It’d be nice to have a cross party agreement to not use the race card in the upcoming elections: Dame Susan Devoy, Race Relations Commissioner

- Rakesh Naidoo, Strategic Advisor Race Relations, New Zealand Human Rights Commission, also shares his experiences of the last 16 years in New Zealand


Can you please explain what your office of Race Relations does?

Dame Devoy:  My colleague Rakesh Naidu and I, we are the race relations team. Within the commission we have access to a legal research and monitoring team, but we are the workers on the ground really. People need to understand that the commission’s functions are to promote and protect the realisation of human rights for all New Zealanders, foster harmonious relations among the diverse communities that now call New Zealand home. Now that’s not simply the role of just the race relations commissioner, but I like to describe as our engine room, our enquiries and complaints department where every year we field a number of complaints, and over 400 of those are based on some form of racial discrimination. We’re a small organisation and I like to think that most of the time we punch well above our weight.

So how does your team work?

Naidoo: Being a small team we have to look at quite a few issues and I basically look at the interface with the community, community engagement and working with our government departments, agency partners who do the practical activities we need. For example around international students or the anti-racism campaign that we launched, or looking at worker exploitation, looking at the employment and representation in the public service.

You have been in this role for the past four years now. How has New Zealand changed in terms of race relations during your tenure?

Dame Devoy: We have to remember that as a country we have pretty good race relations in our record, but certainly not perfect, and we can always do better. But if you compare ourselves to many other countries around the world, our bicultural foundation has enabled us to live mostly in harmony with our very multicultural society now. We are now one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. We are also one of the most peaceful. But we don’t want to take that for granted, and we’ve seen recently what’s happening around the world as a result of Brexit, as Trump becoming the President of United States. We are very weary of all those issues around the world. So there’s numerous things that we have to focus on. Every race relations commissioner would say, during the time that they were in the office, that race relations were at crossroads. We’re very aware and we work tirelessly to foster that.

Mr Naidoo, as you yourself come from a minority race, how has New Zealand changed during your time here in this country in terms of race relations?

Naidoo: Firstly, I’m extremely humbled and fortunate to be working alongside somebody like Dame Susan. It’s not everyday that you get to work with somebody who is so committed to what she wants to achieve for our country, but also the way she goes around and presents to the communities. Dame Susan will be the first one to tell you that she is European and she comes from very much a European background, Pakeha background and sometimes people question that are you able to represent the communities that have many of these issues and they are the minority communities, and she has very clearly stated that she is a voice for these communities, she is able to give voice to these communities, and she does so very well. I think she also understands the mindset of the majority of New Zealand and how to express our concerns and sometimes the concerns of groups that have challenges. So her communication to that is very effective.

Since coming to New Zealand I have seen New Zealand change so dramatically. We know for New Zealanders that have been here long time, they would have seen in their lifetime that over the last 30-40 years New Zealand has gone through dramatic changes. But we’ve also gone through changes in the last 10-15 years as we’ve had more migration to New Zealand, since the time of colonisation and even in the short time that I have been in New Zealand, 16 years, that’s been dramatic, the landscape has changed, the population base has changed, the streets, businesses, schools, and that has been dramatic for new migrants even. So I think that is the challenge we’re facing.

Festivals like Chinese New Year, Diwali, French festivals, now they’re mainstream festivals they go on for six weeks, they’re celebrated throughout New Zealand and not just in some ethnic locations. We’re seeing festivals that are now rolling calendar festivals, take a break from one and into another and into another. So I think that’s a positive side. But all that positiveness we need to recognise that this amount of change in experience of people is quite dramatic, and we want to give people the opportunity to take a deep breath, take this all in. Let’s have some understanding and education.

One of the areas your office is passionate about is tackling issues around exploitation of migrants? What's your observation about that?

Dame Devoy: We’ve done a lot of work in our office in the last couple of years around international students, not just around the exploitation of students in employment settings, but looking at their whole health and well being. We realise that the economy is reliant on our international students and we work really hard to make the government see that these are people first and money second. We’re delighted actually that the heath and well-being strategy has been developed as part of the overall international education strategy, putting those people in focus. Now part of that is enabling students to have a safe place to go to express their concerns about their exploration or the issues around employment.

Similarly I think we’ve seen new legislation come out, tighter legislation come out this week announced by Minister Woodhouse. So I know the government is very aware of the issues within MBIE and Immigration New Zealand. It’s not an easy fix.

But I think migrants understand, need to understand, that whether they are the employers or the employees, that when they come to live in New Zealand, they live under our rule of law, and therefore this needs to be enforced. I think New Zealanders would be horrified if they heard some of the stories we know. I’m not sure the average New Zealander completely understands what’s actually going on but obviously it’s on the government’s radar and everybody else’s, and we need to give it a chance to see if the new legislation will have any effect. But it just needs to stop, people can’t behave like that.

So are you keeping a close watch on legislation and ground realities?

Dame Devoy: In our roles, both Rakesh and I, we hear these stories everyday. We went to the presentation last night by Dr Christina, who presented her research on migrant exploitation. It was great but these stories aren’t new, and people need to have the safety and security to be able to report this, and government needs to have the resources to follow it up. The comments that are made by not having enough labour inspectors, we need to resource this properly if we’re going to solve it.

Mr Naidoo, you are an example of a successful migrant in New Zealand, who is in the public life. Would you like to see more migrants in the mainstream public life of New Zealand?

Naidoo: I would love to see more candidates from ethnic communities. Being in a vibrant democracy New Zealand is one of the most peaceful countries in the world. We’re also one of the least corrupt. Education as well as having the knowledge about how communities interact on the ground, bringing their own cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, business practices that may have been condoned in some countries of the world and coming into New Zealand, that I think people getting involved into local politics, local councils, that knowledge will help secure New Zealand.

They will be able to put legislation in place, rules in place, policies in place, or even make sure that there is a broader understanding of what the implications mean for communities. There is also a huge necessity for our communities to have voice and visibility in any government process. As more communities see themselves represented, they feel that they will be able to go and communicate these things to individuals that would understand them. We know about language barriers, we know about how communities view law enforcement, how they view politicians overseas, and we want them to have a healthy appreciation of what that means in the New Zealand context.

Dame Devoy: Everybody is talking about diversity and inclusion. They are a high priority for this government as well. We’ve talked a lot about the festivals and the way we have, all research will show you that generally New Zealanders have embraced our diversity and our multiculturalism. But the reality is that that needs to be reflected in the people represented in our organisations.

So with the elections coming up, what message do you give to the political parties?

Dame Devoy: By and large, our politicians, regardless of which party they are in, are very respectful of each other. We don’t always see that in the house of course, by some of the comments that are made, But I just hope that this year leading up to the elections, it’d be nice to have a cross party agreement to leave the dog whistle politics at the front door, and not to use the race card. Because we’re seeing a fear of ethnic diversity and we’re seeing migrants being blamed for the housing crisis, the lack of jobs for young New Zealanders, all of those things. All New Zealanders are entitled to have a discussion about it but we need to do it based on facts and figures and not hysterical hyperbole.

Finally, what, in your opinion, needs to be done more to improve race relations in New Zealand?

Dame Devoy: That’s an open ended question. Where do I start! We’ve launched a successful anti-racism campaign last year. We asked New Zealanders to share stories about their own racial discrimination. We’ve also asked them to share stories of their aspirations of the kind of country we all want to live in and what are we going to leave for our children. For any country to keep moving forward in a positive way, and to talk about race relations we need to have brave conversations. We live in a country where despite having different views I’d like to think we can sit around a table and discuss those views. And it’s not that we should always agree to disagree, we need to find point where we can actually move forward. I think people are addressing some of the underlying issues, some of the intolerance and the pressures that exist in our society.

I’m not the only person in the country to be responsible for race relations. It might be my designated title but we’ve all got a part to play in this, and particularly our leaders, and I expect them to stand up and do the right thing.

And Mr Naidoo, what do you think can be done to improve race relations here?

Naidoo: We say that contact is the thing that helps people overcome their prejudices, and following on from what Dame Susan said that people sitting around and having a conversation, people getting to interact with one another. Maori culture has taught us that sitting down and having a cup of tea, getting to know someone, these are the simple things we do well. Those are the positive things we are seeing taking place and we want to see more of.