Rajen Prasad: Dame Susan can rise to the occasion

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A former Race Relations Commissioner urges Devoy to show courage and independence in finding solutions.

Dame Susan Devoy's appointment has attracted more than the usual scrutiny. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dame Susan Devoy's appointment has attracted more than the usual scrutiny. Photo / Brett Phibbs

With the appointment of a new Race Relations Commissioner, New Zealand has an opportunity every five years or so to take stock of its race relations and signal the pathway it intends to or should take over the next five years.

New Zealand has historically taken an intense interest in its race relations commissioners, their views, statements and decisions. The appointment of the new Race Relations Commissioner this time around is no exception.

These "introductions" have usually enabled the appointees to articulate their understanding of race relations and their priorities. The subsequent reputations of the commissioners have depended on their decisions on individual cases and systemic issues affecting groups of citizens.

The appointment of Dame Susan Devoy has attracted more than the usual amount of commentary but it is not, in my view, for her to justify her appointment. It will be for Dame Susan to progressively demonstrate her understanding of the complexities of race relations, articulate her programme to address the challenges that exist and earn the trust and confidence of those most affected by racism and discrimination.

It is for those who appointed her to justify their decision and the process that was followed. It is for them to explain their understanding of the contemporary race relations challenges for New Zealand and the skill set they sought in this appointment to address those issues.

One assessment of race relations in New Zealand is that it is "fantastic". This assessment leaves us guessing if we are as best equipped as we can be to address our growing ethnic diversity or what more needs to be done. This assessment provides little guidance for the new commissioner on what she needs to concentrate on during her tenure.

Another assessment was provided by the recent TV3 debate on "Is New Zealand a racist country?". Seventy-six per cent of viewers agreed that New Zealand was a racist country while 41 per cent of the studio audience agreed by the end of the programme. If these views are representative we should be concerned.

The two teams in the TV3 debate never reached any great heights in the presentation of their arguments. Simply put, one side relied largely on examples of institutional racism in criminal justice outcomes, health outcomes, ethnic residential patterns, and the utterances of some politicians as its evidence that we were racist. The other side relied on the view that because some people are racist does not make the whole country racist. They also believed that we were not as bad as others; Bosnia was mentioned.

Our so-called experts did not add much. Their views traversed the usual from one law for all, the questioning of Chinese investments in New Zealand and the level of intermarriage as evidence our communities were not racist. This last point has a great deal to it but it was never developed in the debate.

New Zealanders have an abhorrence at being labelled racist. Despite the increased pace of our ethnic diversification, especially in the larger metropolitan areas, there is little urgency in capitalising on the opportunities of this diversification and managing whatever risks it poses. Incidents of everyday racism abound and the underutilisation of the expertise of our diverse communities is almost legendary. We aspire to take advantage of the globalised world through trade and business linkages but we are suboptimal in our approach to harnessing the capital in our ethnic communities to help us build the relationships we will need.

The appointment of a new race relations commissioner should be a seminal event every five years. No matter how the appointment was made it is now a fact and the focus needs to shift to how contemporary challenges will be handled.

I accept that Dame Susan has or can muster the expertise required to address these challenges and I wish her well. She will need to be courageous in how she meets the contemporary challenges her office is designed to address. Her independence must be imprinted in all she does. The public will want to hear her own articulation of our contemporary race relations challenges and her solutions.

One of Dame Susan's first challenges will be to fight for the retention of the title of Race Relations Commissioner, Disabilities Commissioner and Equal Opportunities Commissioner, all of which are to be discontinued in a Human Rights Amendment Bill now before Parliament.

Rajen Prasad is a Labour MP, former Race Relations Conciliator and former Chief Commissioner of the Families Commission.

- NZ Herald

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