When Dame Susan Devoy was appointed as Race Relations Commissioner in March 2013, I was critical. Along with others, I was outraged at other highly qualified candidates being overlooked. I sat forward on my seat in her first few interviews, hoping for blood, and was duly awarded with Devoy’s inept and confused performances that emphasized her lack of knowledge and preparedness. Her first ‘decisions’ to make no comment, for example after a Peters tirade against Chinese immigrants, were laughable, clearly demonstrating conservative middle class ignorance and a lack of compassion for beset communities. Dame Susan Devoy was all the evidence I needed that this government was committed to putting patsies into positions that might have held them accountable.
Yet in the last six months I have seen an entirely different Devoy heading the Human Rights Commission. I am not close enough to the Commission or it’s Commissioner to know, but some combination of advice, education, interest and willpower have begun to form Devoy into a stalwart defender of human rights. I think it’s time that I and others who were so quick and cutting with our criticism take note; Dame Susan Devoy is really starting to look like the Race Relations Commissioner.
In the last six months Devoy has fronted some important statements, most recently criticising and challenging Countdown on racially profiling Māori. Her column today in the NZ Herald was an example of a strong and well-reasoned position with a good awareness of the wider issues, and the capacity to put it in terms people can understand. I want to concentrate on something a little closer to home.
You see, Devoy is upsetting people in her home town of Tauranga. More particularly she is upsetting people in Tow-rang-gar, who would have previously considered her their ‘girl’ in Wellington, bringing about the same amount of sense that Bob Clarkson did when he was there. Devoy has shown the courage to call out our local retrograde hate journal, the Weekend Sun and their online presence, Sunlive, for their racist and offensive coverage about the application to the NZ Geographic Board to have a macron included in the name Otūmoetai. Brian Rogers, editor and owner of Sun Media publications, was apoplectic that Tauranga Māori would have the temerity to want their own words spelt correctly, and made that clear in his weekly editorial (a word that can only be applied in the loosest possible sense):
…a macron* is a pointless little smudge that some PC nutters have been smattering all over our perfectly good language.
…Take a good long look at Otūmoetai now. Because it’s the last time you’ll see it like this, in the editorial of this paper.
…So why would we feel the need to add bullshit symbols to our whacko English language?
Dame Susan Devoy’s reply to this editorial and an associated letter was straight forward, to the point and not very well received:
What kind of legacy are we leaving our children if we tell them we need to respect some languages and their conventions, but not others? A hugely significant pa site, Otūmoetai, is also a major suburb and home to many kids who deserve to know how to pronounce the name of the place they call home.
Freedom of speech is a right: but freedom to send a ‘newspaper’ replete with swear words into the homes of Tauranga families? This is not freedom of speech, this is just offensive.
Rogers has been dismissive and backed by his usual chorus of harpies who write weekly letters to the editor of vitrol and hate for all things Māori:
…that is purely bully tactics. Abuse of a public position. This objection to language was sent from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, in taxpayer time, on taxpayer resources, for what seems to be a private objection from Ms Devoy as a Tauranga ratepayer. Hello? Abuse of privilege?
There’s more serious issues than a spat over how an illiterate people spelled words – they didn’t – as separatism and talk of ‘partnership’ of two people introduces racism into the Kiwi way of life.
Well, Rogers is wrong, Rogers is a racist and unfortunately Rogers couldn’t care less. His publications reflect the very worst that this country has to offer: fear, ignorance and petty mindedness. I have some small worry that his acceptance and incitement of hate speech could build a bigger movement against Māori and other brown-skinned ethnic groups, but that is for another day.
I want to pay tribute to the courage that Devoy showed to critically reflect on what was written in the Weekend Sun and to profer that criticism even when she knew it would be very unpopular and that in the world of Rogers and Co. she would be considered an ethnic traitor. It showed courage and a clear awareness of the aspirations and hopes of people who are not like her, but need her to help. I doubt she needs my thanks, but in this instance she has it.
I wonder how this and the other decisions outlined above have gone down in the blue ribboned halls of power. I can’t imagine Judith Collins who appointed her is happy to see that pesky Human Rights Commission back to its liberal ways. From her seat in the Beehive I can imagine she looks across the street to where Devoy sits in the Human Rights Commission, shakes her head and sighs, “what a disappointment that Devoy turned out to be. Now where’s Colin Craig’s number.”