Dame Susan Devoy faced a stormy first 24 hours as Race Relations Commissioner as critics highlighted her record of criticising Waitangi Day and the wearing of burqas in New Zealand.

Maori groups in particular questioned enlisting someone who had been outspoken in her disdain for New Zealand's national holiday.

Justice Minister Judith Collins firmly defended the appointment of the former squash world champion, but noted that she would no longer have the same level of freedom to express her personal views in her new position. In Parliament, Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell queried the choice, noting that Dame Susan had "already courted controversy with her views".

Mana Party president Annette Sykes went further, demanding that Dame Susan stand down because she was not fit for the role.


"It's so disturbing that someone with a clearly expressed ... viewpoint can be appointed to a job that's about providing independent leadership and advice on race relations, including public education on the Treaty of Waitangi," Ms Sykes said in a statement.

In a select committee yesterday, Human Rights Commission chief David Rutherford was asked what the criteria were for a race relations commissioner.

He said it was not up to him to appoint someone, but one of the most important attributes was "the ability to speak to all New Zealanders".

"We've acknowledged the significant voluntary service of the incoming commissioner," he said. "We are delighted with the appointment."

Dame Susan wrote a column in the Bay of Plenty Times last year which criticised the way Waitangi Day had been "marred" by protest.

She expressed her frustration that New Zealand's national holiday was not a day of celebration. In a separate column, she described burqas as "disconcerting" after witnessing an Auckland bus driver refusing to let a woman board a bus because she would not remove her burqa to be identified.

"Muslim women need to respect the need to sometimes de-robe in order to allow identification while New Zealanders should respect the personal choice made by these women without being ignorant and abusive," she said.

"I wouldn't want to see us legislate the ban of the burqa, as much as I find them disconcerting."

President of the Federation of Islamic Associations Dr Anwar Ghani said Dame Susan should tread carefully with her new responsibilities.

"She's entitled to her opinions, and I hope she would not bring that into her new role as the race relations commissioner."

"You have to realise that this is a very diverse country, and you have to respect every diversity," he said.

Mr Ghani said he hopes Dame Susan has changed her view on burqas.

Mrs Collins said it was not unreasonable to hold views that were not "politically sanitised".

"The far left does not have a monopoly on caring about race relations and Dame Susan Devoy is a very sensible and balanced person."

The minister added that she believed race relations in New Zealand were "fantastic", pointing to a report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which placed New Zealand ahead of most countries.

Dame Susan also found a supporter in New Zealand First MP Richard Prosser, widely criticised for his comments on Muslims last month. Mr Prosser said he felt Dame Susan was a "superb" candidate and it was "good to have a woman in the job".

Dame Susan is due to take up the position on April 1.

- NZ Herald and Newstalk ZB