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On The Nation: Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy

On The Nation:
Lisa Owen interviews Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy

Criticises Prime Minister John Key for failing to meet with President of the Islamic Associations, Anwar Ghani, about Islamist extremism - it’s not good enough” and “he owes the Muslim community an explanation”.

Says politicians are falling short as role models on race relations and “it’s my job to call them out”

Describes Winston Peters is a “repeat offender” when it comes to inappropriate racial comments

Devoy says NZ’s refugee intake isn’t good enough and “New Zealand can and should do a lot better than we do.”

Says there’s anecdotal evidence of an increase in Islamophobia in NZ amid the rise of attacks overseas by Islamic State and New Zealand’s involvement in the war is “not going to make my job any easier”

“We hear stories, particularly of racial abuse against women and children in the communities”

Calls for refugee numbers to increase gradually from current 750 a year level and for a one-off crisis intake; says a quota of 1000 would be “a start”

“If you think there's 51 million people displaced in the world now with the crises that are happening, particularly in countries like Syria, then that's what we should really be doing.”

Says politicians should make more effort to speak Te Reo correctly and Te Reo should be compulsory in school

Asked about key snatching from foreign drivers, Devoy says: “You know, we shouldn’t become vigilantes that take it upon ourselves to take keys from anybody, regardless of who they are.”

Says NZ race relations at “a bit of a crossroads” due to the changing demographic make-up

***********

Lisa Owen: You're back with The Nation. Islamic State beheadings, politicians playing the race card and vigilante Kiwis snatching keys from foreign drivers. Is all of this fuelling racial tensions in our backyard. The woman charged with promoting race relations in the country is Dame Susan Devoy, and it's fitting that she joins me in the studio this morning on what is Race Relations Day. Kia ora, Dame Susan. How would you describe the state of race relations in New Zealand right now?

Dame Susan Devoy: Right now I think we're probably at a bit of a crossroads, but I think it's important on Race Relations Day 2015 that we acknowledge we are one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Auckland is now a super-diverse, and we're also one of the most peaceful nations in the world. But we shouldn't be complacent. We shouldn't take that for granted, and we've still got a lot of work to do to ensure we stay that way.

What do you think the crossroad is?

Well, I think the changing demographic. You know, it's come pretty quickly. If you think that one in 10 New Zealanders are now Asian. Here in Auckland, one in four Aucklanders are Asian-New Zealanders, so that diversity poses both challenges and opportunities.

Well, when you talk about diversity and people coming here, you've been very outspoken about the number of refugees that New Zealand takes under the quota system. 750 a year. It's been the same since 1987. Is that good enough?

No, it's not good enough, really, and, I think, if you look at the current crisis in the world, New Zealand can and should do a lot better than we do. But there we have to measure the messages that go out because it's not a them or us. You know, I mean, it's fantastic that New Zealanders can raise money and send it over to Syria to help the situation over there, but we have the capacity to accept more people into our country. And refugees want a hand-up, not a hand-out.

So what do you think is the right number?

Oh, look, I have no idea what is exactly the right number, but to increase our quota gradually over a period of time. And people have talked about the number 1000 for quite a considerable number of years. But, you know, we can't...

Do you think that's realistic — 1000? Would that...?

I think that's a start. I mean, I know we can't compare ourselves to other countries, but, you know, in terms of Australians, they accept a whole lot more refugees than we do per capita. You know, a pretty significant number. Look at Jordan. They have a million refugees in a population that is not much bigger than New Zealand.

If you consider 1000 a start, are your ambitions a bit higher than that? Would you like to see more than 1000 a year?

No, because you have to balance it, actually, with the support that you give to refugees that come to live in New Zealand, and that's really why it's careful, cos we don't want to build any, sort of... We want to make it easier for those people to settle in New Zealand, and they do need a lot of different support. I mean, I've met so many refugees, you know, who really just want to contribute to New Zealand. They are so grateful to be here, and they want to be good New Zealand citizens. And we owe it as an international citizen to do that.

So, then should we maybe take a bunch of refugees as a one-off from an area of crisis?

Well, we could do that too because we did that 70 years ago with the Polish refugees. And if you think there's 51 million people displaced in the world now with the crises that are happening, particularly in countries like Syria, then that's what we should really be doing.

Would you like to see the government do that?

I would. I would. You know, we have a seat on the Security Council. You know, we have a responsibility as an international citizen to do that, and I think that's really where we should be heading.

And where should they come from, in this case? Syria? You talked about Syria there.

Look, I don't know. But, you know, we should work with the UNHCR. You know, that's our responsibility. We should work with them. They're regionally based in Canberra. And they've passively tried to encourage New Zealand to take more refugees, and so there needs to be a lot of work to do before that, but we should really be making our intentions very clear.

You talk about responsibility, and I've seen some of your speeches. You say politicians are role models. And, basically, you're urging them to lift their game when it comes to race relations. So how far short are they falling at the moment, do you think?

Well, it depends. You know, if we're talking about race relations, then we need champions and we need good role models, and I think nothing comes better than a politician, you know, whether they're statesmen and stateswomen. And we elect them and we expect them to represent the best interests of all the people that live in New Zealand.

But you wouldn't be making those comments if you thought they were all reaching the bar at the moment. So how far short...?

Well, of course they're not. But I've got to be careful what I saw. We've got a by-election around the corner, you know, and there are certain politicians who have made statements that are inappropriate, and it's my job to call them out. You know, I wouldn't be doing my job—

You mentioned the by-election. That sounds like you're talking about Winston Peters.

Well, Winston Peters is certainly a repeat offender when it comes to making statements. If we look last year — and these issues are well publicised — you know, his comments before the general election about two Wongs don't make a right, well, you know, I will go into my office on Monday after that, and 50% of the people will support Winston and 50% of the people won't. But I talk to Chinese-New Zealanders who are horribly offended by that. You know, they want their children to grow up in a country where they're not the butt of racist jokes. And people might say, 'Actually, Susan, you're just being too PC.' Actually, I'm being just correct, really.

So do you ring him up or have a yarn to him, have you, and said, 'Look, Mr Peters, could you stop doing this,' or, 'I need you to lift your game.' Have you had that conversation?

No, I haven't had that conversation with him personally, but he knows. I mean, he reads it in the paper. And, look, I will bang into Winston many, many times. And we have a mutual respect of each other because he knows that I'm doing my job too, and that's what my role is, is to stand up and hold people to account.

OK, well, Te Reo is part of Race Relations Day, part of the theme, do you think that people, politicians in particular, should make more of an effort to say Maori words correctly?

Undoubtedly. It's simple. It's not easy. You know, I try really hard with my pronunciation and trying to learn the few more words... or try to learn the language, actually. It's incredibly difficult. But most definitely. You know, we need to make much more of an effort than we currently do.

So how would you rate what you hear come out of Parliament at the moment in terms of that? Because, to be fair, our prime minister, the leader of this country, practically every day he butchers Te Reo.

Yeah, but you know, it’s whether he’s trying. That’s the most important thing. It’s really important. I mean, I don’t know which television station it was, but someone was criticised, a presenter was criticised for her use of Te Reo. I mean, I think we’ve moved beyond that. You know, it a beautiful language.

Yeah, that was our weather presenter.

Yeah. Yeah. And of course, you know, I mean, I just think that it’s our generation that are a bit ignorant of that, because young people, it’s very normalised for them. It’s part of their everyday life.

So there’s racism that still exists around the use of Te Reo, you think?

I’d not necessarily call it racism, but I think there is a reluctance, really. You know, the minute someone starts mentioning whether Te Reo should be compulsory in schools, well, you know, lots of people raise their arms. And I think being bilingual would be a real added advantage to our young people.

So do you think it should be compulsory in school?

I do. I do.

OK. I’m wondering, Auckland – there’s been a lot of talk about Auckland becoming racially segregated. Do you think the equivalent of suburban apartheid in this city?

No, I don’t think we do.

Why do you say that?

Well, it isn’t something that’s been on the radar for me in my role, but, I mean, we need to be very careful that it doesn’t happen. You know, as the numbers increase and many different cultures come to live, and particularly in Auckland, we need to be prepared and plan to ensure that that’s not going to happen.

OK. I want to talk about events overseas that are possibly having an impact on us here at home. We’re seeing the rise of Islamic State and the attention that it’s getting. As a result of that, are you seeing an increase of Islamophobia here?

Anecdotally. Anecdotally, I’m told that every time there’s been an attack or an event happens around the world, and that’s the same for the Jewish communities as it is for the Muslim, we hear stories, particularly of racial abuse against women and children in the communities. You know, there haven’t been any formal complaints, and so we can’t always rely on anecdotal evidence, but we know that it happens.

OK. Well, you’ve always been an advocate of people talking at a grass-roots level. And in fact, you’ve quoted the UN in terms of that, saying it’s best practice to talk to the community. When The Nation spoke to the president of the Islamic Associations, Anwar Ghani, he says the prime minister still hasn’t met with him to talk about some of these issues, and he described the level of engagement as poor. Is that good enough, that the prime minister hasn’t met with him?

No, it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough. And, you know, my heart goes out to Dr Ghani, because whenever there is an issue, he is the person that’s called on to make the statements and to defend the position of Muslims living in New Zealand, and that’s incredibly hard and incredibly difficult. You know, he has to continuously say that Muslim New Zealanders, you know, live here in peace and want that as much as anyone else. What I’m saying is that, you know, it sounds simplistic, doesn’t it, but that’s the way that the commission actually mediates and resolves is to actually get the people round the table and talk about it. So if there are issues, you know, you can’t sit on the sidelines and make the rules for other players who are in the middle. And these are the communities that are most affected. You know, so the government has to protect all New Zealanders. You know, that’s their priority. But all New Zealanders are Muslim New Zealanders as well.

So the government has to engage. Have you asked the prime minister?

Yes, I’ve asked the prime minister. You know, in our submission, you know, around the foreign fighters and counterterrorism, the request was for the prime minister or senior officials from the department office to go and speak to the community. I’m not sure, but I believe that Chris Finlayson has met with Dr Ghani.

But has the prime minister spoken to you directly and explained why he’s not willing to go and see Anwar Ghani?

I don’t know. I don’t think the prime minister feels he has to respond to the race relations commissioner, but, you know, this is really important.

Why not? That’s your job, isn’t it?

It is my job.

So why shouldn’t he respond to you? Do you think he owes you an explanation?

He doesn’t owe me an explanation; he owes the Muslim community an explanation.

Do you think that war and New Zealand’s participation in the war overseas is going to hurt race relations here in New Zealand?

I think it’s not going to make my job any easier. I don’t think it’s necessarily about, you know, deploying to Iraq. I think what’s really important is that we understand and stand by Muslim New Zealanders, because this is going to be really difficult for them.

But you’ve said in the past that if we’re spending money on the SIS, it might be a better idea to put money into youth here that are disaffected. Would you like to see some of that resource going into help?

That’s also been a recommendation. And there’s some great relationships and some agencies doing some wonderful things. The New Zealand police work really really closely with these communities. So if there are issues in these communities, let’s understand what they are and put the investment in that. You know, it’s a small amount in investment, and we need to actually do that. You know, this is uncharted territory for New Zealand. We don’t want to make it like a Hollywood movie, but we actually need to go in there and discuss the issues with the communities that matter. I mean, it’s not different if I was having trouble with my children. You know, if my children were in strife, I’d want some help from somewhere.

Just before we go, quickly, when was the last time you heard about keys being snatched from a European-looking driver?

Ooh, I don’t know.

Does it worry you?

No, I didn’t comment on that, cos that’s not a race-relations issue; that’s a safety issue. You know, and I haven’t actually followed that. I was asked to comment, and I didn’t because we don’t want to make everything into a race-relations issue. I think that’s a tourism issue. I don’t know.

But that’s the point of that question, isn’t it? You can’t name a time where we’ve heard about people snatching keys from European-looking drivers, only from Asian drivers, it seems, and foreigners.

Well, I thought I heard the other day there was a German driver that was stopped and apprehended. Look, I’ m sorry, I can’t answer those questions, but you’re right. You know, we shouldn’t become vigilantes that take it upon ourselves to take keys from anybody, regardless of who they are.

All right. Thank you, Dame Susan, for joining us this morning. Much appreciated.

My pleasure.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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