Editorial: Dame Susan's race relations post a puzzle

Judith Collins probably wanted someone middle of the road - but the former squash great appears thin on relevant expertise

Dame Susan must expect previously uttered views to keep being raised, possibly to the extent of impairing her effectiveness.
Dame Susan must expect previously uttered views to keep being raised, possibly to the extent of impairing her effectiveness.

It seems odd that Dame Susan Devoy applied for the job of Race Relations Commissioner. It is even odder that she got it. While Dame Susan has worked successfully in several fields subsequent to her magnificent squash exploits, she has no obvious background or expertise in race relations.

Indeed, in newspaper columns, she has criticised the way Waitangi Day has been "marred" by protest and described burqas as "disconcerting".

It is difficult to know how her job application squared such statements with the fact that the tolerance of people towards difference is a key ingredient of healthy race relations.

The Justice Minister, Judith Collins, wanted nothing to do with such niceties.

Dame Susan, she said, was a very sensible and balanced person. Her views were not "politically sanitised". It seemed Ms Collins sought someone who she thought most people would see as middle of the road, perhaps as a deliberate snub to what she described as the "far left".

Presumably, this stance ruled out another commissioner like Dame Susan's predecessor, former trade unionist Joris de Bres, no matter the level of experience in human rights.

Ms Collins said Dame Susan would have to tone down her views in her new job.

That means reining in the forthrightness that the minister was so keen to proclaim. Dame Susan must also expect those previously uttered views to keep being raised, possibly to the extent of impairing her effectiveness.

Perhaps the commissioner's key role is to be a calming influence when somebody seeking a headline creates a storm. In a considered and balanced way, light, not heat, must be injected into an issue. Injudicious statements can be no part of the baggage of a person appointed to promote racial harmony.

Mr de Bres learned that when he compared New Zealand's colonial history to the wilful destruction of the ancient Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

The commissioner must also, in essence, be a conciliator even though Ms Collins was keen to suggest that would not be Dame Susan's lot. The acid test for race relations comes in actual events. Mr de Bres had, for example, to handle broadcaster Paul Holmes' "cheeky darkie" comment.

An apology is usually part of the attempt to ease the resentment caused by such statements. But in such instances the commissioner must also actively encourage the building of bridges.

An equally astute approach must be brought to the handling of complaints.

Some of these will deal with racially offensive statements, but many others will be utterly contrived. The latter demand a particularly sophisticated response. And in all instances, the public expects the commissioner to be fair and even-handed to all people of all ethnic backgrounds.

The sensitivities associated with the job probably explain why the Justice Ministry had to advertise the job twice and why Mr de Bres' tenure was extended by six months. But it does not make the final selection any easier to understand.

Ms Collins was keen to point out that Dame Susan would be the first woman in the job and had, herself, been a minority as a woman board member in predominantly male-dominated arena.

Her gender, however, is irrelevant to this job. What is important is her experience, or lack thereof, in race relations.

Only on that basis should her appointment be judged.

- NZ Herald

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