I might just be the last person left on the planet to get a blog out about Minister Judith Collins’ absurd appointment of Susan Devoy to the post of Race Relations Commissioner. It’s okay. Bryce Edwards was never going to include me in his weekly political roundup anyway. Plus it means I can be clever and not link to anything because you have read it all. Truth up front. I left the Human Rights Commission in December 2012 after a ten year career as an Advisor. I was one of the coalface people in the paddock. The previous Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres is a friend and I was privileged to be a part of his work. It took Minister Judith Collins calling Annette Sykes “a stupid person” in a radio interview for me to dig deep and find this blog festering inside me.
So I came up with a list of what actually is STUPID:
-a Race Relations Commissioner who cannot articulate a view on race relations. I listened to Duncan Garner’s interview where he was trying to get blood out of a stone in soliciting some Commissioner sounding answers from Ms Devoy. I wondered what questions, if any, Ms Devoy was asked in the selection process. The Minister is obviously gunning for the ‘untainted and refreshing’ perception but this is just incompetence slapping skill, experience, and vision straight in the face.
-a Race Relations Commissioner thinking she can do “what’s good for all New Zealanders” (from Garners interview again). This is at best clumsily worded and wildly naïve and at worst blatantly dangerous. Who are the “all New Zealanders” she wants to do good for? Does she have any idea of the complex bridge building work that lays before her that actually requires some New Zealanders to be uncomfortably but cleverly dislodged?
-a Race Relations Commissioner who “can’t really say at this stage” whether people have any genuine grievances in this country (Garner interview). Coming in to this role, I would expect the Commissioner to already have an understanding of basic discrimination and racism in this country. If she has to scramble to agree with this at a basic level then how will she cope with uncovering the complex structural and systemic racism that pervades and impacts on too many and in effect pulls our whole society down?
-that Ms Devoy’s apparent common sense approach and strong moral compass are the big (only?) selling points of her appointment. Let us just slide the other requirements of the job description into the wasteland and celebrate that she is a pretty average New Zealander. This is the government’s insidious attempt to undermine not just this position, but a progressive commitment to real harmonious race relations by downplaying the complexity of what is needed in this role.
-the ‘one small step for woman, one giant step for feminism’ card! I have said before that a Māori whakapapa does not guarantee Māori advocacy. The same can be said for token placements of women into roles for the purpose of upholding the patriarchal views of the current government.
-the sneaky move that seeks to pre-empt the Human Rights Amendment Bill currently before parliament. The Bill proposes to water down the focus Race Relations Commissioner role and instead have generic Commissioner positions. The United Nations have specifically cautioned us against this. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) see a need for the Office of the Race Relations Commissioner to maintain its visibility and accessibility in the State party. The CERD Committee goes further to say that “any change effected by this amendment guarantee the independence of the Office of the Race Relations Commissioner to undertake its mandate effectively.” Ms Devoy has already articulated that gender, disability, employment or race issues are ‘not that dissimilar’. Her appointment is a cheeky move to change the Commission makeup before the Bill has even been debated rigorously and a bit of an ‘up yours’ to the UN.
-that Ms Devoy states gender, disability, employment or race issues to be “not that dissimilar”. Does she mean “not that dissimilar” in terms of the deeply rooted and complex intersectorial nature and indivisibility of human rights issues that cross and weave through issues of gender, disability, employment, race and so forth? Or does she mean “can’t be that complicated”?
-Minister Judith Collins appointing Dame Susan Devoy
For all that on the stupid list, I will not eat my words if in five years Ms Devoy comes up with something akin to resolving the issue of who owns Jerusalem. This appointment is a powerful message in the wrong direction. So many of the current fundamental political issues we are wrestling with today rely on a collective and true understanding of our colonial history and the ongoing impact this has had on our whole nation. The potential for our country to be a world leader in harmonious race relations can be hindered by ignorant and uneducated views similar to those so far uttered by Ms Devoy and certainly those right wing commentators who are bidding for her. The saddest thing is that we have an abundance of people who have given their lives to building bridges between groups and who have committed their learning and living to a true understanding of race relations. These people have the visions, the leadership, the skill and the experience to be able to do some fine work in encouraging more of us to get along and celebrate who we are. Such a shame. Finally, Annette Sykes does not stand alone Minister. Not for a second. I will close with the words of my 18 year old daughter, who has benefitted from ten years of her mother being a part of the Human Rights Commission.
“Oh that sports chic? How the hell is she gonna do Joris’ job mum?!”