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Q+A: Susan Devoy interview

Published: 11:43AM Sunday June 16, 2013 Source: Q+A

Corin Dann interviews Dame Susan Devoy

Dame Susan Devoys appointment as Race Relations Commissioner two months ago coincided with a number of high-profile race issues.  Winston Peters played the race card, blaming Chinese migrants for most of Aucklands problems. She was silent on that, but the infamous Al Nisbett beneficiary-bashing cartoons drew Dame Susan into the spotlight. Corin asked her if shed changed her view of what racism is since she took on the role.

DAME SUSAN DEVOY - Race Relations Commissioner
Well, I dont think its been changed, but, you know, to be honest, I wasnt working specifically in that area a few months ago, and I think that, you know, issues like the cartoon recently and other issues that will continue to arise in the media or in the public arena have reinforced that we have some issues in NZ.

  So do you have a good grasp on what racism is?

SUSAN Im getting a good grasp. I mean, I have my own personal views, and Im starting to formulate my ideas. What Id really like to be able to do is to get more out into the mainstream public and get people really thinking and challenging their own ideas and views about what racism is.

CORIN So, just coming back to that, can you give us an example now of what you think racism is? I mean, for example, I suppose, was Winston Peters speech? I know you didnt want to comment on it at the time to give it more airtime than you thought was warranted, but was that a racist speech?

SUSAN Well, I think what Winston will do, and I think its been talked about by other experts and academics in the field in relation to his speech on Sin City is to use the race card. We know that theres an election coming up. I think sometimes I have to exercise judgement as to what is important, whats worth getting involved in, and for him, I wasnt going to give him any oxygen, but Im sure the occasion will arise leading up to the next election. But what I say to people is, you know, the issues that arise, I say, particularly as a white woman, people say to me, How do you know? Youve never experienced racial discrimination. And I say, Yes, but that makes me quite in a good position to say to people& And a lot of people say to me, you know, How would you know? And I said, Well, I dont know, but I have a real understanding now that if youve never experienced in your life, how do you know how profoundly offensive it is? And if I can go back to that, you know, that incident of the cartoon. People say its just a joke, its funny and whatever. And I say, Yes, but if youve never been the butt of that joke, if youve never been the population that is stereotyped and stigmatised all your life, how can you begin to understand how offensive that is?

CORIN So, yeah, on that cartoon, have you made any approaches to try and get the threshold changed? Because you said you werent able to classify that as racist because of the rules.

SUSAN Well, legally its not, but, look, it is what it is, and I dont make the law, and Im not able to-

CORIN So, hang on. Sorry, Dame Susan. Youre saying that cartoon was racist?

SUSAN Well, in my opinion, yes, it was. But it doesnt meet the threshold and the limits of freedom of speech, and what were saying here is that the law is not the be all and end all of everything. You know, we cant hide behind it, and we cant always use it to its best effect. But what we can do is actually exercise some civil responsibility. So sometimes we have to make personal choices. We have to look at our own behaviours and attitudes. And therefore, you know, Id like to think that those in the media would be encouraged to do that as well. I mean, you know, sometimes we have to look and say, This is not right.

CORIN Just back to Winston Peters, because, as you point out, you do have a great opportunity to get through to middle NZ. Perhaps that middle NZ that might not have been subject to so much racism as other New Zealanders. Given that, wasnt something like the Winston Peters speech a really good opportunity to get to them, because he was trying to get to them as well, wasnt he?

SUSAN Well, yes, I think so, but if you look at it in the context of that speech, it was a real political stoush. I mean, he was trying to argue about what the Prime Minister had said earlier around the relations that we have with Chinese. I think the important thing is that, you know, Winston has carried on this tirade for a long time, and I dont think anything that Im going to say is going to actually make a leopard change his spots, to be perfectly honest. But what I would say is if the argument does continue, and I think, you know, theres been little response from some of those groups themselves, the Asians, because I think theyre just sick and tired of hearing Winston talk about that.

CORIN But are you saying if he keeps that up, and particularly in the white-hot environment of an election campaign, you will stand up and get involved?

SUSAN Well, I will. Ill have to, and particularly if people come to the commission, not that that will border on making a complaint, but theres a broader human rights issue here in that he will continue to stigmatise one population to his own benefit.

CORIN Looking back through some of the notes in your biography, and theres a little bit of discussion going on now about Nelson Mandela. Obviously a lot of fears for his life at the moment, so there will be discussions about Apartheid and that whole sporting boycott. And you were very honest in your biography, very honest in saying that you would have gone to South Africa to play squash, but you were just worried about being blacklisted. Do you still share that view? You didnt think that the boycott of sport necessarily worked?

SUSAN Well, I think you have different views and opinions when youre 20. I mean, I was very focused on just being a sportsperson and just playing squash, and, you know, that whole political thing was quite different to me. But I think that the fact that I never went to South Africa then and I never went at any time in my career would suggest that I dont condone Apartheid then, and I certainly dont now.

CORIN Yeah, no, it was interesting, and you talked about, sort of, sitting down and doing pros and cons at the time. So, I mean, it must have been- you must have thought about it a fair bit.

SUSAN I did, and I had repeated invitations to go over 10 or 12 years, so, you know, it was always very interesting. But I recall I was 17 on the Springbok tour, and I didnt even then, I suppose, realise the significance and the importance of all of that, and its not until you get a little bit older and a little bit wiser that you look at things differently. And I think, you know, its a very sad time at the moment with, you know, Nelson Mandela, and I just hope and pray- He is probably, in my opinion, the worlds greatest humanitarian, and I hope his legacy lives on.

CORIN How do you feel about the whole concept of institutional racism in NZ? The idea that because Maori, Pacific Islanders are so badly represented in all those terrible statistics around prisons and poverty and crime that there is an institutional racism in NZ. Do you think that thats true?

SUSAN I do. I think the commission have done some really good work, and theyve come out with a publication called A Fair Go For All, which is relatively recent, and its now under the new term, which is what they call structural discrimination, you know, which is, in essence, the same thing. And it looks and has really good evidence about particularly, I think, Maori and Pacific Island people and, you know, why theyre overrepresented in some of these negative statistics.

CORIN So how are you-? Because youve got this unique position to reach out to perhaps those New Zealanders who arent represented in those statistics so much, convince them that theyve got to perhaps do more, or they need to do more to help those people.

SUSAN Well, its really about education and information and an understanding of why that happens, because were quick to generalise, and were very quick to stereotype and not have an understanding. But, you know, Im not going to say that thats also a very simple solution. I mean, these problems have been identified for a long time, and everyones quick to identify them. But there are a lot of agencies and a lot of people doing some really, really good work. I think we just need to work even harder.

CORIN And the Treaty? Where does the Treaty sit, in your mind? Is it a document that represents a partnership between Maori and everybody else thats in NZ? Is that your view of it?

SUSAN Well, I think, you know, the Treaty is for all New Zealanders, and I think the Treatys a labyrintand extraordinarily complicated because it has so many different parts to it. And, again, I think thats about education and information. And, you know, I think the best way to describe the Treaty is what Bishop Manu Bennett said - that its a promise of two people to take care of each other. And, you know, again, I think we need to say weve come a long way in what the Treaty means to all New Zealanders as our founding document, but weve still got a really long way to go to honour that partnership arrangement.

CORIN Just finally, Dame Susan, I remember hearing an interview when you first were appointed that you didnt think it would be too complicated, this job, in some ways. Do you still share that, given the tricky nature of the cartoons and those sorts of issues? That it is not necessarily a complicated job?

SUSAN Well, firstly, Corin, I thought you might ask me that, so I checked it, and I didnt actually say that, so, um, but its not that its not overcomplicated. You know, I have a mandate. I have a mandate in what I have to do. Difficult to achieve it, I will admit that, but, you know, at the end of the day, Im going to give it my best shot. And its early days, and I think people- and hope that they judge me on my performance, and only time will tell that.

CORIN Dame Susan, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate you coming on QA.

SUSAN Thank you.