Susan Devoy was silent last Friday when Winston Peters unsheathed his beloved dog whistle, drew breath, and blew. The City of Sails, he told his North Shore Grey Power audience, was becoming "The Super City of Sin".

You know the tune. The New Zealand First leader's speech went something like this: Gambling, Chinese, brothels, Chinese, money laundering, Chinese, corruption, Chinese, house prices, Chinese.

Peters warned us, hilariously, to beware the "usual hysteria and screams of xenophobia" that had followed his speech a decade ago - in which, he reminded us, he'd called New Zealand "the last Asian colony".

The Race Relations Commissioner was silent, too, when, less than a day later, former Fonterra chairman Sir Henry van der Heyden spluttered that China "will always be full of surprises. Don't ever trust them - never". To his credit, Sir Henry recognised he'd suffered a brain explosion and swiftly apologised.


And still nothing from Devoy as Maori TV's Native Affairs broke the story of a would-be air hostess who had been told by Air New Zealand that the traditional Maori ta moko on her arm meant she would not be considered for employment, because tattoos intimidate some travellers - despite the ubiquitous Maori symbolism in the airline's branding. A race relations commissioner needn't come thundering down on either side - but a few calm and conciliatory words might have helped.

It was beginning to look as though Devoy had gone to ground. Having been shaken to the core by journalists performing the strange act of reading out to her things that she had written about race, Devoy had determined that she would see out her five-year term in a small windowless room, watching endless repeats of Melody Rules at full volume. She'd said at the outset that the role of Race Relations Commissioner was not that complicated and now she was proving it. Life is simple when you're not paying any attention.

And so it seemed a safe bet that silence would inevitably follow the publication of a noxious cartoon in the Marlborough Express on Wednesday. That evening and into yesterday morning it was being circulated busily around social media, building up a head of indignant steam. The cartoon, inked by Al Nisbet, featured four adults dressed in school uniform, bowls in arms, setting off in the direction of "free school meals". The two most prominent figures are brown-skinned and obese. The tattooed male says to the cigarette-puffing woman: "Psst! ... If we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies!"

There is nothing remotely funny or clever about the cartoon. Nothing unusual about that: the vast majority of cartoons published around the world every day are rubbish (and New Zealand's standard is on the whole much better than most). What distinguishes this cartoon is its effort to extract humour from a caricature of Maori and Pacific people as fat, greedy, selfish, alcoholic gamblers. As Nisbet himself put it on RadioLive yesterday afternoon, "I basically tried to work out the sort of people who would try to get away with something like that."

Nisbet's next effort, published in the Christchurch Press yesterday, paints a picture of a feckless (and fat) family around a table filled with beer, fags and Lotto tickets, with the speech bubble, "Free school food is great! Eases our poverty, and puts something in you kids' bellies!" Nisbet may not be a great talent, but he has done at least one favour: illustrating precisely how those few who oppose schools providing breakfasts to children see the world.

Amid all of this, it appeared dismally unlikely that Susan Devoy would have anything to say. Or so I thought. Wrongly. There she was on the radio yesterday morning. Then a statement, and a press conference. She might have demonstrated that she is not yet an expert in nuance, and at moments seemed to have studied at the David Shearer school of plain speaking - such as in urging us to "de-myth those bunks".

But there she was. There she was, providing a considered and institutional voice beyond the clamour of Facebook and Twitter - without which, by the way, the cartoon would never have come to wider light - saying that it "stigmatises efforts to address the situation that sees too many of our children living in poverty", which it does. Saying that "it is glaringly obvious that the cartoon portrays Maori or Pacific as the butt of its attempted humour. Using such negative stereotypes in this way is insulting and derogatory in the extreme."

To the dismay of some, she stopped short of calling the cartoon racist or incendiary, saying that it didn't meet the legal threshold for such a definition. Which is a bit of a fudge, but that's also part of her job. Nisbet's cartoon isn't criminal; it's simply contemptible. By lending a voice of independent authority to the disparate upset, Devoy delivered her first constructive intervention in New Zealand race relations. Bravo. And encore.


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