Judith Collins vows to 'never be made to feel bad' about her ethnicity as National looks to diversify

Judith Collins has vowed to "never be made to feel bad" about her Pākehā ethnicity as National embarks on a mission to diversify, pledging to run in the Māori seats in 2023. 

Collins has courted controversy in the past for describing herself as a "woman of colour", and saying she was "sick of being demonised" for her Pākehā ethnicity. 

Last year she said it was "so awful" when she was criticised for asking if there was something wrong with her being white after former National leader Todd Muller revealed an all-Caucasian frontbench. 

Collins ended up resolving the diversity doubt when she became leader by promoting Shane Reti as her deputy - but she said it wasn't intentional, because she does not consider diversity when reshuffling her caucus. 

The National leader doubled down in her defence of those comments on Monday, as she announced National's plans to stand candidates in the Māori seats for the first time since 2002. 

"I think there's actually nothing wrong with being who we are. I'm never going to be made to feel bad because of my ethnicity and I don't think anybody should," Collins said, when asked if she stood by her previous remarks about being a woman of colour. 

"But it is important that we reflect New Zealand as it is and not just as it was and that is really important," she said. "I'm actually here to talk about the people of New Zealand."

There are seven Māori electorates and six of them are currently held by Labour. The only Māori electorate not held by Labour is Waiariki, which Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi won from Labour's Tamati Coffey. 

In 2008, National campaigned on eventually abolishing the Māori seats under the leadership of John Key. But the policy was dropped after National went into Government with the Māori Party, and Key later said he would abolish the seats only with the agreement of Māori.

National Party President Peter Goodfellow and National leader Judith Collins.
National Party President Peter Goodfellow and National leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Newshub

Despite the Māori Party saying it aligns more with Labour, Collins said her initial discussions with Waititi and co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer have been "very cordial". 

National lost several Māori MPs after winning just 25.6 percent of the party vote in October and losing 14 electorates to Labour and one to the Greens. National's most senior Māori MP is Dr Reti. 

Dr Reti and former National leader Simon Bridges are now the only two Māori National MPs. Collins said some believe National's new Southland MP Joseph Mooney is Māori, but he is "not sure about the whakapapa". 

The Māori electorates were introduced in 1867 under the Māori Representation Act, during a time of conflict between Māori and Pākehā. The seats - four at the time - were intended to give Māori a more direct say in Parliament. 

The electorates were intended as a temporary measure lasting five years but were extended in 1872 and made permanent in 1876. Since 1967, any candidate of any ethnicity has been able to stand in a Māori electorate.

Voters who wish to vote in a Māori electorate have to register as a voter on the Māori roll and need to declare they are of Māori descent.

National hasn't run candidates in the Māori seats since before Don Brash was leader. In 2004, he said this was because the party wanted to eventually abolish the Māori seats. 

National's deputy leader Dr Shane Reti and leader Judith Collins.
National's deputy leader Dr Shane Reti and leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Newshub

"We haven't had that policy in decades," said National Party President Peter Goodfellow, standing next to Collins in Wellington at the party's caucus retreat. 

"More recently we've had a different approach where we're happy to listen to what Māori are saying about whether they want to retain those seats and now what we're hearing very solidly from our Māori group and our Māori engagement is that they want National to stand in all seats," he said. 

"We're trying to increase the diversity in the party regardless of this decision."

Collins said it's too soon to say who from National might stand in the Māori seats come 2023. 

"I think it's really inappropriate to expect people three years out from an election to say they'll be standing in seats when they haven't stood in them before because there may well be people in the caucus who wish to stand there and there may well also be people who are very good candidates and want to come forward. But the main point is it's the party vote that matters."

She said under New Zealand's MMP voting system - where voters get to vote for a local candidate and also a party - the most important is the latter. 

"Winning seats in this situation is very old style, first past the post. What we're after is those party votes but we're also after making sure that we represent the whole of New Zealand to know that we want to represent them. It's not good enough to say we've got a couple of people here - we need to not only ask for people's votes, we need to look like we want to represent people," Collins said. 

"We also stand in seats where we've never won them, in the general seats. Have we ever won Manurewa? The answer is no. But do we genuinely stand there? Yes, we do.

"It's not about winning seats under MMP and the sooner everyone in politics gets that, the better for us. It's about winning the part vote."

In 2002 under Bill English's leadership, National ran in the Māori seats, but none of the candidates made it into Parliament. It was a tough election for National winning just 20.93 percent of the party vote, and Labour picked up all the Māori seats.