Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy speech at the Auckland City Community Development & Safety Committee Forum

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy speech at the Auckland City Community Development & Safety Committee Forum

August 6, 2015

Back in the nineties our Prime Minister Jim Bolger was scoffed at for calling New Zealand an Asian Pacific nation. But 22 years later – we most definitely look like that Asian Pacific nation.

One-in-four Aucklanders are Asian Aucklanders.

Maori and Pacific Kiwis are a young, fast growing population. For the first time in a century last year’s census recorded more than one million people living in New Zealand were born overseas, 300,000 more than in the 2001 census.

The bottom line is about all of us building a future where New Zealand children know they are valued and not just tolerated. 

We are at a crossroads when it comes to race relations, ethnic diversity and national identity.

Right now we need leaders and leadership: and I don’t just mean politicians.

All of us need to show leadership when it comes to race relations.

It’s not an easy time to be an Asian Kiwi, it’s not an easy time to be a migrant or a refugee in our country.

Because everyone has an opinion about you and whether you belong here or not.

Because policy debates are deteriorating into race debates.

Because dog whistle race politics means many Kiwis are blaming entire ethnicities for our economic woes.

It’s a deeply hurtful thing to have your children hear politicians making fun of their Chinese surname.

It’s a deeply hurtful thing to have your children hear politicians insinuating that their Chinese sounding surname means they’re foreigners and don’t belong here.

The term “casual or accidental racism” is misleading here because when you or your children are being humiliated or stereotyped it doesn’t feel casual or accidental.

Recently third generation Chinese Kiwi Raybon Kan appeared on a news show and he asked the panel.

“What do us Chinese have to do to be accepted?” No one answered Raybon.

But the reality is that the ones who have to do something are the rest of us.

We need to recognise dog whistle politics when we see it and call it out.We need to demand that our politicians do not turn policy issues into race issues. We need to challenge and call out racial abuse wherever we see it in our lives and in our communities.

We are all responsible for the kind of nation we live in and now more than ever we need to take responsibility.

Because New Zealand – and particularly Auckland – is now one of the most – if not the most – ethnically diverse nations on earth.

One of our top female athletes is a young Korean Kiwi called Lydia Ko.  One of our top All Blacks is a Samoan Kiwi who’s also Muslim. Our parliament looks more like the people it represents than ever before: three political party leaders are Maori New Zealanders.

When we switch on our TVs we listen to journalists with names like Ali Ikram, Chris Chang, Ruwani Perera.  We hear from economists like Ganesh Nana and Shamubeel Eaqub.  There is an entire television channel broadcast in te reo Maori.

This is a different kind of New Zealand than the one I grew up and it is a fantastic New Zealand.Anyone who remembers our Rugby World Cup 20111 Opening Ceremony would be hard pressed to think we’re mono-cultural.  London’s Telegraph newspaper said at its heart was a defining cultural pivot around which the entire event could spin. 

What was clear to the world is that there is no nation on earth quite like Aotearoa: what’s great is that finally we too are embracing our uniqueness. But we can and must do better at embracing it.

Today one in ten Kiwis are also Asian Kiwis.  Here in Auckland one in four of us are Asian Aucklanders.

While recent growth is rapid, Asian people aren’t just recent arrivalsThe first Chinese arrived before the Treaty was signed, the first Muslim and Indian Kiwis were working and living here 140-years ago. Generations of Asian New Zealanders helped build New Zealand.

And it’s Asian New Zealanders and people who are literally helping to rebuild Christchurch. Migrant workers, many coming from across Asia form the backbone of the Christchurch rebuild. Asian companies are working alongside locals and investing millions in the Christchurch rebuild.

As well as one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth we are also one of the most peaceful. If we want to pass this legacy on to our children and their children then we’re going to have to work at it. 

How we treat one another, whether it’s with respect or not – is up to us. 

Whether we sit back and silently watch while someone is racially bullied on the bus because they are Muslim or at a rugby game because they’re Fijian or whether we stand up for that stranger: it’s up to us. 

We’re all responsible for the kind of country and community we live in and that includes politicians as they are not just everyday New Zealanders, they’re statesmen and women who have the honour of representing us in our parliament. 

As Race Relations Commissioner my role is to “promote and protect human rights for all people in Aotearoa New Zealand and foster harmonious relations”. 

In other words I’m responsible for encouraging everyone to treat each other with respect, dignity and mana: irrespective of race, ethnicity or religion.  We’ve come a long way as a nation in terms of treating each other with respect but what’s clear is some of us, including a few politicians, still have a long way to go. 

We must challenge ourselves to be better people.

The streets of our towns and suburbs are where race relations will thrive or die: it is really up to us.

Sadly in this very city around this time last year a young Jewish boy had his yarmulke ripped off his head and hate screamed at him. Hours later in Avondale a young Muslim mum and her children had cans and abuse hurled at them from a passing car.

Peace and human rights start at home, with everyday people.  We need to stand up for the kind country we want to live in.

And the work starts right here in our communities.

I would like to thank Auckland Council for your support for the Human Rights Commission’s Diversity Forum that will be held at AUT on September 9. We are pleased to be taking part in the series of Auckland Conversations – talking together is how we plan our future together.

I am also delighted to announce our Keynote Speaker at the forum this year is international peace activist and London bombing survivor, Gill Hicks.

Gill will be coming to share her story and her hopes for the future that are founded in empathy, peace and human rights.

New Zealanders are essentially good people who believe in giving others a fair go.  We just need to challenge one another when we need to.  We’ve come a long way when it comes to learning from the past and treating one another with respect.

 I think our Treaty settlements process is about human rights, recognising when Maori New Zealanders were denied their rights by their own government, apologising and compensating.  If we can’t look to the past with our eyes wide open, we will have little hope of building a future that’s based on truth and reconciliation.

I come from a family of migrants.  My father spent his first birthday on board a ship bound for New Zealand.  Like many migrants his family left Ireland in search of a better, safer life thousands of miles away. 

Migrants are not new to this country but treating migrants and ethnic minorities with respect is something we must get better at.

Right now migrants are being demonised in nations across our planet: right now is the time for New Zealanders to show leadership.

According to the Global Peace Index, New Zealand is one of the most peaceful places on the planet. 

We should live up to our reputation as one of the most peaceful nations on earth.

We must start punching above our weight when it comes to race relations.

We need to share the peace because at its heart, race relations is about human rights.

And human rights begin at home.

Please click the link for more information on the New Zealand Diversity Forum 2015.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy

Dame Susan Devoy DNZM, CBE has worked across the sport, community and charity sectors since she retired undefeated as the world women's squash champion in 1992.

A member and chair of the Halberg Trust, patron of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of New Zealand and other charities, Dame Susan was the Chief Executive Officer and Chair of Sport Bay of Plenty. She has served on the Auckland District Health Board, the Tauranga Energy Consumer Trust and chaired BNZ Partners, Bay of Plenty. 

Since her appointment in April 2013 Dame Susan has taken a high profile role in encouraging New Zealanders to take personal responsibility for race relations and to stand up for victims of racial abuse. 

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