Labour Party list candidate Sam McDonald has been accused of "online harassment" on Twitter by the National Party's youth wing after he questioned the group's racial diversity.
Sam Stead, president of the New Zealand Young Nationals or 'Young Nats', posted a photo on Twitter last week showing a group of attendees at the youth wing's leadership forum in Queenstown.
Stead, who has led National's youth wing since 2018, has accused McDonald of "online harassment", following his response on Twitter.
In the comment section, McDonald - who unsuccessfully ran as Labour's Tāmaki electorate candidate at the 2017 election - suggested there was not enough racial diversity in the image.
"Bro did these people when looking at this photo before publishing not go "flip, everyone in this photo is white, it sends the wrong message"," McDonald, who is number 61 on Labour's candidate list, said.
Stead told Newshub he was "proud of all of the volunteer members of the NZ Young Nats, the work they do and the time they spend engaging other young people in politics".
McDonald's comment on the Young Nats' photo was followed by a barrage of others questioning the youth wing's diversity.
"A sea of mayonnaise," one person wrote, while another said: "Such a diverse bunch of white people," followed by another who said the group looked "far too white".
In a tweet on Tuesday, McDonald promised to run as an independent for the Hutt South electorate against National's Chris Bishop, if the post received 500 likes.
His Twitter account appears to have since been deleted.
Earlier this month, McDonald also criticised the Young Nats for posting a video where members of the youth wing performed a dance on TikTok, an app for short dance and talent clips.
"This is the most cringe thing I have ever seen!" McDonald wrote on Twitter. He asked the youth wing not to "ever try to do a dance challenge or anything normal people can do".
Others defended the group, with one person commenting: "Young people having fun is not a crime. Leave them alone, bully."
Newshub approached McDonald for a response earlier this week, but he did not reply directly.
Instead, he took a screenshot of Newshub's request, and posted it to his Twitter account, where he justified his comments about the Young Nats as "tongue & cheek questions about their lack of diversity".
McDonald wrote: "Who would have thought a centre right group would be so opposed to free speech and bastions of PC?"
McDonald said in the comment section: "There isn't anything ostensibly wrong with being 'pale skinned' - there is if there's a large contingent of you and you're not being diverse and promoting inclusivity."
Youth Minister and Labour MP Peeni Henare is backing McDonald, telling Newshub he understands the Labour list candidate's point.
"I think everything on Twitter's fair game and if you're prepared to put yourself on there you should be prepared to cop criticism from anybody."
Protections against online bullying
New Zealanders have protections against cyberbullying under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015.
Sending messages or posting material online that is intended to cause harm is punishable by up to two years in prison or a maximum fine of up to $50,000 for adults.
Martin Cocker, chief executive of online safety group Netsafe, said he does not think McDonald's Twitter posts constitute online harassment, but said the Labour candidate was "clearly baiting the Young Nats".
"In the myriad of responses to [the posts], there are clearly things that have gone too far because even Twitter has removed them and Twitter sets a pretty high bar for free expression," Cocker, who sits on Twitter's Trust & Safety Council, said.
"I can see why they might find them offensive, but from what I've seen I wouldn't see them as crossing over to being harmful digital communications."
Cocker suggested McDonald take some responsibility for the way his posts sparked a flood of negative follow-up comments.
"It's certainly not reasonable to say, 'I started this conversation of this type and it became abusive and offensive but I couldn't have foreseen that'," he told Newshub.
"Clearly, when you're deliberately provoking these kinds of conversations, then you've got to be cognisant of where they might go. Anyone who's been on Twitter for a while knows they can quickly spin into pretty harmful conversations."
National MP Nicola Willis, who can be seen in the image with the Young Nats in Queenstown, said: "We should all be careful not to engage in online bullying."
She told Newshub the Young Nats are "robust" and disagreed with McDonald's view that the youth wing is not diverse enough.
"The Young Nats are a really diverse group. I spend a lot of time with them and I think they should be confident about who they are and what they represent."
Willis also featured in the TikTok video McDonald made fun of. Her participation in the video made it onto the Daily Mail with the headline describing it as "cringeworththy".
"New Zealand now knows I'm not a very good dancer - I'm okay with that, my young kids thought it was pretty cool so that's okay," Willis told Newshub.
Reflecting on her time with the Young Nats in Queenstown, she said: "It was a great time, we talked about what it takes to win the Government benches this year, and the Young Nats are enthusiastic young people.
"They're aspirational for their futures and their country's future and they're willing to work really hard to get us elected."