'Bunch of baboons': Māori Council boss Matthew Tukaki fires up at MPs over iwi checkpoints

Māori Council boss Matthew Tukaki has fired up at MPs over the legality of iwi checkpoints during the COVID-19 lockdown, describing them as "a bunch of baboons".

Tukaki, executive director of the Māori Council, appeared before the Finance and Expenditure Committee on Wednesday, where he slammed MPs for "politicking" over whether or not the iwi checkpoints were legal.

"I'd remind everybody on this committee that we did it because of what happened in 1918," Tukaki said, a reference to the Spanish Flu that claimed at least 2160 Māori lives.

"We did it in partnership with local government and also the police. It was a huge success when you look at the number of Māori who actually contracted COVID-19 and certainly the death rate was very minimal," he said.

"If we've got dog-whistling from our leaders down there in Wellington carrying on like a bunch of baboons, questioning the legitimacy of them, that does nothing to help the situation in those communities."

The emergence of iwi checkpoints during the lockdown sparked heated debate over their legality, following reports of Kiwis feeling "harassed" and "illegally detained".

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster announced in April that all community-led roadblocks had to have a police presence, after Police Minister Stuart Nash blasted "ratbags and renegades" who set up checkpoints without approval.

ACT leader David Seymour accepted Tukaki's concern over politicisation of the topic, but took issue with his language. 

"With the greatest of respect, if you're here calling people baboons, then you're not part of the solution - you're actually part of that problem."

Tukaki did not apologise for the remark and indicated that it was directed at Seymour.

"Let me just not apologise for using the reference to other human-like creatures," he said. "I also mentioned dog-whistling politics, so I'll leave that one there - it was probably just a statement on your behalf."

Seymour told Newshub he thought Tukaki had apologised.

"If he didn't, that is classic man-child behaviour," he said. "Māori need adults in the room."

Tukaki argued police weren't resourced for the scale of the COVID-19 lockdown, so iwi working in partnership with the police "helped them just as much as it helped us".

Seymour said there should be an "accountability mechanism" if there is ever a need to use those sorts of checkpoints again.

"Under the Bill of Rights, freedom of movement is a very important right, so what is the accountability for people who are in the way of people who are exercising that right?"

Tukaki pointed to the Māori Community Development Act 1962 that gives the Māori Council power to apply local self-governance and conserve Māori health and wellbeing.

He said his "hope would be that we see those checkpoints again when they're required".

'A good boot up the backside'

Tukaki also took aim at parliamentary staffers over what he described as "ill-conceived" legislation that set the legal framework for the COVID-19 alert levels.

"Whoever's running your parliamentary drafting office needs a good boot up the backside."

The Public Health Response Act sparked public outcry because it allowed warrantless searches of marae and Tukaki said the Māori Council should have been advised.

Labour MP Kiri Allan said the drafters "work very hard" on the instruction of elected officials and told Tukaki he was pointing blame at the wrong people.

"If there's any blame, direct it our way, but please not the public servants who do an exceptional job under very trying circumstances."

Tukaki said parliamentary drafters "outlast all you elected officials" and said they should "know what they're doing and know how they're doing it".