POWER PLAY with Jane Patterson

7:20 pm on 14 August 2014

You know the election is not far away when political parties start ramping up the rhetoric on race relations. The race debate has flared on two different fronts this week.

ACT Party leader Jamie Whyte opined about the legal status of Maori in modern day New Zealand, while New Zealand First leader Winston Peters ruled out working in a post-election arrangement with either Mana or the Maori Party, because they're what he describes as race-based parties.

Dog-whistle politics or genuine beliefs?

As the leader of the National Party in 2004, Don Brash nearly doubled his party's polling overnight, after delivering the "One Law for All' speech in Orewa - a level of support that's largely been maintained by National.

While it sparked a debate about the place of Maori under the law and within constitutional arrangements, it revealed a simmering discontent among many New Zealanders about what Dr Brash painted as the privileged treatment Maori received.

The political landscape was also different; New Zealand was embroiled in the foreshore and seabed debate, shrouding a more fundamental debate about race relations.

National was running the "Iwi Kiwi" campaign and, like the party's red and blue bisected billboards, split the country down the middle.

There was also not a distinct Maori voice in Parliament, which emerged after the election of the Maori Party to Parliament in 2005.

The current National Party is not only in a support arrangement with the Maori Party, but during its time in Government has signed United Nations Declaration on the Rights of of Indigenous Peoples, pledged to keep the Maori seats until Maori decide otherwise and has settled 43 treaty claims.

One wonders whether that would have occurred with relatively little political controversy if that had been under a Labour Government, with National in opposition.

Jamie Whyte.

Jamie Whyte. Photo: RNZ

This week Dr Whyte has picked up on the theme of Maori as a privileged class, delivering a speech in which he argued citizens' rights are determined by their race, comparing Maori to the aristocracy in pre-revolutionary France.

In contrast, as was the case in 2005 and remains the case today, Maori are over-represented in statistics of poverty, ill-health and incarceration; a position those who disagree with the views of Dr Brash and Dr Whyte, argue is a clear demonstration that Maori is not the race of privilege in New Zealand.

Dr Whyte's arguments are in part based on his philosophical beliefs which, while in line with ACT policy, are bumping up against political palatability.

In saying that, however, he doesn't have to convince the masses, just mobilise a hard core of support that will lift the party above the its current polling of about 1 percent.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy Photo: HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION

Reaction to his speech flared, with condemnation from Maori MPs and the Race Relations Commissioner.

But within 24 hours there was a recognition that by responding to Dr Whyte, it gave him publicity and air time - the response became more muted, and that rather than offensive, he was dismissed as an irrelevance.

The reaction of Dr Whyte was interesting, as after declaring he would continue to debate the issue, he called for the resignation of Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy and complained about bullying behaviour of reporters who had challenged the assertions he made in his speech.

He was subsequently dubbed by one prominent media commentator as the "crybaby philosopher".

And as Maori Affairs Minister Dr Sharples put it, "if you can't hold your own, shut up, move out, that's the way it is".

Winston Peters at the New Zealand First annual conference in Auckland last month..

Winston Peters at the New Zealand First annual conference in Auckland last month Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Another party talking up the dangers of racial separatism this week was New Zealand First.

Mr Peters has long railed against laws that specifically cater for one particular race, and entry to Parliament through the Maori seats.

This is despite his party holding all of the Maori seats in 1996 - a different time and place argues Mr Peters, with the transition from First Past the Post to MMP.

He's ruled out being part of any post-election arrangement with either the Maori Party or Mana, describing them as parties based on race.

The Maori Party is a more likely bedfellow for National, and Mana for Labour - the election race is tight enough that both of the main parties may need their support to form a government.

Which begs the question: Where does that leave New Zealand First?

That will, of course, depend on the election results and whether Labour, in particular, will need Internet Mana if that party does deliver MPs to Parliament.

From the Prime Minister, to the Leader of the Opposition, to New Zealand First's political opponents, none is prepared to venture a prediction as to what Mr Peters will do.

It's worth noting, however, that when it comes to post-election deals, politicians are adept at justifying a change to even the most strident pre-election declarations, when the ministerial warrants and Crown cars beckon.

Follow Jane Patterson on Twitter @rnzgalleryjane

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