Editorial: Devoy admirable but ill-suited to job

Last updated 06:06 25/03/2013

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Dame Susan Devoy is one of our greatest sporting stars. The former world squash champion has also shown she is more than just a superlatively gifted athlete.

She has done splendid work for charity, walking the length of the land to raise money for the fight against muscular dystrophy. She has taken an interest in public affairs and spoken out about various causes. She is a civic-minded person and she has achieved world fame in her field.

But these fine qualities don't necessarily equip her to be race relations commissioner.

And some of her public remarks suggest she is not in fact suited for the job.

The race relations commissioner does not have to have a pious opinion about the role of protest on Waitangi Day. Nor is it wrong to want the national day to be a day of celebration. But consider what she actually wrote.

She said: "The reality is that most New Zealanders either couldn't care less or are frustrated that what should be a day of national celebration is marred by political shenanigans."

These phrases don't show much of an understanding of the roots of Maori protest, or of the genuine grievances that prompted them. Maori protest is more than just "shenanigans".

Perhaps she was just enjoying the columnist's freedom to be colourful. Unfortunately, her public remarks since then haven't helped much. Asked for her opinions, she offers bromides and banalities and then pleads to keep her counsel till she has spent more time on the job.

Asked what experience has equipped her for the job, she replies that she was brought up in Rotorua, where there are many Maori people.

This really won't do. The position of race relations commissioner is not earmarked for political liberals or retired protesters. But it does need someone who is aware of cultural complexities and who has thought deeply about them. It is a role where finesse and political skill are needed.

The minister who appointed her, Judith Collins, says the far Left does not have a monopoly on caring about race relations. She admires Dame Susan's "spine", and points out that she has experience of being in a minority, as a woman on male-dominated boards.

This is not convincing. The jibe about the "far Left" is a crack at Joris de Bres, the Left-liberal who has just stepped down as commissioner. De Bres made an ass of himself by saying the colonisation of New Zealand was "a sorry litany of cultural vandalism" comparable to the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

But having a "spine" doesn't necessarily make a woman a good race relations commissioner.

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And being a minority in a boardroom does not give great insight into the life of ethnic minorities either.

The commissioner doesn't have to belong to a minority - commissioner Chris Laidlaw was a Pakeha - and doesn't have to have any particular set of political beliefs.

Dame Susan is conscientious and well meaning and will do her best in her new role. But was she really the best person the Government could find to fill this important post?

- The Dominion Post


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