Jacinda Ardern is asking voters not to "punish" her for remarks by New Zealand First MP Shane Jones, described as "racist" by New Zealand's Indian community and the Race Relations Commissioner.
The Prime Minister was grilled in an interview with the Indian Weekender, where the pair discussed Jones' statement to Newshub Nation that the "number of students that have come from India have ruined" New Zealand universities.
The interviewer, Sandeep Singh, asked the Labour leader why she is allowing "casual racism at the top most level of New Zealand politics", and asked her why she has only spoken out against the comments rather than dish out punishment.
"My message to voters is this: in election year, the power now sits with you - you determine who is able to form governments and you have it within your power to decide what you make of those remarks," Ardern said.
The Prime Minister pointed to comments she made earlier in the week after Jones' interview aired over the weekend on Newshub Nation.
"On many occasions I've witnessed minister Jones be both loose with his language and also be wrong, and on this occasion he was both," she said at her Monday post-Cabinet press conference.
Singh said he did not doubt the Prime Minister's position, but said she appeared to be a "little bit weak" letting Jones, a minister in her Cabinet, "go rogue".
"Before the election, don't you think you are risking too much of the goodwill that you have rightly earned from last year's Christchurch terror attack, where you firmly stood beside the community which was affected?" he asked.
"As I have condemned in the strongest way possible, these comments, on this occasion," Ardern retorted. "But really, it will come down to the fair-mindedness of others, as to whether they will choose to condemn me for the statements of others."
She added, "I would consider that to not be fair that I be punished for the opinions of others, which I personally strongly disagree with, or indeed Labour.
"We stand directly opposed to those statements, and also, we are the ones in Government that are in the position to be able to correct issues where they arise, as we did recently when you would have seen a policy issue with cultural marriages."
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, leader of NZ First, defended Jones in Parliament on Wednesday, after National MP Gerry Brownlee asked the Prime Minister if she was concerned the comments might cause "embarrassment" with India.
Peters argued that the definition of racism is "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior".
He added, "Nothing that Mr Jones has said fits that."
National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, who was born in India, said in Parliament on Thursday Ardern is "not standing up to the rights of the Indian people, and she is not able to reprimand the Hon Shane Jones".
Ardern explained to the Indian Weekender that because of New Zealand's Mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) electoral system, the Government is made up of "parties who disagree with each other".
"If I had a member within my own party making statements like that, I would have a very obvious ability and course of action that I could take."
Ardern said she could stand down or reprimand one of her own MPs, but "when I have someone who's in a different political party who expresses a different opinion, they are their own party".
Jones came under fire from the Indian community late last year over controversial comments he made about an immigration policy regarding cultural marriages, which the Government eventually U-turned on.
Jones described the community's concerns as "Bollywood overreaction".