Dame undaunted by flying flak

By John Cousins

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New Zealand's culture is to put people down and not pick them up, New Zealand's controversial new Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy says.

In a candid interview with the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, the Tauranga woman admitted her appointment had translated into complaints being lodged with the commission she now headed.

It was an ironical turn of events, spurred by media disclosures that caused some high-profile politicians and Maori leaders to question her suitability for the job.

"Everyone is running around trying to find things that will discredit me. No one has tried to find things that might make me look good. But that's okay. That is part of the role and I have to accept it.

"Our culture is to put people down and not pick them up," the four-times world open squash champion said.

The public pressure she had felt since her appointment manifested itself on the main street of Cambridge when a woman whom she had never met before came up and said people should have waited for her to muck up before having a go.

It struck a chord with Dame Susan, who grew up in a State-house area of Rotorua where half the families were Maori and half were Pakeha.

"I thought, 'You are probably quite right'.

"I have not even had a chance to stuff up and people are having a go at me.

"Imagine what it will be like when I really do," she said.

Dame Susan said she understood a lot more than what people gave her credit for. While she did not have a degree to back up her job, essentially it was not that difficult because it was about the issues that come up around race and a fair go for all.

Asked if she was a bridge builder or someone whose life had been shaped on the psychology of winning, Dame Susan said it was a bit of both.

Looking back on her years as a professional squash player when her focus was purely on winning, she remarked, "I probably think I had some form of compulsive disorder."

It was her walk down the length of New Zealand 25 years ago to raise money for muscular dystrophy that made her realise there were more important things in life.

The "light-bulb moment" happened walking down the road with a 16-year-old boy in a wheelchair. The teenager needed to go to the toilet and there was no one else around to help.

"I had to lift him and help him. It was as awkward for him as it was for me.

"As corny as it sounds, it made me realise how extraordinarily lucky I had been in my life."

Dame Susan went on to carve out a reputation for working with disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in the health and disability sectors.

Asked if she would be able to put the same mental edge she had on the squash court into her new job, she said it was too early to say.

"I certainly have enough knowledge and I will learn enough to be able to fill the role. I am quite confident of that."

Dame Susan said she may have mellowed over the years but she would not let being the commissioner stop her from saying things as she saw them.

"I will be myself but I am not representing myself any more."

Asked why she had left it so long after her appointment to consent to be interviewed, she said she was not so naive that she expected everyone would jump for joy.

"There was nothing I could say that would silence my critics. I needed the opportunity to get into the role. From here on in, I realise I will be under extraordinary scrutiny."

Dame Susan said it was an apolitical job and she did not see it as a problem that she publicly supported MP for Tauranga Simon Bridges.

She said that she had voted for both National and Labour, had been asked by Mike Moore to stand for Labour and by the late Sir Howard Morrison to stand for the Maori Party.

"You can't say that the appointments of Jackie [Blue] and myself was jobs for the boys because it is jobs for the girls," she quipped.

Dame Susan would not answer questions relating to the seabed and foreshore issue and Maori Party opposition to the sale of State assets. "You have got to put the hard yards in before you go out and talk about it."

She intended to take a common-sense rather than academic approach to some serious issues. Dame Susan said she did not need to be theoretical because there were a lot of theoretical people in the commission.

She had been labelled as coming from a white Pakeha world, whereas she said she had a wonderful childhood growing up in Rotorua where her mother was postmistress at the Whakarewarewa Post Office and her father was an accountant for many Maori incorporations. "I spent most of my weekends on marae. My dad was generally paid in koha which displeased my mother somewhat because she had seven children to bring up and that did not necessarily pay the bills. My first tangi was for Guide Rangi.

"I was brought up in that environment and just thought we were all the same. If you come from Rotorua, that is part of it, and so I understand protocols, tikanga, and all that sort of thing."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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