Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: NZ's heated race relations

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New Zealand's race relations was a topic of discussion this week with the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy. Photo / NZ Herald
New Zealand's race relations was a topic of discussion this week with the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy. Photo / NZ Herald

Race relations in New Zealand are, once again, mired in controversy. At the political level - rather than the social level, where ethnic relations continue to be relatively harmonious - issues around race, ethnicity and Maori politics continue to be a source of conflict. The reaction to the Government's appointment of Susan Devoy as the new Race Relations Commissioner demonstrates this sensitivity. The best argued opposition to her appointment comes from Lew Stoddart - see his blogpost, Selections matter. Certainly the appointment of a seemingly unqualified Devoy is rather bizarre, and could be seen as undermining the importance of the Office of Race Relations. And as No Right Turn argues, Devoy's lack of qualifications for the job possibly calls into question the legality of the appointment - see: Was Devoy's appointment unlawful?.

So what was the Government thinking? By appointing someone with mainstream appeal and a non-controversial background, National probably thought that it was choosing someone who would have wide acceptance and cause few problems. What's more, in choosing a woman - for the first time in the Office's 41-year-history - the Government probably thought that it would appease liberals. Judith Collins has made the point herself, that such a selection was righting a sexist wrong: 'That speaks volumes about the way women, ethnic women and women generally, have been kept out of the race relations debate'.

Collins has also stressed Devoy's experience in the business and sporting worlds, saying Devoy is 'used to being a minority' when she served as a woman on a corporate board and in receiving less pay in sporting contests.

Devoy is possibly part-Maori, apparently being 'of Ngati Kahungunu descent' - see Hamish Rutherford's Dame Susan: I have to be voice of reason. So in appointing a women and (perhaps) Maori to the role, National might be forgiven for thinking that it was keeping faith with the unspoken 'identity politics' criteria implicit for the role.

Another interesting explanation comes from Chris Trotter, who sees her appointment as another sign that National hates 'left-wing, tertiary-educated, urban professionals' and the rational pursuit of the common good, instead preferring the 'common sense' of the uneducated - see: Welcome to the Wasteland. Certainly critics will say that the Government's decision is yet further indication of anti-intellectualism and the cult of the sportsperson in New Zealand.

Gordon Campbell accuses Collins of 'political trolling' in deliberately using race relations: 'Collins wants to stir up the elitist, out of touch commentators and academics, while scoring her government a few extra points among the "real people" who think that this race relations, Treaty consciousness stuff has got a bit out of hand. Sensible Susan will sort that nonsense out' - see: On Susan Devoy's appointment.

Some of the harsher criticisms of Devoy are probably helping the Government sell the appointment. After all, the strong moral outrage being expressed by some on the left about the 'racism' of Devoy is unlikely to resonate with the public, and may serve to discredit all opposition. The Mana Party has spoken particularly strongly against the appointment, accusing Devoy of racism, calling for her to be sacked, and an investigation launched into how someone like her could be appointed in the first place - see Radio NZ's Mana Party wants race relations appointment terminated. In a similar vein, see Tim Selwyn's Susan Devoy: "ashamed to be a New Zealander".

But is Devoy really a racist or 'redneck'? Devoy's comments on Waitangi Day are probably similar to what most political party leaders have said at one time or another - as Cameron Slater points out in his blogpost, Could David Shearer become Race Relations Commissioner?. On the issues of the burqa, Devoy's statements can easily be categorised as fitting a 'progressive feminist' stance of opposing such face veils while opposing state bans on them. Interestingly, perhaps the strongest political statement that Devoy has ever made was her condemnation of (then) Act Party leader Don Brash, who she labelled 'the most morally bankrupt person in the country'.

Responses to the issue on Twitter have been particularly interesting, ranging from the insightful through to the playful. For example, the NBR's Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) tweeted, 'Agree Susan Devoy is odd choice. But given Conciliator's lack of any real power, does it matter if it's her, Jason Gunn or Tame Iti?'; Marcus Cook (@MarcusDCook) tweeted: 'Revealed; Devoy appointed after "rock, paper, scissors" match with Paul Henry. Won 2/3'. For more of the best tweets, see my blog post, Tweets on Susan Devoy and race relations. Similarly, see Scott Yorke's amusing scenario in which he takes National's appointment processes to the next logical conclusion: David Tua's new challenge.

Perhaps part of the disagreement over the Devoy appointment lies with the actual Office of Race Relations. Much of the current debate suggests there are different interpretations of what the Office is for. See for example, Morgan Godfery's, Dame Susan Devoy: race relations "not complicated". He says, 'The primary role of the Race Relations Conciliator is, essentially, to protect minorities... I can't trust her to protect me or anyone like me from discrimination, the tyranny of the majority or anything else'. Others, such as the Government see the role very differently. Last year, it could also be noted, the Government looked at folding the Office into the Human Rights Commission.

Not all commentators have opposed the appointment. Blogger Pete George has gone out on a limb to say that 'I'm backing Devoy's appointment, unless I see good reason it was flawed, and I haven't seen anything convincing to suggest to me it is' - see: Should Susan Devoy's appointment be squashed? George also raises the question of what criteria should be used in such appointments, taking issue with the view of the Mana Party's Annette Sykes: 'Passing the Sykes non-racist test would exclude many people, but I suspect Sykes would fail the test of many too'. Another interesting defence of Devoy can be found in the Southland Times' Reconcilable differences, which argues that the new Commissioner has a different style to her predecessor, and that it might just work for her.

The Maori Party has had an interesting reaction to Devoy's appointment, with co-leader Pita Sharples declaring it 'fantastic', and Te Ururoa Flavell questioning whether it was appropriate. Such split opinion is possibly indicative of how dysfunctional the party now is. Certainly, statements by the other co-leader, Tariana Turia, leave no doubt about how fraught things are in the party - see Tova O'Brien's Sharples should go - Turia. Some are seeing the issue as one of age, with younger Maori voters and supporters wanting a changing of the guard - see TVNZ: Maori youth appear to back Flavell for co-leader. The Dominion Post has weighed in with a strongly-worded critique of the party's position, and of Sharples in particular - see: Leadership fight ruinous for party.

It's the last working day before the Maori Option begins, which could lead to an additional Maori seat in Parliament. David Farrar discusses the issue, and reckons there's about a 50/50 chance of another seat - see: Will there be an eight Maori seat? But if you really want detail on the Maori seat calculations, read Graeme Edgeler's very serious post: A little known story of the Maori seats. Edgeler has been investigating how the number of Maori seats are calculated and has found that a change in the Government Statistician's categorisation of who is of Maori descent has led to a greater number of seats. He says that there are good arguments as to why he shouldn't have done it.

Also in the area of Maori politics and race relations, it's worth watching Guyon Espiner's TV3 14-minute video, Tuhoe's plans for $170M settlement, which raises allsorts of questions about the future of the Tuhoe and Maori sovereignty. Paul Moon has also commented on some of the Tuhoe issues in The past must be remembered - for us all.

Other more contentious ethnic issues can be seen in Radio NZ's 'Depth of racism' needs acknowledging - Mutu, John Ansell's Willie and JA II, and John Drinnan's Maori funds for The GC.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

Opposition dissatisfaction with Parliament's Speaker is rising - especially over the way he runs Question Time. For the best - and most amusing - explanation of the problem - see Scott Yorke's Today in Parliament.

David Shearer's banking problems are far from trivial according to Vernon Small who concludes that they will be very damaging for his leadership - see: Shearer's bank blunder threatens chances. David Farrar is confused as to why Shearer hasn't moved his money back to New Zealand, and puts forward a number of possible explanations in The problem for Shearer. Meanwhile, Cameron Slater continues to ponder whether there is a Conflict of interest? This is an issue addressed by David Chaplin: Banks v Shearer - a non currency affair. But Labour will be much happier with one of the latest polls - see Claire Trevett's Labour rises at expense of allies.

Was it a 'stuff-up' or a 'cover-up'? More evidence is emerging of the incredibly poor processes in the GCSB's pursuit of Kim Dotcom - see Patrick Gower's Dotcom spying: cover-up or stuff-up?, No Right Turn's The GCSB coverup (http://bit.ly/16KG6MJ) and David Fisher's Spymaster in Dotcom suppression.

How differently did male and female MPs vote in the recent second reading of the marriage equality bill? What about list vs electorate MPs? Harkanwal Singh has put together a very good map and charts illustrating this - see: Marriage equality bill: How MPs voted.

Should farmers be welfare recipients in times of severe drought? Michael Naylor, 'New Zealand's only insurance academic', argues that Farmers need to be able to insure against drought.

How different do Opposition parties intend to deal with potential bank failures? Pattrick Smellie points out the similarities and differences between Labour and National in NZ haircut proposal different style to Cyprus.

Finally, the on-going Novopay disaster produced yet another minor political controversy this week, with news that Banks had Talent2 shares while on committee. But there are even more farcical must-read stories about Novopay - particularly, Toby Manhire's Talent2 burn: a taste of the Novopay provider's website and The Civilian's Novopay debacle solved by restarting computer.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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