Test­ing times ahead for Devoy

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

One use­ful thing the ap­point­ment of Dame Su­san Devoy as our next Race Re­la­tions Com­mis­sioner has done is to make peo­ple think about what Race Re­la­tion Com­mis­sion­ers ac­tu­ally do to earn their keep.

No doubt Devoy will put her own stamp on the job con­tent.

Judg­ing by her pre­de­ces­sor, Joris De Bres, the post seems to in­volve de­vis­ing pro­grammes that pro­mote racial, re­li­gious and lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity in lo­cal and cen­tral government, and within busi­ness and com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions as well.

Much of the work calls for skills in lis­ten­ing to griev­ances and de­vis­ing work­able so­lu­tions, be­fore things boil over into open con­fronta­tion.

It also in­volves ap­pear­ing be­fore the United Na­tions to report on New Zealand’s ef­forts in pro­mot­ing di­ver­sity, and in pro­tect­ing mi­nori­ties from dis­crim­i­na­tion. Is Devoy up to such chal­lenges? Crit­ics feel she brings few rel­e­vant skills and lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence to the job, and some of her views – ex­pressed in a cou­ple of rel­a­tively re­cent news­pa­per col­umns – were taken to in­di­cate that she has lit­tle tol­er­ance for Treatyre­lated protest, or for the ex­pres­sion of re­li­gious and cul­tural di­ver­sity via the burqa.

Even some who came out in sup­port of her ap­point­ment did so with faint praise.

Colum­nist Michael Laws, for ex­am­ple, de­scribed Devoy as ‘‘ a Tau­ranga mum [who] is no great brain and no es­pe­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tor’’.

The pol­i­tics of the Devoy ap­point­ment were straight­for­ward.

Com­pared to de Bres (who was a Clark Government se­lec­tion) Devoy rep­re­sents a marked shift to the cen­tre right of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, and there seemed to be an el­e­ment of de­lib­er­ate lib­er­al­bait­ing by Jus­tice Min­is­ter Ju­dith Collins in the way she de­fended the ap­point­ment.

Noth­ing sur­pris­ing about any of that.

Early mis­giv­ings aside, the re­al­ity is that Devoy now has a five-year term stretch­ing in front of her.

On pa­per, she has some po­ten­tially rel­e­vant skills. Her ex­ten­sive char­ity work among those with men­tal and phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, for ex­am­ple, goes well be­yond merely lend­ing her name to wor­thy causes.

Fa­mously, she once walked the length of the coun­try and raised $500,000 for the Mus­cu­lar Dys­tro­phy Foun­da­tion. She has also fundraised for child can­cer char­i­ties, em­ployed peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and pub­licly urged other busi­nesses to do like­wise.

Over the years, she has built up con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence in com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions, lo­cal health boards, and within sports bod­ies in the Bay of Plenty.

Cer­tainly, her no­to­ri­ous col­umn about Wai­tangi Day protests is ‘‘dis­con­cert­ing’’ – to use her term – in the light of her new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Yet Devoy could also point to a dif­fer­ent news­pa­per col­umn, in which she ad­vo­cated New Zealand be­com­ing a repub­lic, and for rea­sons that seem en­tirely con­sis­tent with her new job: ‘‘Which­ever way you lean,’’ she wrote, ‘‘the monar­chy is a colo­nial hang­over from the past. We are a com­mu­nity now of di­verse cul­tures. We have dif­fer­ent de­mo­graph­ics and a dif­fer­ent vi­sion from the coun­try where the Queen re­sides.

‘‘ I think the time is coming when we need a Kiwi head of state.’’

We will get to know Su­san Devoy a lot bet­ter over the next five years.

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