wilson’s behaviour. Will Collins monitor Devoy’s future opinions?

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  5. I too think Devoy’s appointment is curious, but it does beg the question what sort of qualifications would be relevant anyway for the position of Race Relations Commissioner?

    Her predecessor, Joris de Bres, if his Keywiki entry ( is to be believed, spent a good part of his adult life before his appointment, involving himself in left-wing protest activity. Perhaps that is why he refused to rule against Hone Hawaira’s inflammatory “white mother-fucker” statement, saying that this was simply “freedom of speech”.

    It seems quite incongruous that Devoy’s recent article is being used to attack her suitability for appointment, given her predecessor had had a lifetime of involvement in so many left wing political “causes” before his own appointment.

    This may be just a case of sour grapes on the part of the left that a centre-right Government has decided against appointing another left-leaning political activist to the position.

  6. Chris,

    As far as Trevor Loudon is concerned everyone to the left of Sir Roger Douglas is a communist.

    The problem isn’t that Dame Susan has political views — everyone does. It’s not even that those views are right-wing — they’re not especially. There are right-aligned people who would be suitable for a role like this; Sir Wira Gardiner would be an example of this. The problem isn’t her politics — it’s that her views, as expressed, are at odds with the role of the RRC and, much more importantly, that she lacks any expertise in the field to which she has been appointed.


  7. Lew,

    Yes I see your point. However I think a bit of fresh blood is overdue – more important than “experience’ (whatever that might be for this particular appointment). Frankly I’m tired of successive Government’s choosing a good old reliable safe pair of hands of a known quantity.

    I think the likes of Wira Gardiner (age 68), Dame Margaret Bazley (age 75), Mel Smith and Judith Aitken, et al, have all had their opportunities, and now its time for someone younger to be allowed to shine through.

    I often wonder how the Dotcom affair might have played out differently if the Inspector General of Intelligence was not some octogenarian geriatric, but rather a younger more proactive guardian of our intelligence agencies. Neazor is a complete dud, but a compliant one

    I don’t know if Davoy will be any good, but really her predecessors as Race Relations Commissioner hardly covered themselves in glory, and none I am aware have gone onto better things, unless you count being a weekend radio host on the National Programme as a step up (Laidlaw), or an “invisible” MP (Prasad).

    Come to think of it, Dr Paul Buchanan would have been an inspiring choice too – either Race Relations or Inspector General !

  8. If my memory serves me correctly, around 1999 Susan Devoy, who now says she has to be “ the voice of reason” ….. forthrightly supported the parents of a child with cancer in their shunning of western medicine in favour of quackery. The statistics for a recovery from convention medicine were somewhat greater than 50%, yet the child died in a Mexican clinic. That does not show much ability to reason. Does Justice Minister Collins consider that that child received justice?

  9. I remember seeing Devoy debate on some TV show awhile ago. She came across as a bully, interrupting and refusing to listen. So I can certainly see what Judith Collins likes about her.

  10. I cant see what all the noise is about. Personally I think this country needs a race relations manager like we need another hole in the head. I think its the first step down the path of hate speech laws (which as we can see in all countries that have gone down that path that it only makes matters worse and in a way sort of proves that hate is part of life).
    Deveoy is as qualified as anyone else for this job. most of the previous holders of this position have displayed quite strong racist biases – and i expect she will be the same – we are all racist in our views (either positively or negatively) – but it does seem that she might be a bit more neutral than others.

  11. I have decided to adopt a new rule of thumb about commentators. Anyone who writes a variant of “we are all racist…” as a defense of his/her views is simply not credible. Such people are either stirring or dull.

  12. I had heard she was seeming a bit lame at appointment but i thought it was too early to judge. However I was watching Campbell Live last night about a race relations office and she said she couldnt comment this week.
    Itd almost be funny if the dept wasnt so costly

  13. Michael@08:04am – Devoy’s first day in her new appointment began 48 hours ago, on Tuesday 2 April, and you come on here to complain that she would not front for a TV show screening on Wednesday 3 April.

    For all I know, she may be a complete dud, or a wonderful race relations mediator. But whatever she is, you are being totally unrealistic passing judgement on her because she refused to appear on TV within a day of starting her (part-time) job.

    Indeed the television media’s recent filmed stalking of Devoy and family members around her neighbourhood, repeatedly screening film of reporters walking up her path and knocking on her front door wanting to interview her, filming her car being driven on the streets, etc, is likely to have left Devoy somewhat hostile to the media.

    If Devoy avoids the media, it will because of her shoddy and immature treatment by them, even before she started the job. If she makes herself unavailable for comment the media will only have itself to blame.

  14. Chris, if she was so good for the job dont you think she would of being capable of some sort of a response/comment straight away?
    If she cant handle the media she was obviously a bad appointment too

  15. The list of RRCs since the 1972 inception is not exactly an honor roll imo. Hiwi Tauroa in particular, 1980–86, being Muldoon’s mate during the Springbok tour. Joris would certainly lead the pack.

    Dame Susan disqualifies herself from the position in her own book “Out on Top” where she admits considering playing in South Africa for financial gain. Others have said “but she did not go”. No, but neither did she say “I am not going because I support the South African people and oppose Apartheid” which may have made her more suitable for the job.

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  17. Tiger Mountain – your argument is undermined by the fact that unlike Devoy, Chris Laidlaw (a former Race Relations Conciliator) DID play against the apartheid-era Springboks, for years in fact, before his appointment.

    Funny eh that this did not disqualify HIM from the position, that Devoy now occupies.

  18. Which is why I rate Joris out of all the RRCs so far. Laidlaw’s thugby time was in the pre professional era and was not paid. And he has recanted.

    But the fact remains Dame Susan is underqualified for the position.

  19. The other thing about Laidlaw is that, at the time he played, almost nobody boycotted South Africa. Sports boycotts were hardly even a thing. The IOC was first (South Africa was banned from the 1964 Olympics) FIFA banned them in 1966, after the All Blacks’ 1965 tour in which Laidlaw played. Most of the boycotts came into force during the 1970s after he had taken up his scholarship at Oxford.

    Devoy, on the other hand, played 20 years later while the boycotts were in full effect.


  20. I’m glad I don’t live in NZ anymore. You people just can’t stand that a European NZ’er has been appointed race relations commissioner.

    ps. Aboriginals were in Australia for what, 40000+ years and all they invented was a stick.

  21. Indeed, one cannot beat Alix’s stick argument.

    I wonder what s/he thinks about red hair?

  22. @Alix – And yet somehow they managed to survive all that time in arguably the least hospitable environment on earth for all of that time. 40,000 years is quite a remarkable achievement on a continent where almost everything can kill you. Dare I say it, but it must have taken a fair bit of adaptability and ingenuity to do so, probably also incredible intelligence.

    But of course, that couldn’t be the case right? I’m sure you’d be able to live out your entire life in the Outback desert, well, for the three days that you’d survive there at least. Please, do us all a favour and try it.

  23. Normally I would have deleted Alix’s comment as braindead offensiveness. I decided to leave it up as a testament to ethnocentrism. But please, there’s no need to counter-troll.


  24. @Lew – Counter-troll? Not intended to be that. Its just a point I like to make whenever I see the argument that societies that weren’t technologically advanced on a westernisation model were somehow inferior culturally or socially, stupider, etc. But fair enough, pretty off topic in regards to the OP.

  25. awbraae, yes, a valid point and one I’ve made before as well. But there’s probably no use in arguing with this one.


  26. Christ you lot must be absolute mongs to think that Australia is just a big desert. Get back to your bongo drum circle.

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