Michele Hewitson Interview: Dame Susan Devoy

By Michele Hewitson

Does the new Race Relations Commissioner have what it takes?

Dame Susan Devoy is a weird mix of supreme confidence and chronic and observable nervousness. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dame Susan Devoy is a weird mix of supreme confidence and chronic and observable nervousness. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Dame Susan Devoy, the new Race Relations Commissioner, arrived at lunch with her media minder and a look that suggested she thought I might well be capable of poisoning her soup, which she would still have to drink up, because she had been told she had to. It would be fair to say that she has not been much enjoying her new role yet. She said she hasn't read much of what is being written, and there has been a lot: "I've been avoiding that ..."

Shouldn't she know? She says her media minder has been "informing me of things I need to know," and that her husband, her former manager, John Oakley, was "a great barometer too ... [Of the] good, bad and ugly". She is said to have grit. She was looking apprehensive, if grittily, and slightly shell-shocked, I thought.

She attempted a bit of chit chat, if awkwardly. She is not, I think, naturally chit-chatty, at least not with journalists, although she has obviously done many interviews over the years. She said: "Gilbert [Wong, her media minder] gave me some really good advice." Of course I was going to want to know what that advice was and of course I had no expectation that she would tell me.

She did and it was: "If she likes you, you'll be all right; if she doesn't, you might be in trouble." How is that good advice, I wondered? "Well, it's not very good advice. How do I make that happen? Anyway, I'm here now."

She had stopped giving interviews, after at least one early disastrous one in which she came across as having no ideas about the state of race relations in New Zealand.

Why was she here now?

"Because Gilbert told me to." You have to give her marks for honesty; diplomacy might not be her greatest talent.

How does she think she's done, selling herself as the right person for the role? "Is this: Rate my performance?" It's being rated for her, whether she likes it or not.

"I know. I probably came across as very defensive and apologetic." Which is why she decided (and was no doubt advised) to stop talking for a while. "Well, seriously, there was nothing to gain from me talking, you know. And I don't know whether there's much to gain from talking today."

I don't know either. She certainly tried very hard not to be defensive or apologetic. She managed not to be apologetic. She was nervous but she has always suffered from nerves, to the point of almost being debilitated by them during her squash career.

She is not a relaxed sort of person. She used to stay up until 2am spring cleaning her house. She said "nobody is cleaning our house at the moment!" She does get up at 5am to go walking and "would you note in your article that I get up at five o'clock to do it so it doesn't encroach on work time!"

She says she's not worried about what people are thinking. "Not overtly although, you know, I am human and there have been some testing moments."

She said: "Oh, look, everyone likes to be loved and approved [of] and that would be ideal but as you get older you get a bit happier in your own skin." She will be 50 next year. She was a sports star when she was very young, in her 20s, but it's hard to imagine there was a time when she wasn't comfortable in her own skin. "You know, I'm naturally extroverted ... And I think that when you're a sports person you have to be quite careful because if you're confident then sometimes the more successful you become, at times it can come across as being arrogant."

It might. I ventured that I thought she might be perceived as unsympathetic and arrogant.

She said, a little plaintively: "But why am I seen as unsympathetic?" I said I didn't know - but even if I did it's not up to me to tell her. She said: "God, I'll tell you what. I would say those are some of my strongest attributes ... my empathy and my compassion ..." Then why is she getting such a rough time? "Oh, I dunno. Is it a bad news week or something? ... Nothing else to talk about? No one else to have a go at?"

She swings, unpredictably, between her famous grit and a not very far from the surface prickliness. She is a bit gauche and surprisingly brittle; all sharp angles and edges. This is not uncommon in people who make it to the very top in individual sports. No doubt you have to develop a certain degree of selfishness and sharpness to get to that top.

One of her brothers once said she had a sharp tongue. She is the youngest of seven; she has six brothers.

She says her mother was a very strong woman: "So you might say ... the two strongest people were at the top and the bottom!"

She has four sons. I asked if she'd wanted a daughter and she said: "Why do you think I've got so many children!" And, sarcastically: "Perhaps I would have been softer and sweeter if I'd had a daughter." I said, faintly: "Maybe."

She used to be much more prickly and defensive. "... You know, I always thought the British media had it in for me ... because they wanted a British girl to win the British Open ... And in hindsight, how bloody ridiculous. But you're young then. What I'm saying is that I used to take it personally." And now she doesn't? "I try not to."

She is obviously having a hard time not taking the very public whacks personally. "... It has perplexed me a little bit and I do have moments when I like to wallow in a little bit of self pity and think: 'Oh, that's not fair' but ..."

She is patently aggrieved that people have made up their minds about her and that they think all she is is "someone who wriggles around a little racket" and "the assumption is that I'm white and that I'm right wing." Well, she is, isn't she? "Yeah, I am. But I'm not so right wing and I'm not so conservative." She says she's worked with disadvantaged people and done a lot of work for Maori organisations. "And they say you're as Maori as you feel." But it just sounds daft when she says it. Does she think she's Maori? "No I don't!"

She said: "I've sort of lost my appetite lately." She ordered broccoli soup and when it arrived it was cauliflower soup, but she didn't say anything and ate a few spoonfuls of it. Later she said: "Next time you'll take me to a nicer place for lunch!" Why didn't she complain about her soup? "I was being polite! Doesn't that show you where my mind is? That it took so long to realise that it wasn't broccoli soup, even though it was white!"

I was just glad it wasn't me who had suggested the cafe; it was the minder. Good luck to him minding her. I had asked how she was going to get on at the Human Rights Commission which was, I said, to tease her, surely full of lefties. "They're not all lefties." How does she know? "Oh! Well, I'll have to ask them. I'll tell them that you said they're all lefties ... Do you think Gilbert's a lefty?" (Did she really think I'd have told her, even if I knew? Probably not. It was a joke which went slightly askew in the delivery; hers does wobble rather, wildly.) When he arrived to take her back to the commission, the lefty said: "All good?"

She said: "It would have been much better if I'd had a really nice lunch!"

Earlier, when I was asking about her reputed sharp tongue, she said, possibly sharply: "Yeah, I've got a sharp tongue: Clever, articulate and acerbic. I've got a quick mind. You wouldn't think so today. I can think on my feet." She is a feminist. "Definitely."

She is not a government patsy. "No."

She's a swinging voter who voted National in the last election. If she'd been more experienced she'd have told me to mind my own business when I asked that question. "I'm not political, you know." She is now. "I am. Can I ask the questions? Ha, ha."

She said of Judith Collins that she is a formidable woman. Is she a formidable woman? She slammed down her coffee cup and said: "Next question!"

Was that formidable? I'm afraid it just made me laugh. She has been swotting up but on what? Judith Collins interviews, perhaps.

I still don't really know why she wanted the job. She said that she didn't wake up one morning and decide she wanted to be the Race Relations Commissioner. If she wants some advice, I'd retire that particular answer, because that is rather the problem.

She used to like having a public profile. "I did." When it was a nice one. "Yeah. When it was warm and fluffy." I'm not so sure that it ever was. There is that sharp tongue. "I think you get that when you're an assertive female."

She said: "I've had some pretty shit things happen to me in my life." I had actually been asking whether she'd ever failed at anything but she doesn't "look at things as failure. I just sort of think of them as things that don't go quite to plan ... I call them unintended consequences."

As for the shit things ... "Well, it depends what level of shit ..." Her husband's business went into receivership in 2001 which led to what you might call an unintended consequence. She was phoned by a reporter and a story subsequently appeared with a headline which said something like: Dame Susan says: You need not worry, we're not living in a caravan in a motor camp in Papakura. This resulted in "millions of letters" from people living in caravans in motor camps and one from the mayor of Papakura "asking me to retract that statement ... because it was offensive to people who lived in caravans in motor camps in Papakura. And none of those people said: 'Sorry for the situation you and your family find yourself in'." Anyway, she wrote a letter to the editor: "You know, an apology and the editor rang me and said that I'd won the Waterman Pen letter of the week!" She has never received her pen. "No. No! Perhaps I said he could stick the pen where the sun doesn't shine ..."

That was an unusual story to share. I asked whether she thought she had a problem with her public profile and she said: "Do you think I've got a problem with my public profile?" I thought she might. "What can I do about that?"

I have no idea. But I did think it rather endearing that she'd ask me. What a funny thing she is: A weird mix of supreme confidence and chronic and observable nervousness.

Did I like her? Does she have to be likeable? I have no idea about whether that matters either. She will at the very least be an interesting commissioner to watch. She certainly has pluck.

- NZ Herald

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