I was born in Rotorua. I’m the youngest of seven children. I have six older brothers — the only daughter, so there was great excitement in the household when I was born. My parents were Tui and John. We lived in Puriri Crescent. I never like to say now that I grew up in a state house, because that’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it? Doesn’t mean anything, I’ve decided.

I went to St Mary’s primary school and then to MacKillop College. I was born and raised a Catholic.

My parents were salt of the earth folk who did everything that parents of that era did. They raised money to build the new Catholic school. They ran housie every Thursday night for the fundraiser.

They were big Labour people — they voted Labour all their lives. We just grew up with, if you fell on hard times, you took a meal to your neighbours. You looked after each other’s kids. We played tennis in the middle of the road. We mowed each other’s lawns. It didn’t matter where you came from. We’d put some money in if someone was made redundant. You did all those sorts of things — it was just normal. I don’t know whether that was because of where we lived, or because we were Catholic.

And my mother and father always had thousands of people over at our house. It was just, “do drop in”. You could come to my mother’s house at 2 o’clock in the morning — it used to be called “Tui’s diner” — and if you’d been out drinking, she’d cook you steak, eggs and chips. And give you a bottle of beer as long as she could stay up and drink it with you. So we were like the party house. It was my mother usually and my father, leading the charge. And my brothers brought home stray people all the time. We always had people staying. We always had strangers. We had people from overseas. We had locals. We had everybody. The more the merrier, really. And big family dinners.

Both my parents worked incredibly hard. My mother was a full-time working mother. I think when I was born she was the night porter at De Bretts Hotel, where my father was probably the best client. Then I remember her as the postmistress at Whakarewarewa post office. And then she went to work with my father, who was an accountant, and who, by all accounts, was a bit soft. So she went to sort that out. She was the matriarch of the family. My mother was a very strong woman — and an elegant woman, too. That’s why I grew up thinking that equality existed, that there weren’t any barriers for women.

I’d assumed with a name like Tui that your mother must be Māori. What’s the story there?

We don’t know. But there is lots and lots of chatter that she might be. If you looked at pictures of my mother, she could easily be Māori. Why she’s called Tui, I don’t know. There’s been lots of rumour among people from Ngāti Kahungunu in Hastings. My mother’s sister and brother are still alive and they’ve had the same conversations with people.

And when I started my job at the Commission lots of people made contact and said we were related. This gentleman kept coming to the office saying I was Ngāti Porou. It’s one of those things that was never talked about. My mother certainly never mentioned it.

Gosh, it would have been helpful in this role, wouldn’t it?

But, growing up in Rotorua, you must have had a fair bit of contact with Māori?

Yeah. Half of our street was Māori and half of them were Pākehās, and some of them were married to each other. We all played together and looked after each other.

I grew up going to maraes with my dad on weekends. He was an accountant for Ngāti Whakaue and Ngāti Pikiao. So he used to go on Sundays to the meetings, and we’d hang around and then we’d have a feed. And he would take home a half mutton or a bag of mussels or something else that Mum wasn’t entirely impressed with because she couldn’t pay the bills with that.

And we used to hang out at Whakarewarewa— we called it Waka. I remember going to Guide Rangi's tangi. Friends of my mother were guides and we used to go through there like it was our backyard. Then they built the hotel on the corner, and my mother used to walk in there every weekend and take us for a swim as kids, and pretend that we were staying there. We’d say: “Mum, half the staff know who you are.” We’d have a swim in the flash hot pool and she’d have a beer.

But there was quite a media storm when Judith Collins announced your appointment as Race Relations Commissioner, with many commentators saying you weren’t qualified or suitable for the role. Were you surprised by that reaction?

Perhaps I was naïve, in hindsight. I certainly didn’t expect that everyone would be jumping up and down for joy. But I didn’t think it would be quite so momentous as it was. It was quite personal in some regards — or perhaps I just took it personally. And it went on for a long time, too. I just kept praying that someone else would do something. Not the ideal way to start a new job. The difficulty was in knowing how I was going to deal with it, because I was getting advice left right and centre, as you can imagine. I look back now and think about it quite a lot, as to how I could’ve handled it differently.

Why did you take the job? Had you been interested in race relations before this?

I get asked that question a lot. I’ve been asked that question as many times as I’ve been asked do I still play squash. So what I think now is that it doesn’t really matter. It’s irrelevant really, because I’m three and half years into the role and I’m doing it.

One of the things I really wanted to do was work for the Human Rights Commission. I just like that whole sense of fair play and social justice. So, when I was approached, I did a lot of due diligence. Firstly on the Commission, secondly on the role, and thirdly on my predecessors.

Put it this way. I was a professional squash player. I’m not a lawyer or an accountant or whatever. It’s not like I could go back into my previous occupation.

And in some ways, all the hoo-ha around my appointment made me question my own ability to do the role. And I became very defensive. And that was really what I had to overcome. That I was more than capable.

So I sought really wise counsel before I took the role. I talked to people I’d worked with. People who knew me. People who knew my skills and my attributes, and who would tell me honestly. Because I’m not so arrogant that I thought I could just about do anything. But, I think, if you read the job description, you could say that you’re at least suitably qualified to go for the interview.

You’ve said that this role has been a huge learning curve for you. And you’ve changed your mind about a number of things, including what you said in that Waitangi Day column in the Bay of Plenty Times, where you talked about the day being “marred by political shenanigans” and that perhaps it was time to choose another “true New Zealand day”.

Yeah, no, I’ve changed ... I still believe that the media focus only on the protest. That’s generally how I had made my opinion. I had only seen in the media the negative stuff, and I thought, why can’t we just get over that and celebrate it? That is something that I’ve changed. It is New Zealand’s day. Māori’s day to protest. To acknowledge where we’ve come but how much further we have to go.

People don’t understand what happens at Waitangi. They don’t understand that 99 percent of it is about this wonderful gathering of people celebrating the signing of the Treaty. And the rest of it is actually saying we’ve still got a way to go to fulfil that promise.

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So you’d say the job has changed you?

It’s definitely changed me. Undoubtedly. I say to my husband: “What am I going to do when I leave?” Because I want to keep going to all these things. Joris (de Bres, former Race Relations Commissioner) used to turn up to everything and that used to make me feel a little uneasy. And now I understand. This job becomes like a calling in many ways. It becomes a part of your life. I’ve got a whole lot of new friends whose names I struggle to pronounce. I’ve had a whole new experience that’s very difficult to explain but totally overwhelming.

I just think I’m very fortunate. I’ve had my own views challenged. I’ve changed views that I had on certain things.

Quite honestly, I thought we were a much more inclusive and tolerant society than we really are. That’s been the really big thing.


We can’t judge people who aren’t informed or haven’t had the experiences. But, there is an onus on all of us to actually understand. And I think that’s what Andrew was trying to do. My message is, everyone should know about the history of their own town or city or region and the land that their buildings are upon to actually have some sense of how this has evolved.


And I think we’ve gotta be really careful that we’re not going down a slippery slope. Because, where we are uniquely different from other countries with similar diversities is ours has changed within a generation. So we compare ourselves to the Vancouvers and Melbournes and places like that. Well, their multiculturalism hasn’t changed as rapidly as ours has. Your schoolmates, your classroom photo, will be completely different from your children’s. And that’s happened incredibly quickly.

You know, I grapple with working in a multicultural environment when we haven’t got our bicultural stuff sorted. I went on the Parihaka walk last month and that was just a real eye-opener. We have a long way to go to really cement our bicultural foundations.

So many people on that walk, who were from New Plymouth, who I would have thought would have been to Parihaka, had never been to Parihaka. And never been on a marae. And I didn’t know that that was true for most New Zealanders.

I’d never been to Parihaka but I was aware of the history and I’ve been on truckloads of marae. I thought that was normal. And it isn’t. Well, I speak to my friends who grew up in Taihape or Gisborne, and we’re all quite similar. But then you’ve got other friends who didn’t have that contact with Māori. Like Andrew Judd (New Plymouth mayor).

When you look at Andrew Judd's story it seems obvious what the barriers are to cementing that bicultural foundation, doesn’t it? In Andrew’s case, it was about not having a clue about our history and having so little contact with Māori that he’d grown up fearful of them, and, in his own words, racist — although he hadn’t realised that until his epiphany as mayor.

His story is quite remarkable. I drove down to New Plymouth last year to see him. I’d never met him before then. We sat for hours in his office talking, and I thought I was going to cry. I thought he was going to cry, actually. Might’ve been crying at one stage. I found that quite amazing that a mayor had never been on a marae.

We can’t judge people who aren’t informed or haven’t had the experiences. But, there is an onus on all of us to actually understand. And I think that’s what Andrew was trying to do. My message is, everyone should know about the history of their own town or city or region and the land that their buildings are upon to actually have some sense of how this has evolved.

I look at my children. They’ve grown up with a basic understanding of the Treaty, but nothing about our history and nothing about our land wars. They know how to pronounce Māori names properly, and they can do a good haka, but that’s the gap, isn’t it?

It’s absolutely critical to teach our history to our children. We’re not going to change anyone until we get people to understand our history.


At the end of the day, working for the Human Rights Commission is all about standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. Who don’t have a voice. Who are the most marginalised for whatever reason — whether it be ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever.


When you were appointed you had one side of the political spectrum condemning your appointment and the other rejoicing because they thought you were going to be the sensible, “common sense” voice of “mainstream” New Zealand — which seems to be a proxy for people who think of the Race Relations office and Treaty consciousness as PC, liberal nonsense. How do you think they’re feeling now?

I’ve probably pleasantly surprised and suitably disappointed both of those groups at different times. There is no doubt this has been a learning experience, but I think a lot of people made assumptions about my leanings when I was appointed — without even knowing me or understanding me.

I’ve had a lot of people that write to me, the ones who thought I was going to be something different, and admit that they were wrong. You know, “I was a naysayer in the beginning.” Or, “I was one of the ones who thought you’d be useless.” So that’s pretty good. When I get one of those I always feel quite a sense of achievement. God, when a commentator or a media person says that, I’m even more delighted!

But I’ve lost a whole lot of friends over this, too — I’ve lost half my fan base, I think. Because I was pretty popular with the older, white population. One of the most interesting things I do is speak to Rotary and those sorts of groups. Predominantly white audiences, who are the very people who listen to me and think: Oh, I didn’t expect you to be like that or say that or whatever. And then they ask funny questions.

I spoke in Rotorua not long ago to an older woman’s club. And a woman stood up and said: “What would your mother and father think, Susan? You’re brown on the inside now.”

And I said: “I’m not sure — I’ve gotta think about whether that’s a compliment or not. It’s confused me a little bit.” But it was so funny.

I guess those former fans would say you’ve been captured — brainwashed by that PC lot at the Human Rights Commission. But, what would your mum and dad think?

I just think my mum and dad would be so proud of me. They probably wouldn’t agree with everything I said, but they’d be proud of me for sticking up and holding my guns.

At the end of the day, working for the Human Rights Commission is all about standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. Who don’t have a voice. Who are the most marginalised for whatever reason — whether it be ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever. It’s to hold the government to account, to be the watchdog, and to speak out and not be afraid to hold people and organisations to account. That’s really what our work is all about. I just happen to work in the race relations area, which is probably a little more complex and complicated than anything else here.


In the beginning, the things I said were picked up because people wanted to see me fail. They wanted to trip me up. So you spend half your time worrying about what you shouldn’t say rather than what you should say. But as you get more confident you just say what you think is right regardless.


 

You’re past the halfway mark in your five-year term. And many people have been admiring of the gutsy stance you’ve taken on a number of issues. You’ve spoken out for doubling the refugee quota. You’ve stood up for Muslim communities. You spoke out recently against neo-Nazis marching in Masterton in the walk for Moko. You’ve called out politicians on all sides of the House. What’s the plan for the home stretch?

Any particular focus?

I’d like to go out with guns blazing.

That means using the fact that I am probably the most well-known race relations commissioner and the fact that I’m a Pākehā woman, as another tool to deliver a message to the people who probably need to look at their own behaviours and views.

And being more confident about saying things. In the beginning, the things I said were picked up because people wanted to see me fail. They wanted to trip me up. So you spend half your time worrying about what you shouldn’t say rather than what you should say. But as you get more confident you just say what you think is right regardless. That’s one of the things I’ve learned — when to speak out, when to be bold and brave, and when to say something when no one else is.

But I’m not the only bloody person in the world responsible for race relations. So it’s also getting people to take personal responsibility. Not to be bystanders. To stand up against the racial abuse of others.

The goal is to have zero tolerance to any form of racial abuse. We have a chance in New Zealand to be world leading. But we need our world champions and politicians to start talking in those terms. We need leadership there. Lots of people want to use the race card, but always as a negative, never to start a discussion or as leverage for positive change.

The most important thing I think we have in New Zealand is the ability, regardless of our views and who you are, to sit around a table and have a conversation. I know that people probably loathe me and despise me, but I don’t know anyone, apart from the trolls, that you couldn’t sit down and have a conversation with.

It’s like when people ask me if I get a hard time when I go on a marae. I say: “Look, it doesn’t matter what they think of you, you’ll always be welcomed respectfully on a marae. Regardless. You might have a confronting conversation in the kitchen or at morning teatime, but you’ll absolutely be treated with respect.”