Prime Minister Chris Hipkins appealed to the Māori community to turn up to the polls today in Kawakawa, in a speech where he railed against racist comments made by his political foes.
On a flying visit to the Far North, Hipkins was greeted by a kapa haka group from Kawakawa Primary School at Ngāti Hine Health Trust – a group funded to attend the Te Mana Kuratahi National Festival by Te Matatini funds allocated in this last budget.
Flanked by Kelvin Davis and Willow-Jean Prime, his two Māori MPs for Northland and Te Tai Tokerau, it was a fitting spot for Hipkins to draw a line in the sand when it comes to using Māori health as a political tool.
Hipkins said phrases such as “one system for all” deny history and preserves in amber a system that works worse for some – namely Māori, for whom persistent and marked inequity is observed at all levels of healthcare.
He said leaders of the main political parties have generally adopted one of two approaches when it comes to how they talk about Māori.
“First, we see leaders who see anti-Māori positions as vote-winners. They reach out to New Zealanders through one-liners like ‘one system for all’, putting the narrative that Māori are somehow getting things that other New Zealanders aren’t.”
Hipkins said it was an approach that played on people’s fears.
“It’s not pretty, and it’s wrong … far from being privileged, Māori are over-represented on the wrong side of far too many social and economic statistics.”
The second approach was the politician with their head in the sand, afraid to come out too strongly one way or the other.
“Leaders that are playing to the middle ground are quiet on Māori issues. They make changes but they keep their policies under wraps, they water down their positions for fear of being seen as too pro-Māori and losing votes,” Hipkins said.
“It’s depressing that the options seem to have been race-baiting or just keeping quiet.”
Hipkins told the group of representatives from Ngāti Hine that he will not be bound by those options.
“I’ve decided to do something novel, and that is to tell the truth, and to stick to my own values this election,” he said. “I’m going to be open and transparent about why I support a Māori health authority, why I believe in Te Tiriti, and why I think it’s important to our future that Māori and the Crown work together.”
In a tenure as Prime Minister in which Hipkins has attracted the reputation of safe and middle-of-the-road – mollifying centrist voters with policy bonfires and shooting down tax reform – it was a relatively fiery performance.
Perhaps he’s trying to keep up the newfound energy with which he came at Wednesday night’s Newshub debate with Christopher Luxon.
Hipkins said the speech was pre-planned, but it did seem to follow the continuity of an exchange he had with Christopher Luxon at the previous night’s televised set-to.
It all crystallised around comments made at a public meeting last week by New Zealand First Rangitata candidate Rob Ballantyne.
“Cry if you want to, we don’t care. You’ve pushed it too far,” Ballantyne said to an audience in Timaru. “And we are the party with the cultural mandate and the courage to cut out your disease and bury it permanently.”
Hipkins aired these comments at the Newshub debate as evidence of “overt racism” and questioned Luxon’s announcement earlier this week that he’d be willing to work with New Zealand First.
“Christopher, you are willing to work with these people – why?”
Luxon was quick to reply.
“Well, I’ll tell you why, because I’ll tell you what’s going to happen – I don’t want to work with New Zealand First but I am going to make the call if it means I stop you, Te Pāti Māori and the Greens…”
“Do you think that’s racist?” Hipkins interrupted.
Luxon: “I do, I don’t think that’s acceptable at all.”
Hipkins brought up Winston Peters’ mid-90s comments describing immigration from Asia as an “Asian invasion”, casting shade on Luxon for potentially enabling such rhetoric through a coalition.
It should be noted that Hipkins was also part of a coalition with Peters as recently as three years ago, when the ‘invasion’ comment was already a matter of historical record.
Nevertheless, New Zealand First’s swing against co-governance is a mostly new phenomenon, and if the polls are to be believed it’s one that may have attracted a new cadre of support.
Ballantyne denied his comments were racist, telling Stuff’s Tova O’Brien his comments were aimed squarely at the “disingenuous Māori elite” rather than “mainstream Māori”.
Ballantyne said Labour’s Willie Jackson was an example of who he was talking about, as well as other Māori members of the Labour caucus.
At the same time, the Labour representatives up in Kawakawa had stories about how Māori members of the party had suffered abuse during the campaign.
“Right at the moment, it’s not easy to be a Māori Member of Parliament,” Hipkins said as he acknowledged his colleagues.
Prime, the MP for Northland, mentioned how she had been mistreated during some of the candidate debates in the last few weeks, singling out the Taxpayers’ Union debate held recently in Kerikeri.
“I have received some of the worst comments and vitriol that I have experienced in seven campaigns,” she said. “At the Taxpayers’ Union debate in Kerikeri, and don’t blame it on the beersies, I was being shouted down every time I went to answer a question.”
Prime said she received jeers whenever she used a Te Reo Māori word.
The footage of the event corroborates this, as well as another candidate who told Newsroom that Prime was treated shabbily.
The other candidate did note that though the other parties all had 20 or so supporters in the room to bolster her numbers, Prime didn’t bring much support along.
That same debate featured an audience member bleating out “Can we get a Kiwi to talk to us?” as Taxpayers’ Union COO and head of campaigns Callum Purves – a Scottish-accented man – explained the latest poll results.
“What is really worrying is that they feel so emboldened to be able to come out and say this stuff publicly,” Prime said. “Northland is almost 50 percent Māori and we can’t go backwards.”
Kelvin Davis added Māoridom was getting “really fed up with being used as a political football”.
“We won’t tolerate the sort of rhetoric we are hearing and the sort of abuse that’s being directed at our wahine Māori candidates who are standing, regardless of the party.”
So what is Hipkins’ response to all of this?
He called on the crowd to not only get out and vote as Māori, but also to encourage their communities to get politically engaged.
“This is not an election to sit out,” he said. “It’s one for Māori to rise up at the ballot box.”
Māori voter turnout was about 10 percentage points below other ethnic groups at the 2020 election, even with a big increase in Māori participation.
Newsroom asked Hipkins how his campaign aims to increase Māori turnout.
“We’ve had a particular focus on door-knocking, phoning and being active on the ground in our Māori constituencies and reaching Māori voters on the general roll,” he said.
“We’re really focused on making sure Māori know what’s at stake in this election and getting them out to vote.”