National Party leader Judith Collins (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

National won’t find its brighter future through divisive Ōrewa-style rhetoric

Judith Collins’ use of words such as ‘separatism’ and ‘segregation’ risks polarising her party supporters, write Lara Greaves and Ella Morgan.

The infamous Don Brash Ōrewa speech of 2004 may be seared into the national memory, but many of us do not directly remember it. An 18-year-old today would have been nine months old when it happened. In the next general election, there will be voters who weren’t born when it took place. So it is bizarre to see those themes, which seemed consigned to the past, lurch back into our mainstream politics.

The speech has been widely regarded as a crucial moment in “race relations” in Aotearoa. Set against the backdrop of Labour’s controversial Foreshore and Seabed Act, Brash drew on populist sentiment around fears regarding access to beaches, Treaty settlements, and the “Treaty grievance industry”, as well as perceived Māori separatism. 

It led to a 17-point boost in the polls. However, as they say, timing is everything in politics. That surge had faded by the time of the 2005 general election: Brash lost. As later exposed in Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men, the Ōrewa speech was motivated by a naked attempt to win votes, rather than any overwhelming moral position. 

A chance at a huge boost in the polls is no doubt tempting. And it is easy to see desperation in Judith Collins’ rhetoric. Last week she used the words “separatism” and “segregation” repeatedly in attacking the proposed Māori Health Authority. Over the weekend she doubled down on the tactic. This is Collins’ one shot (probably) at being PM. For National, there is no clear path to victory in 2023. MMP means elections are never in the bag, but currently, National simply doesn’t appear as a “government-in-waiting”. 

When Collins first became leader we had concerns that she might “pull an Ōrewa”. Her views about ethnicity have raised eyebrows in the past. For example, her deleted tweet around being a “woman of colour – the colour white”, and her later comments that she felt “sick of being demonised” for her ethnicity

The National Party’s own post-election review recommended that Māori representation needs to be improved, the Treaty of Waitangi should be embedded in the party’s constitution, and that candidates should stand in the Māori electorates. Despite this, Collins’ position seems to disregard this suggested focus on Māori. It runs counter to the expert advice commissioned by the National Party following its failure at the last election – and if New Zealand’s experience with Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of listening to experts.

Last week, Te Puna Ora Mataatua chief executive Chris Tooley labelled the move “hypocritical” after pointing out that Collins was part of the Key government who oversaw the establishment of Whānau Ora. The move also seems like even more of a step backwards after Key arguably moved the rhetoric beyond separatism and took steps such as working with the Māori Party.

The National Party now has more caucus members called “Chris” (Bishop, Penk, and Luxon) than Māori (Reti and Bridges). This example illustrates a further “diversity” or representation problem within National. The future demographics of New Zealand voters will change rapidly with increased “superdiversity”, including a much higher proportion of the voting population being of Māori descent. The first step here should be recognising that the party already has a major problem with their representativeness that is distancing them from the electorate, as its own report seems to suggest. 

There are also risks to our democracy in Collins taking this brash strategy in 2021. Research has found that voters in New Zealand are not really becoming polarised over time. We all look to Europe and the United States and feel a bit smug: that couldn’t happen here! But there are serious risks to our democracy in engaging in this divisive rhetoric. Research drawing on large surveys has shown that many of the voters who believe in this rhetoric already tend to vote for parties on the right of the political spectrum anyway. Separatism rhetoric risks polarising this core group of supporters, and risks beginning some kind of “culture war” that no one wants, especially in a pandemic, and is unlikely to recruit many additional voters.

Māori are also sick of this; there is overwhelming evidence from a range of sources that an independent Māori Health Authority is a promising way forward. The separatism rhetoric ignores the failure of the existing structures to address persistent inequity, as well as more foundational issues of colonisation, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and partnership obligations. By conflating the independent Māori Health Authority with segregation, Collins only distracts from the underlying causes of Māori inequities in health, and continues to ignore the fact that a colonial system designed by and for Pākehā is quite clearly failing Māori. Even the very term “race relations” seems outdated – race is a construct that we increasingly don’t use in New Zealand or in te ao Māori. 

Instead, we would encourage National to take a more positive approach. A more constructive and positive right-wing position could be centred in empowering Māori communities to solve their own problems where successive governments have failed in the past. Big government has not been the solution for Māori, and Labour throwing more money at a problem alone is unlikely to work. The independent Māori Health Authority is a potential way of holding bureaucracy to account. 

Ultimately, a leadership change seems inevitable: if and when it happens it needs to involve more than just a change in the party leader. National’s own report recommends a focus on strong governance, leadership and team, succession planning, and changes to leadership election mechanisms – which now rely solely on the views of the current caucus. As far as we can see, there is no popular, charismatic figure waiting in the wings to fill any leadership void. Rather than shifting their focus outward (at Māori), National needs to look inward at itself, present a positive, constructive vision to the electorate, and imagine a brighter future for the party. 

Lara Greaves is a lecturer in New Zealand politics and associate director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland, while Ella Morgan is a University of Auckland MA student in politics and international relations.


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