Judge National on actions, not 'ethnicity on front bench' - Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett.
Paula Bennett. Photo credit: RNZ

By Jane Patterson and Charlie Dreaver of RNZ

National leader Todd Muller is getting support from an unexpected quarter - ousted deputy leader Paula Bennett.

He and new deputy Nikki Kaye blundered their first sitting day at Parliament while trying to defend the lack of Māori representation on the front bench.

On Tuesday at the party's first caucus under the new leadership, Bennett made no attempt to her hide her amusement about how it all played out - on Wednesday, she offered her support.

"I think [they] have done a remarkable job to start with ... a few bumps yesterday but they will pull themselves together, they're heading in the right direction."

It was a lot of pressure, she said, but nothing Muller would not be able to "stand up to".

Another Māori MP Jo Hayes is now pulling back from criticisms about the lack of diversity she voiced on Tuesday. Muller said they had spoken last night after she had called on the leadership to explain the lack of senior ranking Māori MPs, but would not divulge details of that conversation.

Hayes had previously told Radio Waatea "this is not good" and the new leadership needed to explain itself.

"We need to remedy this or you need to front it, and take it head-on and say why, you have to give a better explanation than 'we have a party full of talented people la, la, la'."

On Wednesday morning she dismissed questions from RNZ as "yesterday's news".

"I've already given a response so that's it, it happened yesterday it's all finished."

Asked whether Muller had told her not to keep commenting publicly, in their conversation last night, she said: "No, he hasn't said, no, no, as far as I'm concerned it's all over and done with, it was yesterday's news and we move on from today."

Bennett was demoted to number 13 and was cited several times by Muller of an example of a Māori MP on the front bench.

"I am proudly Māori", she said, "and when you look at the whole shadow Cabinet, when you look at the whole team there is no one there that doesn't care about this whole country including Māori and how they can get ahead."

Bennett was asked what she thought of the criticism aimed at National as a result of the controversy.

"We have a proud history of the work we've done with Māori in this country and I reckon that these guys, and we can, continue to do that; judge [us] on the actions of what we do, not actually the overall ethnicity of some of those on the front bench."