Squashed in court of public opinion

Tough serve: Mindful that she has some past comments to live down, Dame Susan Devoy has a vision of New Zealand as a genuinely inclusive and tolerant society.
Tough serve: Mindful that she has some past comments to live down, Dame Susan Devoy has a vision of New Zealand as a genuinely inclusive and tolerant society.

Dame Susan Devoy has been shoulder tapped to run for Parliament by almost every political party except the Greens. And NZ First.

The former squash champion turned mother turned health supplement endorser turned leader of various organisations in various sectors was, two years ago, voted New Zealand's fifth-most-trustworthy person.

Then in 2011, she was asked to become a columnist for the Bay of Plenty Times. Over the years since her retirement from sport in 1992, Devoy had, for some reason, gained a reputation for being constantly feisty, outspoken and controversial. Looking back over her year of columns, it's not clear why.

In her year-long stint with the paper, she penned pieces on, among other topics, child abuse (it's murder pure and simple), community service (there are remarkable people in the community) and the royal wedding.

However, Devoy was told by the Bay of Plenty Times that she was not being controversial enough. She was informing too much, she says the paper told her. She wasn't polarising enough. Her byline stopped appearing early last year.

"I didn't want to walk into a supermarket and have people have a go at me," she says from her home overlooking the Tauranga inlet. "That's not what it's about, getting up people's noses,"

So last week when Devoy was announced as race relations commissioner (the change from "conciliator" was made in 2002), a position with a broad mandate to strengthen cultural diversity and improve race relations, there was some surprise at the backlash she received.

Columnists, bloggers and radio hosts called her "thin-lipped and prickly", that she didn't "have a clue what she is doing" and that she was clearly "out of her depth". Then, the final slap in the face: controversial NZ First MP Richard Prosser, who penned a widely lambasted anti-Muslim article last month, said he thought Devoy would be "superb" in the role. He had shared a plane ride with her once, he said.

"There is no denying that this is a huge challenge in my life," Devoy says. "I'm under no illusions how difficult it might be but maybe I didn't realise how difficult it might be starting."

She has not had a proper induction into the role, she hasn't signed a contract and hasn't even started the position which will take her away from her family of husband, four children, a cat and two kittens for extended periods of time. Her kitchen table is piled high with reading material.

When she was appointed, her lack of governance experience caused some uproar.

Justice Minister Judith Collins, who is responsible for the role, cited Devoy's time as a board member on several councils, including the Auckland District Health Board and her time as the chief executive and chair of Sport Bay of Plenty, as proof of her governance experience.

But she is used to the media calling down her capabilities, she says. The late Paul Holmes once asked, Devoy remembers: "What would she know? She is just a dumb sports jock."

But it was two particular columns she wrote for the Bay of Plenty Times that have raised the most eyebrows.

One was about Waitangi Day and her opinion that the occasion had been "hijacked" by "political shenanigans".

"We deserve a day of true celebration and pride," she wrote. "We need a day that doesn't necessarily replace Waitangi Day but complements it . . . This would leave Waitangi Day to be the day that recognises the importance of Maori, but the door open for a day that we don't feel ashamed to be a New Zealander."

As a result of that particular opinion, Ngapuhi leader David Rankin stated he had no confidence in Devoy as the race relations commissioner.

"She is utterly clueless about our culture and the issues that we, as Maori, face," he said in a statement.

Devoy says she has regularly witnessed the casual racism of New Zealanders. But still, she continues, there is no civil war and we are in a much better position than other countries.

Mana Party member Annette Sykes said the appointment was an affront as only people with an "intimate knowledge" of the Treaty of Waitangi could be qualified to be commissioner.

"How does she know that I don't have an intimate knowledge of the treaty?" Devoy asks.

Well, does she?

Devoy says she understands the treaty from "my own perspective" and even though she does not know what Sykes means by "intimate" she has certainly read it. However, she would not go into more detail about what she thought the treaty meant.

"I've taken lots of flak and now I'm a bit gun shy. When you are pushed into a corner you don't necessarily come out fighting."

Give her a month or so, she says, and she will get her "mojo" back.

Devoy is used to people getting things out of context.

Ten years ago she was harangued for supposedly telling a reporter that he need not worry after her husband's business had gone into receivership - it was not as if they were living in a "Papakura caravan park". She says she was misquoted but still took the flak and penned her first and only letter to the editor apologising for her choice of words.

In July 2011, she wrote in her column about the case of a Saudi Arabian woman who was forced to remove her veil on a Christchurch bus. Devoy used it as an opportunity to discuss the controversy around the burqa, or full-length veil. The fact that she found the garb "disconcerting" was picked up by media and used to argue that she had a less-than-savoury view about cultural diversity.

Her following sentence, however, was largely ignored. "I do believe that we should work hard to develop a society that is genuinely inclusive and tolerant of other people's cultures and beliefs."

Devoy says that, taken in context, the premise the media used to accuse her of being a certain type of person doesn't actually exist.

"Nobody likes to be labelled. I don't like being labelled as some feisty tough whatever. It's just human nature, I suppose. So many people judge people. I've been judged and I haven't even got into the role yet. This is my opportunity to earn that respect and show I'm worthy and I'll get that chance I hope."

So why did she take so many interviews without having an "intimate" knowledge of what her job entailed? "You can't hide and be a big wimp."

Devoy says she doesn't want to become so scared that she's not be able to express a viewpoint. "We have become indoctrinated by this whole politically correct thing and I certainly don't want to be involved with that. I just tell myself I'm going to be my own person."

Though, she admits, this will be her last interview for a while.

Sunday Star Times