A campaign to make Tauranga the country's first bilingual city should be embraced, Race Relations Commissioner and Tauranga local Dame Susan Devoy says.

"People need to understand and accept, more importantly, that [Maori] is an official language," she said. "I commend the gentleman who wants to make it a bilingual city but it shouldn't just be Tauranga. It shouldn't be our point of difference.

"It's important that everybody does something nationally, not just in Tauranga, about preserving the language."

As individuals and a city, we needed to make an effort to support the use of te reo Maori, Dame Susan said.


"It's something we should embrace. We're not asking taxpayers to fund it. We're not making it compulsory. We are just doing what is right and proper in encouraging our official language."

Census figures showed Tauranga was becoming increasingly multi-cultural and long-time resident Dame Susan had noticed the change.

"We're certainly a city of many cultures, as we are a country of many cultures," she said. "Whether we are responding to it well is up for debate. If you go to the Tauranga Multi-Cultural Festival you'll see that there are many people willing to embrace what diversity means to New Zealand."

The comments came during a Bay of Plenty Times Weekend interview with her a year into her role as Race Relations Commissioner.

Her appointment was not without its challenges and iwi leaders criticised her suitability for the job, but she was not shaken.

"I'm still here, that's a start," she said. "I'm not really concerned about proving myself to the people. What happened is what happened. I just got on and endeavoured to do my role as well as I could.

"It's been an extraordinarily big learning curve. It's a complex organisation with limited resources trying to do a big job."

One of the highlights was attending a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier in the month.


"That put into context my role here and put into context the role of the Human Rights Commission on the international stage," she said.

"While we are far from perfect and don't have a clean record in human rights and race relations we are doing a pretty good job. When you sit in a room and hear about the issues in the Ukraine and the issues women and children are facing it really is quite sobering."

While those issues were at the extreme end of the scale they did not diminish the issues faced in New Zealand, she said.

The New Zealand Human Rights commission has a discrimination component and for the past 10 years a third of all complaints has been race-related but going forward Dame Susan aims to address that.

"Now it's about coming up with an action plan that addresses the issues that still arise in New Zealand. The difficulty for me is not knowing what we need to address, but how," Dame Susan said. "I would really like for Joe Public to understand and identify what racism really is."

Kiwis stopping to take the time to put themselves in other people's shoes and understand what it was like coming to a new country would go a long way to solving the race issues new migrants faced, she said. "Most people that come to New Zealand come here for a better life. It's about breaking down the barriers that exist. They shouldn't have to leave their culture at the door."