The launch of National’s “demand the debate” billboards. (Screenshot)

The use of race in politics need not be entirely negative, writes Paerau Warbrick, a barrister and senior lecturer at Otago University — but National seems to want it both ways when it comes to Māori politics.


Just over a year ago, Judith Collins became leader of the National Party after a disastrous leadership change. Three months later, in a landslide election loss, National’s party vote slumped to 25.5 percent, and many electorate MPs found themselves out of a job. 

The result was not as disastrous as the 2002 election, where National just got under 21 percent of the party vote. But it was clear that the New Zealand public saw that National was in a shambles with no real sense of direction. 

As Chris Finlayson — the former National MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations — commented recently, National deserved everything they got. Even today the party seems confused about what it stands for and what direction it would like to take the country.

This confusion is on display in National’s handling of Māori issues. On one hand, National wants Māori votes. On the other, National MPs criticise Māori initiatives and shoot themselves in the foot when they use race as a political tool.

The use of race in politics need not be entirely negative. Let’s look at the upside. 

National says it wants to run candidates in all the Māori seats in the 2023 general election. This is a significant turnaround. It was under the controversial leadership of Don Brash from 2003 that National argued for abolishing the Māori seats — and the party hasn’t stood a candidate in the Māori seats since. 

National now recognises that Māori votes are important in the MMP system, where every vote counts. And if a party doesn’t stand candidates in an electorate, can it really, with hand on heart, say that it values those people’s votes? Of course not. 

So the current stance is that National wants votes from Māori, and its candidates plan to go out to the Māori people and listen to what their real concerns are about. That’s what National says it intends to do in 2023. So far, so good. 

The other upside of National’s use of race as a political tool is its attempt to insert the Treaty of Waitangi into the party constitution. This is truly eye-raising stuff. The fact that it even got to the proposal stage indicates that the document that Māori hold so dear is seen by National as sufficiently valid as to be imbedded into the party’s foundation document. This is truly a mindset shift from the time of Don Brash’s anti-Treaty rhetoric. 

These two factors indicate that National is serious about Māori concerns, and therefore deserves at least attention from Māori. 

But in recent months that goodwill has been undermined. 

From a political perspective, all National needed to do was to deploy another racial political tool of Pākehā paternalism towards Māori with the messages that “National values the Māori people” and “National is going to look after the Māori people”.

Admittedly, that messaging is cringeworthy stuff to many Māori, but at least it has a positive vibe about it. Throw in the message that “National’s going to give more funds to kōhanga reo and hauora Māori and build more houses on Māori land,” and you have the beginnings of political saleability to Māori. 

It won’t move diehard Māori Labour voters to tick the National Party box at the next election, but it could cause those voters to stay at home on election day, knowing that if National gets in to government, they’re going to look after Māori people anyway.

Instead, we’ve seen a dramatic series of instances of National’s downside use of race as a political tool. 

When the current Labour government, as part of their restructuring of the health system, announced that a separate Māori Health Authority would be created, Judith Collins immediately rejected the notion. She doesn’t like separatism. This caused a clash with the Māori Party, who labelled National “racist.” 

When the Auditor-General ruled that the purchase of land at Ihumātao by the government was unlawful, Judith Collins demanded an apology from the government. This was yet another rejection by National of a sensitive Māori grievance.

When He Puapua was published, calling for the recognition of Indigenous rights and separate Māori systems for dealing with governance, justice and health, Judith Collins again went on the attack. In recent days, the National Party has even been putting up billboards demanding a debate on He Puapua. 

For some delusional reason, Judith Collins and National are trying to test the political waters to see whether they can find some traction in the polls, like when the National Party under Don Brash in the mid-2000s took a hardline stance against Māori. 

There’s no indication that this is working, with the July 2021 UMR poll showing National dropping to 24 per cent, while Labour has climbed to 48. Worse still for Judith Collins, the ACT party leader David Seymour rated higher as the preferred prime minister with 12 per cent, compared to Collins’s 10.

The political conditions in the mid-2000s simply don’t exist today. It was Helen Clark’s Labour government back then that infuriated Māori by nationalising the foreshore and seabed. This was despite Māori winning a critical Court of Appeal decision that allowed them to progress their ownership of the foreshore and seabed. The Māori Party was then created to go against the Labour government, and the weak National opposition promoted Don Brash to its leadership. 

Don Brash’s anti-Māori rhetoric included claims that Māori were claiming the beaches, and that the principles around the Treaty of Waitangi and the Māori seats and all government policies treating Māori separately had to go. This resulted in National’s meteoric rise in popularity, which went from 21 to 45 per cent in a number of polls. 

And this is what National is currently trying to copy. But there’s a major problem with its strategy. It isn’t proposing anything near what it proposed in 2004. It wants to stand candidates in the Māori seats and place the Treaty into its constitution — something that the Brash leadership was dead set against. 

In the end, the divisive racial tactics didn’t pay off for Brash. His numbers came up short. National got 39 per cent of the vote at the 2005 election, which wasn’t enough to form a government. The party then replaced Brash with the ever-smiling John Key, who toned down the rhetoric and made it clear that he could easily work with the Māori Party. And with that strategy, Key ramped up victories by bringing Māori Party members into his cabinet.

Frankly, National is confused when it comes to Māori issues, and “mate korona” is the cause. Covid-19 has created a new world order, it has created a new set of issues for New Zealand, and it has exacerbated inequities right across the country. 

National is trying to use old negative racial tactics from a world that no longer exists. The New Zealand public doesn’t have an appetite for that racial tool in this Covid-era. 

Instead, New Zealanders who own their own houses are just grateful that they own one in the current housing crisis. Those who are renting are just trying to find a place to rent and get money to pay the rent (as well as trying to buy a house). Workers who lost their jobs because of Covid-19 just want a job, and businesses who are under severe pressure because of Covid-19 are just trying to survive. And all of us have our eyes on the immediate goal of not catching Covid.

National’s use of the negative aspects of race as a political tool doesn’t cut it. They are far better to quickly choose their candidates for the Māori electorates and dispatch them far and wide to see what Māori people want. 

They might be surprised with what they find out, because they haven’t been there for nearly 20 years.


Dr Paerau Warbrick, Ngāti Awa, is a barrister and senior lecturer in Te Tumu: School of Māori Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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