New commissioner says empathy and concern for human rights qualify her.

Newly appointed Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy admits she has little experience in the area, but believes her strong-mindedness and empathy qualified her for the job.

The former squash world champion was appointed commissioner after a long search by the Ministry of Justice. The position was first advertised nine months ago and predecessor Joris de Bres had his tenure extended for six months when no suitable replacement could be found.

Justice Minister Judith Collins said Dame Susan was the first woman to hold the position in its 41 years. The minister rejected suggestions she had sought to appoint a celebrity.

Dame Susan told the Herald she had done very little work in race relations but had a great interest in human rights.


"It's about doing the right things for people, doing the right thing for all New Zealanders, it's about understanding people and the issues that go with groups as opposed to having any experience with racial minority groups."

She added: "One of my strengths is that I'm pretty forthright and not afraid to have an opinion, but at the same time I have a very strong moral compass and I have a desire to do the right thing."

Dame Susan said New Zealand's race relations were "pretty good but not perfect", adding, "there's always things we can work on".

She has previously criticised the way that Waitangi Day had been "marred" by protest.

In a column for the Bay of Plenty Times, she expressed her frustration that New Zealand's national holiday was not a day of celebration.

Mrs Collins noted that Dame Susan had been a minority herself - as a woman board member in predominantly male boardrooms.

"Frankly, she's the 10th person in the job, the first woman, and that speaks volumes about the way in which women, particularly ethnic women ... have been kept out of the race relations debate."

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said Dame Susan's appointment was "fantastic".

Labour ethnic affairs spokesman Rajen Prasad, a former Race Relations Conciliator, said it was helpful, but not crucial, to have a background in human rights, and she would have to get up to speed very quickly.

Dame Susan Devoy
* Aged 49.

* Former squash world champion and world number one.

* Youngest New Zealander to be made a dame at the age of 34.

* Director of Woman Walking and former Sustainability Council board member.

* Former chair of Halberg Trust, chief executive of Sport Bay of Plenty, Auckland District Health Board board member.

* To resign from Health Promotion Agency and BNZ Bay of Plenty.