Judith Collins says it is "absolutely crucial" the National Party doesn't introduce quotas or begin looking at people based on their ethnicity rather than their talent.
Her comments come following recommendations in a review into the party's 2020 election campaign and governance which suggested making Māori a "priority area". It suggested embedding the Treaty of Waitangi in the party constitution and potentially appointing a Māori Director.
The report - obtained by Newshub - also suggests "diversity" be a priority area, recommending a plan is made to "grow diverse talent and representation" and "rebuild a diverse, representative caucus".
Many of National's Māori and ethnic MPs lost their seats in last year's horror election defeat due to low list rankings. The report recommends "better" utilising the list to "bring in diverse and high-quality talent regardless of the election result".
Speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday morning, National's leader said her party wouldn't place ethnicity over talent.
"It is not only Māori voices. It is actually the whole party that needs to listen to our members. This is not just Māori voices. This is every member having a say," she said. "Whether somebody is of any particular ethnicity is not something that the National Party thinks is the defining point about why they are in there. We believe in equality."
Collins said she didn't believe in quotas, but instead in "merit".
"I believe in merit based on what people bring, what they do, what they can do, what they can add," she told The AM Show.
"I think it is absolutely crucial that the National Party, like this country, does not go down a path of quotas, looking at people based on their ethnicity, or their gender or their age, rather than looking at what they bring to the table."
National will, however, look to run candidates in Māori seats at the next election. Collins pledged in February to have as many contenders in Māori electorates as possible.
"We are a party for all New Zealanders," Collins said at the time. "Everything we do, we do with the aim of making New Zealand a better, more prosperous country for everyone."
The party will also be looking to avoid an embarrassment similar to that of last May when then-leaders Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye were grilled about the lack of Māori representation on the party's frontbench. Under pressure, Kaye said Paul Goldsmith was "obviously Ngāti Porou". Goldsmith later said he had connections to the iwi but wasn't Māori himself.
The party now has a Māori deputy leader with Shane Reti.
The report, which was leaked to Newshub, is an abridged version of the recommendations from the 2020 Campaign Review and a Governance and Structure Review led by former party leader Jim McClay.
Among the other recommendations is to make changes to party processes allowing regional or electorate officeholders to be removed on matters of integrity or honesty and improving messaging with a "modern policy outlook that appeals broadly".
Collins, who insists the report wasn't leaked to Newshub as it was sent to party members ahead of a conference this weekend, says the recommendations from the review panel will be voted on by members. A constitutional conference will be held in June to finalise changes.
"It means we look at the rules of the party, how it is governed… it's just looking how we change it. It is not up to me, it is not up to the Board, what happens. It is actually up to the membership," Collins said.
"The membership may well look at these recommendations and say, 'we will take this one, we will take that one, we are not going to take those other ones'. That is up to them as we are a democratic party."