1 Feb 2021

National to 'work towards' running candidates in Māori seats

6:02 pm on 1 February 2021

The National Party has confirmed it will "work towards" standing candidates in the seven Māori electorates in 2023.

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National leader Judith Collins. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

There were media reports last week about the change in the party's long held position, which the leader Judith Collins confirmed at its caucus retreat in Wellington today.

National's approach to Māori changed dramatically in 2005, under the leadership of Don Brash and after his Orewa speech.

He argued in that speech the seats should be removed: "The 'principles of the Treaty' - never clearly defined yet ever expanding - are the thin end of a wedge leading to a racially divided state and we want no part of that", he said at Orewa.

"There can be no basis for special privileges for any race, no basis for government funding based on race, no basis for introducing Māori wards in local authority elections, and no obligation for local governments to consult Māori in preference to other New Zealanders. We will remove the anachronism of the Māori seats in Parliament."

In 2008 the party's policy was to abolish the seats once all historic Treaty of Waitangi settlements were completed, but by 2014 then leader and Prime Minister John Key was saying any abolition of the seats would be a decision for Māori.

Fast forward to 2021, and Judith Collins says National has been "absent from the Māori seats for too long".

With this in mind, she says, "the National Party believes we should be doing everything possible to represent every New Zealander, and will work towards having candidates in as many of the Māori seats as possible going forward."

Long-serving MP and Māori affairs spokesperson in 2005, Gerry Brownlee denied the party has been seen as anti-Māori in the intervening years.

"I think the long history of the National Party has been one that's made sure that there was a general progress towards better understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi, we started the settlement process with iwi, through the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process, the original fiscal envelope.

"All that's gone very, very well. So I don't think our record is something we should be at all concerned about."

Collins said the decision had not come of the blue, as the board hadbeen considering such a change for the last three years.

'Trust' in the National Party caucus

In her opening remarks to the caucus retreat in Wellington, Collins told her MPs 2021 is an opportunity to "really rebuild, to work together, to enjoy each other's company and to learn to trust and respect each other for everything that we do".

The two day retreat follows a disastrous year, reflected in its election result.

When asked whether there is a lack of trust among caucus colleagues, MP Nicola Willis said National "got a bad election result, we need to do a lot better, we're all conscious of that".

Gerry Brownlee said trust was a matter that "applies to the whole country with the Covid-19 threat, doesn't it?".

MP for Whangaparāoa Mark Mitchell told reporters "everyone's motivated to come out and do the best that we have to do now as an opposition, it's important job because the country faces some big challenges in these two or three years".

He didn't believe lack of trust was a problem but it was a "new start... a new term and we're just going to get in behind and support one another and be as effective as we can because that's what the country expects us to do".

List MP Melissa Lee said "any team needs to trust each other" and the retreat was a workshop "where we actually learn to trust each other more... and I think it's good, we're in a good space".

Collins said after her speech "the basis of any high performance as a team is a trust and each other in each other's abilities, but also, that each other will look after the other. So that's really important.

She said she "absolutely trusts the team, which is probably why you see me completely relaxed at most stages".

"But I think it's also important that everyone who's had different experiences in politics and some who are new, and some have been here for quite some time that we build that that's just all part of understanding", she said.

Every time there are big changes in the team "everyone has to get to know each other and respect each other, and trust is just part of any team building, the ultimate foundation of trust".

She also urged MPs to focus on their own work saying there's a real risk being in opposition of becoming "diverted and distracted" by things that are "thrown across the line for us to pick up and run with", but declined to give any specific examples.

Collins says that has been evident recently on "the government side where there are clearly distractions thrown out there so we can take the bait and keep off the things that really matter to New Zealanders - for instance that fact that we don't seem to have any vaccine in the country".

No guarantee to stand in all seats

Party president Peter Goodfellow said National would now work with its partnership group, Kahurangi National, to build resources and identify candidates.

But he said that did not mean National would stand in all seven seats, saying it "will certainly stand in seats where we have the capacity and the resources and are able to support the party vote campaign as well".

Neither of the party's two Māori MPs - Simon Bridges and deputy leader Shane Reti - had expressed interest in standing in a Māori seat.

Collins said she was not happy with the level of Māori representation in the caucus, and with the fact that after the 2020 election there were no longer any Chinese or Indian MPs, and National "needs to have more diversity".

Over the years National has held various positions, but Goodfellow said it had been "decades" since its policy was to abolish the seats.

"More recently, we've had a different approach where we were happy to listen to what Māori are saying about whether they want to retain those seats, and now we're hearing very solidly from from our Māori group and our Māori engagement, that they want National to stand in all seats," he told reporters.

The decision could well increase the party's diversity, he said, but that National was trying to do that regardless of its stance on the Māori seats.

Māori academic Dr Rawiri Taonui called the National Party's Māori seat plan desperate.

Taonui said it was an attempt to rectify the party's lack of diversity, but also an obvious bid for more votes.

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