Testing times for Devoy

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 10:54 26/03/2013

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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 Treaty-related 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 liberal-baiting 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.

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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.

Her success or otherwise will depend on which aspect of her personality - the part that decries Treaty-related protest on Waitangi Day, or the part that celebrates this country's "diverse cultures" - comes to the fore.

- The Wellingtonian

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