Dame Susan Devoy's five years as Race Relations Commissioner is coming to an end this month. To my mind, she should never have been appointed in the first place.

In her autobiography, Devoy wrote of her great desire to travel to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s to play squash because of the vast sums of money on offer.

New Zealand Squash was against the idea, the United Nations had threatened to blacklist those who went, Hart (Halt all Racist Tours) was very active in New Zealand, and anti-apartheid feeling in the country was strong. The media attention, she feared, would damage her reputation.

Furthermore, she worried her sponsors would drop her and a Sports Foundation grant be put at risk.


Devoy said it took "great strength" to resist the money, and that while she was no fan of apartheid she felt sportspeople were scapegoats of waste-of-time political sporting boycotts.

In fairness during the 1980s, that view was shared by many New Zealanders, but by 1993 when her book was published, apartheid had collapsed, sporting boycotts had been lifted, and most people who were pro-sporting contact had the good sense to hide it – realising that they had fallen awkwardly on the wrong side of history.

John Key wasn't prepared to lie and say he was anti the 1981 Springbok, so he went with another line, saying he couldn't remember. We might therefore applaud Devoy's honesty.

I'd suggest we be suspicious of it, reflecting as it does a lack of self-awareness, and a lack of interest in the race relations issue that defined her generation.

In 2012, Devoy wrote in a column that Waitangi Day was ruined by what she called political "shenanigans"; meaning Maori protests. On another occasion Devoy said she was "disconcerted" by the burqa and that Muslim women should accept that they be disrobed so they could be identified.

These are perfectly acceptable issues to raise and discuss, but none would have been on her CV as she applied for the Race Relations Commissioner's position. Whatever way I look at it, in any field of moderately qualified people, it's hard to see Devoy as a standout candidate.

Some have suggested that the then National government appointed her because she would make no waves in a position that some see as a liberal mouthpiece that's neither necessary or desirable.

There were many people hoping for Devoy to defy expectations and rise to the challenge of the role. She started on April Fool's Day 2013.


Following her appointment, Devoy said in a radio interview that she didn't think the subject of race relations was overly complicated – in itself remarkable - before getting the name of the commission she worked for wrong, and then in the next month or so failing to comment on a number of issues, notably a contentious rant by Winston Peters about Chinese migrants.

The kindest interpretation is she was simply finding her feet, but even at our most generous, we must accept she was incapable of hitting the ground running with regard to the most basic elements of the job. The less kind interpretation is Devoy wasn't finding her feet, she was being found out.

When Devoy did speak out on issues, she did so in simplistic ways. She railed against easy targets, and avoided complicated ones. When she gave a speech on Waitangi Day in 2015, she didn't mention any "shenanigans". In fact, she didn't mention protests at all.

When the Mad Butcher, Peter Leitch, was on Waiheke and met a young Maori woman on a wine tasting tour, she tearfully reported he told her it was a "white man's island". It should have been run-of-the-mill for Devoy. But Leitch and Devoy are friends, and she initially jumped to his defence.

Devoy seemed happy to call out strangers, but more reluctant when her friends were involved. When questioned about this double standard, she immediately changed tack. She could have used it as an example of nuance and misunderstanding, but she seemingly didn't have the ability to construct sophisticated positions.

Devoy undoubtedly has some fans, but they are people who comfortably conform to the worldview espoused by the commission. In other words, Devoy spent five years preaching popular slogans to the converted. The role, however, really needs to be able to build bridges with those who are resistant to such views, or simply have not had them explained to them.

As it turns out, things backstage weren't much better. In the final weeks of her tenure, a damning report on the Human Rights Commission, of which Devoy is one commissioner, has been published following a review sparked by a complaint of sexual harassment. The report stated misconduct was not prevalent but that it suffered from "dysfunctional leadership" and that the commissioners "barely communicate with each another".

None of this takes away from the legacy of Susan Devoy as a champion squash player and one of New Zealand's great sportspeople. But it does serve as a reminder that the role of the Race Relations Commissioner is not a cushy position for affable retired sports heroes. It's a position that needs a person capable of handling the demands of the job.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a University of Canterbury sociologist and lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.
Want the best of opinion delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for Herald newsletters here.