3 May 2019

National's Paula Bennett and Labour's Willie Jackson in 'racism' row

9:58 am on 3 May 2019

The National Party deputy leader says she feels like the target of a racist attack by Māori government ministers.

Paula Bennett arrives at Parliament for the first session of 2019. 12 February 2019.

Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

A war of words started on Wednesday when Labour Māori caucus co-chair Willie Jackson called into question the Māori heritage of National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett in Parliament.

It was not only Ms Bennett on the receiving end, with Mr Jackson attacking several other National MPs who identify as Māori.

Mr Jackson said a couple of the Māori National MPs were good, but that "the rest were useless".

"Paula Bennett - well, she doesn't know if she's a Māori. Some days she does and some days she doesn't.

"Dan Bidois - he needs to go back to Italy. And Jo Hayes - Jo wouldn't have a clue," Mr Jackson said.

Willie Jackson, Minister of Employment

Willie Jackson Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

It is not the first time Mr Jackson has questioned Ms Bennett's whakapapa, but yesterday she used his Mana in Mahi youth employment programme as a way to hit back during Question Time.

"Do the Māori in the Mana in Mahi programme need a Māori-sounding surname to participate or will he be telling people with the name Bidois that they should go back to Italy?" Ms Bennett asked Mr Jackson.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters jumped in with a supplementary question for Mr Jackson as a show of support, asking: "What happens when your discovery of whakapapa Māori is rather like Columbus' discovery of America - purely by accident?"

Not prepared to let the government have the last say, National MP Jian Yang joined in when questioning the Statistics Minister James Shaw on the recent census.

"If the data of who's Māori is suboptimal, would he consider simply asking his ministerial colleague Willie Jackson to tell us all who is and isn't a real Māori,'' he asked.

Ms Bennett said she has identified as Māori since the day she was born and was taught to walk in two worlds.

She said she was happy to have a debate but thought Mr Jackson and Mr Peters took it too far.

"It does feel like a racist attack to be quite blunt.

"I'm not one that's too precious about things and I can be fairly robust. It just seems that these are people that others should be able to look up to, that they ... see as senior and running government policy, and there's going to be some rules for those who they think are Māori enough and then others for people like me who they don't consider Māori enough - I think that's a really dangerous path to be walking down."

Mr Jackson told Morning Report today the "race card" accusation was nonsense.

"She's twisted it and spun this into some sort of race card argument which is a load of nonsense. It was in the context of the general debate ... which is as robust as anything."

Mr Jackson said he was talking about Ms Bennett's "non-support" of a National Māori MP's efforts to advance kaupapa Māori.

"I've never said she's not Māori," he said. "How do you identify as being Māori? By your whakapapa ... is Paula Māori? 100 percent."

He said it was not his intention to make anyone who did not know te reo or their marae feel bad.

"If they don't speak Māori it doesn't make them any less Māori. Paula is no less Māori because she can't speak to Māori. Paula is no less Māori because she hasn't been brought up Māori."

"If anyone has taken that offence out there, I apologise. It was in context of debate."

Peeni Henare, Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector, Minister for Whānau Ora, and Youth.

Peeni Henare Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare, MP for Auckland Māori electorate Tāmaki Makaurau, said he thought being Māori was about more than just "blood quantum", and was happy for questions to be raised about anybody who claimed to be Māori but who did not meet a certain threshold.

"I haven't seen her on the marae, I haven't seen her dry dishes, I haven't seen her do a karanga - therefore, it should be raised as a question."

But Ms Bennett said she was just one of many urban Māori - the same Māori Mr Henare represents in Tāmaki Makaurau- who were not connected to their Māori heritage.

"There are thousands like me who live in the city who aren't connected to the marae and aren't connected to the language and actually you feel a little embarrassed about it to be honest and don't know how to reach out.

"And I think to define them as being lesser or different, is almost perpetuating that they feel like they're not worthy and the embarrassment.

"So I understand where he's coming from, I don't agree, and I think it's a dangerous path to walk,'' she said.