15 Jul 2020

National leadership change: Gerry Brownlee backs Judith Collins' unapologetic diversity stance

2:59 pm on 15 July 2020

Deputy National leader Gerry Brownlee has doubled down on leader Judith Collins' unapologetic stance on diversity, saying it can be hard to balance with competence.

Gerry Brownlee

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Collins, freshly elected last night into the National Party leadership after the shock resignation of Todd Muller, told RNZ's Morning Report today she was not concerned about criticisms of a lack of diversity on the party's front bench which had dogged Muller's reign.

She said the party had "diversity of thought", arguing it was more important to "be representative rather than look representative" and again repeated her question of whether there was something wrong with being white.

Her deputy Brownlee - who was also deputy leader from 2003 to 2006 - this afternoon seemed to take a very similar stance.

"I think it's very interesting when people call out for diversity but at the same time demand competence, and sometimes balancing the two is not easy," he told Midday Report.

"I'm not suggesting that means anything particular for our caucus but you'll find Judith will do a sensible job in putting forward great capability onto our front bench, and mindful that it has to be as reflective as it possibly can of New Zealand society."

Challenged on whether it was important to representatively reflect the people of New Zealand, he said he and Collins would bring a breadth of experience to their roles, and argued the party had more diversity than the government.

"I think between us we have a fair bit of experience politically but also outside of politics as well ... and I think everything that you accumulates throughout your life becomes relevant."

"They're probably [more] diversely represented inside the National Party caucus at the moment than they are in the government caucus. There are a large number of - obviously with the Māori seats - Māori inside labour, but same with us and we also have other ethnicities as well.

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media alongside deputy leader Gerry Brownlee following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July.

Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee after last night's leadership vote Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"While that's not the main job of those people when they come into parliament, it's just a connection point for the philosophies that you represent as a political party."

But director of Māori and Pacific Advancement at AUT's School of Law Khylee Quince said his arguments were disingenuous.

"If you want to claim to be representative of New Zealanders then it's difficult to defend any claim of diversity when you don't look like it: 30 percent of New Zealanders are Māori, Asian or Pasifika; 30 percent of the National caucus is not that and certainly not the front bench, so I find that a bit disingenuous.

"I think that Ms Collins knows full well that when she talks about diversity reflecting 'diversity of thought' she knows that that's not what we mean in terms of the modern sense of the term, which is about diversity of representation ... gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, culture or socio economic positioning, those things are relevant.

AUT senior law lecturer Khylee Quince

AUT senior law lecturer Khylee Quince says having politicians of diverse backgrounds is important precisely because it reflects a diversity of experience. Photo: Supplied

"I can't say I took any comfort from what he had to say ... other than the fact that - it came out of his own mouth, he said 'everything that you accumulate throughout your life is relevant' - and that's the point."

She said there were two main benefits to having diverse backgrounds represented in the caucus.

"One is the optics - and optics is important in politics ... there's also the point that your diversity of knowledge and experience - or your 'accumulated knowledge' as Mr Brownlee put it - those things can inform your policy - particularly for your role as a treaty partner for example.

"When the first Māori on your bench is pretty far down the line, that's pretty hard to do."

Brownlee himself was the party's Māori affairs spokesperson after then-leader Don Brash delivered the controversial speech at Ōrewa, which argued against what the party described as a "special legal status" given to Māori.

Asked whether the National Party had moved on from such divisive ideologies, he told Morning Report he only held the role for a short time, after Dame Georgina Te Heu Heu was stripped of it because she objected to the speech and "more than just the speech, it was some of the sentiment that was expressed following that speech".

"I think New Zealand and the National Party have moved on quite some distance since that time."

National Party taking economic focus

Brownlee told Midday Report the government had "no plan" to tackle the economy.

"My role is to support Judith getting the message out that, you know, worst economic conditions in ... 160 years and we've got a government that really has no plan, and we certainly do.

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media with support from party members following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July.

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media with support from party members following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"Our record as a party in government has been dealing in the past with the sort of debt loads that the government is going to take on and getting us back into a position where all those people at the moment who've lost jobs, who have reduced salaries or wages or can't get the part time work or casual work they want, get some kind of opportunity."

Asked about that plan, he said infrastructure - "one of the quickest ways that you can expand a domestic economy" would be a big factor in the election, but other things would also come into play.

"All the other things that are always there will also play a part - so health, education, personal security, law and order ... but I think without doubt the dominant issue will be who is going to be best suited to manage a debt-based economy moving forward."

The government announced a bill last month to fast-track several infrastructure projects, and spent a record amount on DHB funding increases in the last Budget, though some criticised it for not going far enough.

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