Frustrated effort to discuss race relations appointment

WALL OF CONFIDENTIALITY: Race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.
WALL OF CONFIDENTIALITY: Race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.

Tens of thousands of young New Zealanders are having trouble finding a job at present. The Government's brilliant solution is to give employers the ability to pay them less. The employers already have the legal right to let them go after a three-month trial period during which they have bugger-all workplace protection.

There is no empirical evidence to suggest these measures will make any difference but job seeking isn't just a problem for the young and inexperienced.

Take Barry Lovegrove, 71, former district court judge, lawyer and academic, previously shortlisted for the position as race relations commissioner and a keen applicant for the position.

Mr Lovegrove's CV looks like a pretty good blueprint for a good race relations commissioner.

He has vast experience in the law at a local and international level, years of community service and engagement with some of our more challenged communities, and a real desire to do the job.

All factors that seemed in accord with the written guidelines that are meant to govern the appointment. But Mr Lovegrove was told, five months after he applied for the position and had heard nothing, that he didn't make the shortlist because there wasn't one. Two weeks later he was told there was a shortlist but he didn't get on it and despite repeated requests for some guidance as to why not he has heard nothing more.

Now, as much as you might think Mr Lovegrove's appearance on television this week was a case of sour grapes, I reckon he had a more than valid gripe.

It was a frustration I shared as I tried to get a radio interview with Justice Minister Judith Collins this week.

All I wanted to know was what process was used to appoint Dame Susan Devoy who, by her own admission, was shoulder tapped for the job and never applied.

We also understand she was third choice behind former All Black Michael Jones and netballer Irene Van Dyk. I wanted to know if any actual applicants had been considered for the position and whether there had been a shortlist or not. I also wanted to know who had decided to ignore the guidelines regarding the skills and experience needed to be race relations commissioner and why Mr Lovegrove had not been considered. The request ended up with Rachael Bowie, one of a number of taxpayer funded staffers in Judith Collins' office.

Here is her reply: "No - the minister is not engaging in this sort of thing. This situation is no different to any other employment matter in which there is an expectation and a right to confidentiality. This office is not confirming, or providing any information on who was or was not considered for the role or reasons why. Thanks, Rachael."

So it appeared the confidentiality of Mr Lovegrove was the only issue preventing the minister appearing.

No problem, we talked to Mr Lovegrove and sent this response: "We have just received a confidentiality waiver from Mr Lovegrove - and therefore would like to again invite the minister on with Sean Plunket to discuss this."

But then the waiver didn't really seem to be the problem.

"It is irrelevant that RadioLIVE has received a confidentiality waiver from Mr Lovegrove.

"Mr Lovegrove did not apply for a job with RadioLIVE. In any case, it remains entirely inappropriate for the minister to publicly discuss the relative merits or otherwise of applicants, as is standard practice.

"I do not agree that the public interest or accountability in this matter outweighs applicants' rights to be treated with respect.

"Despite Mr Lovegrove's obvious disappointment, it would be completely inappropriate for the minister to make any comment that could be regarded as critical of him.

"Thanks Rachael."

Well thanks for nothing, Ms Bowie and Minister Collins.

I don't think it is your job to decide what is in the public interest or not but as a journalist it is my job to try to shine some light on matters that seem murky.

I don't know Dame Susan but it appears to me she is struggling in her new job perhaps because Ms Collins chose to abandon the normal procedures for hiring a race relations commissioner.

I certainly hope the minister's employment practices aren't adopted by any airlines, district health boards or law firms that fly, treat or represent me.

The Dominion Post