Week in Politics: Ōrewa recalled as Collins opposes 'racist separation'

9:01 pm on 30 April 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Don Brash's Ōrewa speech is recalled as Judith Collins campaigns against "racist separation", an international defence analyst says the Five Eyes controversy is "a beat-up" and the government's flagship New Zealand Upgrade Programme runs into problems.

National leader Judith Collins 17/02/21

National Party leader Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Judith Collins' hard line against what she called racist separation and segregation drew reaction this week which included references to Don Brash's 2004 Ōrewa "one law for all" speech.

The National leader strongly opposes the government's proposed Māori Health Authority and told RNZ's Morning Report her party would not pursue policies of "racist separation" when dealing with poverty and lack of opportunity.

She said socioeconomic statistics pointing to inequities faced by Māori reflected poverty and simply highlighted the need to address obstacles in the way of all citizens to achieve success.

"It is not actually an issue of race, there is nothing in being Māori that intrinsically makes anyone more in need in the health system," she said.

"We're not going to go down that path, any more than the National Party will ever agree to racist separation in education or in the justice sector."

The NZ Herald quoted her as saying the proposed authority was segregation from the last century which would divide New Zealand into "Māori and everyone else".

"As far as the National Party is concerned, segregation was an appalling idea last century and it remains an appalling idea in 2021," she said.

Politik's Richard Harman said her comments "almost sound like an echo of Don Brash's Ōrewa speech, she is now campaigning against separatism".

Political commentator Ben Thomas, a former National government press secretary, recalled the impact of Brash's Ōrewa speech in an article published by Stuff.

"The reason this card remains so tempting to play is the dim political memory of National leader Don Brash's 2004 Ōrewa speech which led to a sudden, meteoric rise in National's polling," he said.

"Since then … 'one law for all' has been regarded as having an almost magical power, an ever-tempting get-out-of-jail-free card or a nuclear option for oppositions in the wilderness."

Thomas interpreted Collins' comments as "the clearest signal yet that she feels under intense pressure for the leadership".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had some forthright comments to make as well when she spoke to media following a Zoom meeting with the US Chamber of Commerce and was asked about Five Eyes.

New Zealand's attitude to the intelligence-gathering alliance which includes the US, Britain, Canada and Australia was under scrutiny last week following critical reporting in Britain and Australia.

Five Eyes has widened its remit to issue joint statements criticising other countries for human rights violations and anti-democratic measures, something which Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said she was "uncomfortable" with.

New Zealand has not signed up to some of the statements criticising China, although it has issued its own.

Mahuta's comment caused some intense reaction, with the Telegraph's defence editor Con Coughlin suggesting New Zealand could face expulsion.

Prominent former British politician Nigel Farage told NewstalkZB New Zealand had betrayed the English-speaking world and "sold its soul to China".

Former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said New Zealand had alienated itself and Five Eyes was now "more like four eyes and a wink".

Ardern said New Zealand had an independent foreign policy and she rejected any suggestion that diplomatic relations with its Five Eyes partners were strained.

"For us, Five Eyes will continue and will always be very, very strategically important to New Zealand," she said.

"Going forward we will continue to make sure that we work with our partners around issues like human rights and democracy and, as we have always done, we will make sure we raise these concerns in those arenas on an ongoing basis."

Regarding increasing tensions between China and Five Eyes, she said New Zealand had never chosen sides. "In having that independent foreign policy over decades, we have never been in the position of choosing sides."

International defence analyst Paul Buchanan, asked on First Up why New Zealand was coming under such intense criticism and said it was interesting that none of it had come from Five Eyes governments.

"It's come from the conservative media, mostly in the UK and Australia," he said. "The criticism in my mind is completely unwarranted because New Zealand has done nothing but reaffirm the original purpose of Five Eyes."

Buchanan said using an intelligence collection network for diplomatic initiatives undermined the diplomats who should be responsible for those initiatives. "Let's remember this is not a defence alliance, it is not a diplomatic coalition, it is an intelligence collection and sharing network."

He said the security relationship in general between New Zealand and its Five Eyes partners was the best it had been since the non-nuclear row in the mid-80s.

His conclusion was: "I think what we have here is a beat-up, put quite simply, and it is going to go away because neither the intelligence partners nor their governments have made any criticism of New Zealand's stance."

Revelations in a report by Stuff's Thomas Coughlan this week have given National something to work on in Parliament if it decides to have another go at Labour for failing to deliver on its promises.

His report, based on documents gained under the Official Information Act, was headlined Government may axe promised roads as costs mount in $12 billion infrastructure package.

The flagship New Zealand Upgrade Programme (NZUP) was announced in January last year, when Ardern described it as "a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in New Zealand".

It included upgrades to schools, hospitals and infrastructure but the centrepiece was $6.8 billion for transport projects with $5.3b to be spent on roads.

Coughlan reported the programme was "in danger of collapse" with Transport Minister Michael Wood now refusing to say whether all the 22 promised projects would actually be built in the way they were announced.

"That puts the fate of $6.8 billion worth of road and rail infrastructure up in the air, and could lead to projects like Auckland's $1.3b Mill Road or Wellington's $817 million Otaki to north of Levin (road), and the $258m Melling Interchange either pared back or dropped entirely," the report said.

The problem is a familiar one - budget blow-out. The costs when the programme was announced were taken from NZTA Waka Kotahi estimates. It then went back and worked on more detailed costings, called baselining.

That took almost a year. Ministers were regularly updated and were warned that costs could be significantly higher - and any over-runs would force Wood to ask for more government money.

Wood told Stuff cost escalation had been seen across the country post-Covid. "Given the programme was announced pre-Covid, a baselining exercise has been done to provide more certainty around the scope, cost and scheduling of the programme," he said.

Asked specifically whether he would commit to delivering all the projects, Wood declined to answer, the report said.

Instead, he said the government was weighing up its options. "Ministers are considering this advice and an announcement will be made in the future."

The programme was politically contentious at the time because within it were roads National wanted to build if it won the 2017 election and which were subsequently set aside by the incoming Labour-led government. It then resurrected them in the NZUP.

National transport spokesman Michael Woodhouse accused the government of a "flip-flop-flip." He said it should top up the NZUP fund and get the roads built.

In other developments this week:

Police handed over the Māori Party donations case to the Serious Fraud Office. It failed to declare more than $300,000 of donations to the Electoral Commission on time. Party president Che Wilson said the mistake was made by volunteers who were "learning the ropes".

The National Party did not declare a $35,000 donation on time and was given a warning.

Unknown sums of money are being handed over to moteliers to cover damage caused by emergency housing clients - officials are not keeping track of it and cannot put a total figure on it, RNZ reported.

National housing spokesperson Nicola Willis said it had been extremely difficult to get any information at all and that was unacceptable because it was taxpayer money. Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni admitted the situation was "not ideal".

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield held a briefing to report the vaccine rollout was ahead of schedule nationwide although some DHBs were not doing so well. Northland missed its target by nearly 4000 jabs and has been given a talking to.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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