Since taking the role of Race Relations Commissioner, it feels like Dame Susan Devoy has been lurching from one crisis to the next – so it’s not surprising she’s feeling the strain.
The 49-year-old was unprepared for the flood of criticism that accompanied her appointment in March – and adjusting to the weekly commute between Tauranga and Auckland has been harder than expected.
The night before the Weekly arrived to interview Susan at her home, she was lucky to escape injury when she almost drove into a herd of cows crossing the road.
She stopped in time, but unfortunately witnessed an oncoming motorist collide with the cattle, killing one and seriously injuring another two that needed to be shot.
To top it off, there were no clean towels in the house when she arrived home, plus a new fridge had arrived, but Susan forgot to tell anyone she had bought it, so the old one was still in the kitchen.
To say it’s been difficult managing the high-profile job and juggling her family of four – sons Julian (19), Alex (18), Josh (17) and Jamie (15) – is an understatement.
The public backlash has led to Susan appearing on Maori Television and Campbell Live – she also spoke at a recent public appearance in Hamilton, where she told an MC her job was a case of “same s* different day” and described her Wellington staff as difficult.
“I have to be honest – it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” she told the Weekly.
“I expected there to be criticism – that happens when anyone is appointed to a public role – but I feel there was a concentrated focus on finding anything they could drag up to discredit me. But at least they can’t say it’s jobs for the boys.”
A lot of criticism has centred on columns she wrote for the Bay of Plenty Times, which included her views on Waitangi Day, republicanism and burqas.
Ironically, Susan says she was sacked from the newspaer because she wasn’t opinionated enough and believes some of her pieces have been taken out of context.
For example, in a column on Waitangi Day she said the focus had been marred by protests.
“I was expressing a view that it’s not necessarily a day of celebration,” she says.
“We’ve got a long way to go and it may not be resolved in our lifetime. I think it’s a day that should be acknowledged and hopefully we will find a reason to celebrate it.
“I’ve only been in the role a few weeks and these are the things that I have views on – but I don’t just represent my own views and interests now.
“I have to follow policy, protocol and guidelines from the commission and I have very good advisors.”
After her appointment, Susan received a letter from a woman who didn’t believe she was qualified.
“She wrote it in such a moderate and considerate way, and was entitled to her view. She genuinely believed I have never experienced anything and I’m in my own world.
“But I went back to her and explained my background. I grew up in Puriri Cres in Rotorua. It was a state house area.
“Half the families were Maori and half were Pakeha. We got into so much trouble – we were caught sniffing petrol when we were six years old,” she recalls.
Susan’s father was an accountant who worked for several Maori organisations. He was often paid with koha and the family regularly spent weekends on a marae.
And she suffered sexual discrimination during her years as a four-time world champion squash player as she campaigned for equal prize money.
When she was asked to apply for the government role, Susan discussed it with her family. Husband John Oakley’s biggest concern was juggling family life with work in
Auckland – he’s also away a lot for his job as an orthopaedic sales rep. Shifting from their Tauranga home with its sea views was not an option, so Susan splits her time between two cities.
“I must say commuting has been quite hard. I’d forgotten what the traffic was like.”
But she is confident it can work and adds that it will be good for the boys to do more for themselves.
“I came home last night after my lovely day and there wasn’t one clean towel in the house – and we have lots of towels!
“But they’ve started cooking, which is great – like meatballs with sauce.”
Before taking the job, Susan booked in leave for next month, when she’s planning to walk the length of New Zealand – along with other famous Kiwis – to raise money for muscular dystrophy. She did the same walk 25 years ago.
Susan, who has just received an honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato, is then hoping the controversy about her appointment will have died down, she’ll have settled into the role, and also started to learn Te Reo.
“I want it to become issues focused and not me-focused. So far it’s about me and if I’m suitable or not – most of it not.”
Controversy aside, her hope is to leave a lasting legacy for her grandchildren, who will be able to say, “Our grandmother made a difference.”
“It’s going to be nice to do something meaningful.”
Photos: Michelle Hyslop • Hair, make-up & styling: Jules Armishaw