Devoy’d of credibility

Someone confused multivitamins and multiculturalism, and unfortunately for us, it was Susan Devoy.

Full disclosure: I used to work at the Human Rights Commission, although not for the office of the Race Relations Commissioner. I also consider the former Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres a friend.  (However, shitloads of other people do too.  He’s super friendly.)

Poor Susan Devoy.  Once an ex-sports star merely reduced to hocking multivites; now a national joke upon her appointment as New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner despite her admitted ignorance of the state of New Zealand race relations.

Because no-one cares about squash, I can’t even come up with a sport metaphor to describe the epic degree of this failure.  And I’m pretty late to commenting on this, because I’m tired and on the other side of the world.  But I made a pun!  Worth sharing.

A more intelligent comment by a friend on Facebook sums it up far better: “There is not even a pretense of giving a damn. In fact it’s the opposite – it is an aggressive statement that there is one way now and if you don’t like it, don’t expect any respect, understanding or compromise.” (Thanks Claire Foster – and not even an ethnic minority!)

Radio Live also captured it pretty well with their title for her floundering interview the other day: “Is the new Race Relations Commissioner out of her depth?”

The quotes in this latest story are possibly even more depressing: The mental image of Devoy hurriedly cramming like a first year politics student who’d spent all semester in the pub begs the question: why didn’t they just appoint a first year politics student who’d spent all semester in the pub?

Also, she’s not quite sure what ethnicity she is.  I guess she’ll be on the road to self-discovery then… like a first year politics student.

To be blunt, her appointment is a slap in the face to every ethnic minority in the country who has ever experienced racism.

However, it’s also rather unfortunate for Susan Devoy.  Because technically, she has a job to do and won’t be able to do it.

One of the more important parts of the job of Race Relations Commissioner is this thing called informal mediation.  It’s not as easy as writing columns in provincial newspapers saying we should all forget the past and get along, but is the task of working directly with people who can’t stand each other so that communities can, in practical terms, get along.

Justice Minister Judith Collins has defended the Devoy appointment in terms that appear to admit Devoy cannot credibly bring people together, saying “The role is commissioner not conciliator.”  You get that? She’s gonna *commission* us some race relations.

Yes, there are Human Rights Commission mediators for complaints that are within the remit of the Human Rights Act, and the Commissioner isn’t one of those mediators.  But in certain special cases, if the national boss of Race Relations can’t show leadership and bring people to the table, who will?

I recall Joris de Bres handling some very hairy informal mediations.  Getting the Roskill Tongan and Somali communities to make peace after that whole ‘death by machete’ thing. Bringing Muslim community representatives to hash things out with the editor of the Dominion Post after that paper’s publication of the ‘Mohammed cartoons’.  Paul Holmes (PBUH) speaking out loud on any given day.

Aggrieved communities could trust that de Bres was someone who knew their issues inside out, would provide a space for them to get their point across, and wasn’t going to insult or patronise them.  He could bring them to the table to sit down with assholes.

By contrast, Devoy is starting out with a massive credibility deficit.  It might take some effort to get aggrieved communities to even sit down at a table with her.  Not to say she’s an asshole – her Aussie-lovin’ Waitangi Day and burka comments probably only merit a 3 on the Michael Laws ass-scale.  But her appointment alone may make her the first Race Relations Commissioner to actually make race relations worse – and all before she even starts the job.

17 comments

  1. Bobby

    Joris De Bres came from a background in corporate PR for Dept of Conservation and similar – nothing whatsoever to do with race relations. Devoy has a more varied background in dealing with different types of groups of people that De Bres who, in case people have short memories, had become increasingly weird in his public comments – often seeming to side with people who made clearly racist or divisive public comments. Give Devoy a go – she was an incredibly capable person in many stages of her life.

    • tzeming

      Hi Bobby. As a matter of fact, Joris was active in the anti-apartheid movement, and heavily involved in the Coalition for Racial Equality and Halt All Racist Tours in the 70s (spelling out the acronyms here in full for those with short memories). He was in fact the secretary and vice-president of CARE.

  2. Anonymous

    To be fair, this does have the whiff of something that was cooked up at a barbecue over summer. Susan might have thought she could do it with a few pinots under her belt, but she’s clearly out of her depth now.

    No doubt she will brazen it out and just be a mouthpiece, as originally planned – once they teach her to stop dictating her personal opinions to journalists.

  3. AL

    Comment I put on Facebook yesterday in response to someone saying WOW over the appointment…
    She’s on 210k a year…WOW. In an interview with Duncan Garner on Radio Live she couldn’t make a single coherent comment on race relations in NZ…it’s not WOW it’s WTF!!!. In my last job interview (and the one before that) I had to clearly outline my vision for the role and how I would implement it..WTF x5. When asked for her opinion on the state of race relations in NZ, she said “I’ve only just got the job, it’s a little early for that” WTF x 10…. I’m sure she is a great person and clearly pretty handy on the squash court but…..

  4. Christopher Wingate (@WingateKiwi)

    I know both Susan and her husband John. Brilliant family / community people- sharp- focused – honest- unbiased – perfect for the job.Critics need to know Susan to know her walk- raised in the Bay of Plenty, traveled just about every corner of the globe, she has seen plenty.She is tough and most of all she is fair and will not back down from any wrong no matter the political price. I have dealt with government for some 30 years- many of them in the front row and the problem NZ has so often is spineless leadership. You will not get that from Susan Devoy

    • Al

      No one’s doubting her personality, values etc. The question is, does she have the skills, experience for the job? Would like to be operated on by a doctor who hadn’t been to medical school, but was a great squash player and had been on a charity walk??

    • tzeming

      I was initially inclined to be sympathetic regarding Devoy’s reputation as a thoroughly nice person with various principles etc who could feasibly grow in the job despite her ignorance of the issues, fundamentally problematic public opinions, and the act of political trolling that was her appointment in the first place. Then it was revealed yesterday that she went to Fiji in 1988 to play squash personally with General Rabuka, as Fijian Indians were fleeing to New Zealand to escape his racial persecution. See Herald article: Fresh doubts over race role. I actually find this pretty shocking. Imagine appointing an ex-All Black who played the rebel tour of apartheid South Africa as Race Relations Commissioner.

  5. Marty

    I get the impression some members of ethnic minorities are enjoying the chance to feel important by slagging someone whose achievements, determination, fairness, honesty and intelligence are well established. Joris may have done a brilliant job but who would know it – to the average NZer he comes across as a wet, Wadestown liberal.

  6. Trax

    Hi folks…..
    she’s only been there five minutes and you’re jumping in boots n all
    give her a chance
    and if perchance she does prove you wrong have the decency to come out and say so.

    • tzeming

      I have no doubt that she is going to try her best in this job. It would actually make a great premise for a sitcom or dramedy (as opposed to a human resources best-practice for employing qualified candidates) – think Northern Exposure: A fish-out-of-water who never wanted to be there, is banished to a bleak, frosty landscape where the natives are bemused at best, hostile at worse, and the newcomer is forced to earn their respect by going through a six-season-long journey of personal discovery and learning about this completely different way of living, rife with laughs, shenanigans, sexual tension, quaint indigenous rituals and magical realist moments of revelation. At the end of their long run, the protagonist breaks down and ‘goes native’, growing a beard and kayaking into the far north to live off the land.

  7. David Small

    Surely the issue here is not Devoy herself but the govt’s decision to appoint her. Hell, who wouldn’t take a job on a massive salary to just do your best on things that you never even claimed to have any expertise on in the first place? She was appointed because the govt knows they can count on her to adopt a conservative stance on any given position, and race relations is one area where they want a conservative positions to be accorded a higher status.

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