The Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, is warning politicians not to indulge in dog-whistle politics or play the race card in the lead-up to the general election.

She is not confident, however, that they will resist the temptation to do so, because of the tone of political campaigns and events in other parts of the world.

Saying part of her role is to hold politicians to account, the former world champion squash player specifically mentioned New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. “I’m hoping this year that Mr Peters does not come out with some brain fades. He did last election.”

She told an international conference of lawyers in Auckland on Thursday Peters had launched his campaign in 2014 with a joke about “two Wongs not making a White”.

One offended New Zealander had sent her a picture of a hospital patient with a leg in traction after being operated on, with Peters’ face superimposed on him. A doctor nearby had a speech bubble saying “Solly, wong leg”.

Dame Susan said she had been tempted to hold onto the image, as a reminder of how jokes could offend.

“I had lots of people who told me they did not want their grandchildren to grow up being the subject of jokes about who they are. Other people said: Susan you’re just being politically correct, but I respond by saying ‘I’m actually just being correct.”

The duties of Race Relations Commissioner meant she was unable to discuss specific complaints of racial injustice when cases were before the commission.

“But I do have lots of other opportunities.

“I do not wake up in the morning and hope I get a chance that I can poke a stick at the Prime Minister. In fact I dread that.

“But someone has to be a voice for the most vulnerable. I was heavily criticised when I took this role for a whole lot of reasons. People ask what would I know, and I tell them what I know. I understand I cannot speak for everyone but I can speak on behalf of them. I have to be the voice for the most marginalised and most vulnerable and that’s a lot of people.

“People are suffering in silence.”

Dame Susan said: “We are always entitled to have a discussion about immigration and what kind of New Zealand we want to leave to our children but we need to have the conversation based on facts and figures and not hysterical hyperbole and clickbait.”

Chinese were blamed for high house prices; international students for a range of other issues.

The country was now ethnically diverse – Auckland is about to move from its status of “super-diverse” to “hyper-diverse” in terms of the proportion of its citizens born overseas – but what was distinct now about this country was the rapidity of change.

“In New Zealand our demography has changed within a generation.”

President Donald Trump’s policies in the United States – where three of Dame Susan’s four sons are studying – were a timely reminder to politicians and the public here. “We would be naive to think that it could not or would not happen.”

“We all need to be vigilant around our own behaviours.”

From 72 complaints to the office of the Race Relations Conciliator when it opened in 1972, the Human Rights Commission now has 1500 complaints a year and of that 500 are based on some form of racial discrimination – largely in the workplace.

“The reality is we have a very good record in race relations. We have a very good human rights record if we compare ourselves to other countries in particular. Although I’m not sure we want to set the bar that low.”

She seemed weighed down a little by the task of maintaining harmonious relations. “I’m not the only person in New Zealand who is responsible for fostering good race relations but at times I feel like that.”

Appointed in 2013, the 53 year-old Dame Susan is in the final year of her term. Election year dog-whistles apart, her unscripted speech to about 80 people at a women’s forum at the Inter-Pacific Bar Association conference highlighted:

* An increase in hate speech and incidents was behind the Human Rights Commission encouraging the police to collect data on hate crimes. “We are not asking for legislation on hate speech. The thresholds are so high no one could ever reach them in my view, but we do need to know the extent of the problem.”

* While “window-dressing” events celebrating diversity were one thing, moves towards real inclusion of ethnic groups in all areas of New Zealand life were a great challenge. The public service itself had a problem. “Apart from the chief executive of the Ministry of Health, Chai Chua, and the CEOS of Te Puni Kokiri and the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, there’s not one person in the public service [leadership] who comes from an ethnic minority. It’s worse in the Crown entities below that.”

Dame Susan told the audience from around the Pacific and Asia: “I’m eternally grateful to live in this great country. The success I have had in my role, if you can call it that, is about building relationships within our communities.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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