National MP Simon Bridges will make his valedictory speech at Parliament on Wednesday night, closing the door on his political life after 14 years. His departure adds to the diversity problem the party is already facing under leader Christopher Luxon. Photo: Chris Luxon Facebook

National’s just had its first opportunity to deal with its diversity crisis and its response was four white men contesting the Tauranga by-election

There are now more Christophers than there are Māori in the National Party.

This isn’t a new problem for National but Simon Bridges’ exit from politics this week only makes it even more profound.

Bridges’ departure means there are now just two Māori left in the caucus – Shane Reti and Harete Hipango – and the only other ethnic representation amongst National MPs is Korean-born Melissa Lee.

His vacating of the Tauranga seat means there is also a by-election to be held on June 18.

When Luxon took the helm of the National Party late last year, he was very frank there was a diversity issue and that it would be resolved under his leadership.

At the time of his reshuffle, he said the caucus was “not ethnically diverse, and that’s because we got a much poorer result in the last election than we had planned’’.

Bridges was the only successful non-white electorate MP at last year’s election, out of 23 National electorate MPs.

Luxon has talked at length about the need to find new and diverse candidates.

In an attempt to refresh the National candidates’ college and start the process of identifying people ahead of the 2023 election, a summer camp was held over the Christmas break.

Luxon looked to be taking serious action – even if that same camp did result in him having to defend himself, following an interview with Te Ao Māori News, where he used the phrase “high-calibre Māori” about some of the candidates he’d met over the summer.

The National Party candidate selection for the Tauranga by-election was the first big opportunity for the party to prove what Luxon has been saying for months – that the party can and will attract a more diverse range of MP hopefuls.

Yet when the candidates were announced last month, there was nothing to differentiate one from the other.

In fact, a supplied photo of the four circulated amongst media had them all in navy suits and white shirts. The only point of difference was one wearing a brown belt instead of black.

Luxon has a big job ahead convincing potential candidates that the party is ready to be inclusive.

When Newsroom pressed Luxon on Tuesday about what the party was doing to address its diversity problem, he once again acknowledged it had a problem but attempted to use the party’s successful Tauranga candidate, Sam Uffindell, as an example of diversity.

“He’s bringing a lot of skills we don’t have which will be very helpful.

“He’s a person who is actually well-educated, gone off overseas, worked in a really complicated area of financial crime and has come back and is an agri-business champion as well for the Tauranga electorate.’’

Asked if it was a bad starting point having four white males contest the National Party candidacy, Luxon disagreed.

He also made the point that local members in electorates decided who should be their candidates, with a “highly democratic and very challenging process’’ to go through.

In this case that “robust process’’ resulted in absolutely no diversity at all.

It also comes at the same time the direct competition, Labour, has more diversity in its caucus than ever before, and the Greens have adopted a new co-leadership model that ensures one of its leaders is Māori.

Meanwhile, one National MP is quibbling over the Māori name, Matariki, as a public holiday and the party has got as many Nicolas, Todds and Simons in the party as it does Māori (for added diversity, there’s also one Simeon).

Luxon has a big job ahead convincing potential candidates that the party is ready to be inclusive.

And if those with more culturally diverse backgrounds do put their hand up for candidacy, there will need to be some assurances they don’t end up at the bottom of the party list like what happened in 2020.

After all, that’s how National ended up in this situation in the first place.

National’s diversity issue might not be hurting it in the polls at the moment, with the party surpassing Labour’s 38.2 percentage points in the Newshub Reid Research poll on Tuesday night with 40.5 points.

But in 2022 it calls to question how truly reflective the party is of the country.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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