National leader Christopher Luxon may face ongoing pressure over willingness to work with parties who some accuse of inflaming anti-Māori sentiment.
The Labour leader Chris Hipkins met with Māori leaders in the Far North and directly questioned the National Party leader on race relations during Wednesday night’s leaders’ debate.
On Friday morning, leaders from across te ao Māori released a letter challenging Luxon and others over their treatment of Māori.
After confronting Luxon about working with NZ First, when both leaders agreed comments from its party had been racist, Hipkins continued his focus on race relations.
The Labour Party leader travelled to Te Tai Tokerau on Thursday, meeting with groups of Māori from Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine, urging them to ensure Māori vote this election.
His message in these hui was that a National-ACT, and perhaps NZ First, coalition would hurt progress for Māori and Te Tiriti – given promises such as abolishing the Māori Health Authority and holding a referendum about Te Tiriti. He said they were in “a fight” this election, and committed to calling out racism when he sees it.
After his hui in Te Tai Tokerau, a number of iwi and Māori leaders from across Aotearoa penned a joint letter which echoed Hipkins’ concerns.
These leaders, which included representatives of Te Kīngitanga, social services, and kaumātua including Sir Mark Solomon, Tukoroirangi Morgan, and Professor Margaret Mutu, agreed with Hipkins’ view that campaigning from his opposition had caused harm to Māori.
“Race-baiting for votes is not new here in Aotearoa. But this election, the dog whistling and the outright public displays of racism from political candidates have increased to unacceptable levels,” their joint statement said.
The leaders challenged Luxon’s behaviour since becoming National leader, saying he was “ignorant” to have called Te Tiriti a “wee experiment”.
But their primary concern was with the ACT and NZ First parties.
“We are calling on Christopher Luxon, the leader of the National Party, to condemn the racist comments made by NZ First candidates, to condemn the race-baiting policies of the ACT party and commit himself to representing all of us – including Māori,” they said.
ACT leader David Seymour on Friday downplayed the critiques. He called them “self-proclaimed Māori leaders”. (Most iwi and marae leaders are elected.)
Seymour continued: “The open letter goes on to reference ‘the race-baiting policies of the Act Party.’ The letter never says what they are. It is a serious accusation backed up by zero evidence.”
The comment quoted by Hipkins on Wednesday, from Rob Ballantyne, targeted who the NZ candidate called “elite Māori”.
“Cry if you want to, we don’t care. You pushed it too far. We are the party with the cultural mandate and courage to cut out your disease and bury it permanently,” he said.
Luxon agreed that was racist on Wednesday, but said it was still worth working with NZ First. Senior members of that party have not condemned the statement.
Luxon dismissed Hipkins’ concerns on Thursday, calling him “a desperate guy”.
He reiterated that the NZ First candidate’s comments were racist: “I don’t condone those statements at all. I think they are vile and offensive comments.”
While Ballantyne said his comment wasn’t racist, because he supports “mainstream Māori”, leaders from te ao Māori disagreed.
“It is racist to call for Māori, elite or not, to be cut out and buried,” they said.
“We need to draw a line in the sand, put an end to this divisive style of politics because Aotearoa, we are better than that.
“We support the position taken by the Leader of the Labour Party, Chris Hipkins, calling for the end to race-baiting and racist comments in our country’s election campaigns.”
Labour’s Te Tai Tokerau MPs, Willow-Jean Prime and Kelvin Davis, say they’ve faced racism during this election campaign.
During his speech in Kawakawa on Thursday, Hipkins didn’t shy away from his party’s low polling and acknowledged previous Labour leaders had also fallen into “race-baiting”.
But he said, as leader, he would take a hard stand against race-baiting and would defend initiatives such as the Māori Health Authority, as well as the status of Te Tiriti in law.
“Political parties have used race-baiting and anti-Treaty politics to divide us in elections. But even when the polls were down, we as a country stood our ground,” he said.