Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has accused National leader Judith Collins of playing politics by using Māori co-governance concerns to pick up support in the polls.
Collins immediately shot back, describing it as "sad" that Ardern has "chosen to lower the tone of the debate by brushing it off as playing politics" rather than sharing her position on expanded co-governance for Māori.
Collins' concern is based on an un-redacted version of He Puapua, a report commissioned by the Government in 2019 that sets out a roadmap to co-governance between the Crown and Māori by 2040.
It proposes a Māori Health Authority and Māori wards in councils, which the Government has acted on. It also suggests separate court and justice systems and a Māori Parliament or Upper House.
In a speech to National Party supporters over the weekend, Collins called for a public conversation about the proposals in the report before any more of the recommendations are implemented.
"If Labour believes that the Treaty intended two systems for everything, and that this is the model we want in 2021, then this is a fundamental change to our society. We cannot accept this via a health reform, via Māori wards, and via justice changes... It cannot be snuck through."
Ardern said on Monday the paper has not gone to Cabinet. She accused Collins of trying to start a conversation around concerns of expanded co-governance for Māori under Labour to garner support for National.
A Roy Morgan poll in April showed National on 24.4 percent behind Lab our on 45.5 percent.
"I consider it hugely disappointing that we have debates of this nature whenever it seems that the National Party are in Opposition and at a particular point in the polls, because that's frankly how I see the debate that the Opposition leader is trying to start here," Ardern said.
"I see it as nothing more than pure politics. Ultimately, the very issue that the leader of the Opposition is trying to attack is a declaration that her Government and a Cabinet she belonged to signed up to."
The He Puapua report was commissioned after New Zealand endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010, under the leadership of former Prime Minister John Key - Collins' former boss.
It acknowledged that Māori hold a special status as tangata whenua, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and have an interest in all policy and legislative matters.
"I think it was a political strategy, that's what I'd call it, and a really disappointing one, and as I say: one that we only see at a particular point in a cycle with the National Party," Ardern said.
Former National leader Don Brash also criticised policies he believed to be separatist in his infamous 2004 Owera speech when the party was in Opposition.
"Ultimately we of course have an obligation after the fact that New Zealand was signed up to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010," Ardern said.
"In 2014 there was an agreement that there'd then be concrete action around implementation. So for the past six years there's been that obligation but not a lot of work has gone on."
Ardern said the Government now has an obligation to look at what implementing the declaration means for New Zealand, "and we'll undertake that process and very openly".
Ardern already ruled out the prospect of a separate Māori Parliament when she was asked about it last month by ACT leader David Seymour.
Collins said Ardern needs to be clear about what other parts of the report Labour intends to act on, since it has already acted on a Māori Health Authority and Māori wards in local government.
"We've already seen the Government press ahead with a Māori Health Authority that will have veto power over the entire health system, so ministers have clearly read the report."
The Māori Health Authority is part of the Government's huge health sector shake-up announced last month. All District Health Boards (DHBs) will be scrapped and consolidated into a new entity called Health NZ, which will operate in collaboration with the Māori Health Authority.
Ardern said the Māori Health Authority is necessary to address negative health outcomes for Māori.
"Our view is that if we are going to see change in health outcomes in New Zealand, where Māori frankly die younger in this country, we do have to make sure that our services work for every New Zealander, be they European, be they Asian, be they Pacific, be they Māori - we need to make sure those services work."
Ardern said the Māori Health Authority "will have the ability to have a voice that has to be heard and we will put in place a mechanisms where if there is a difference of opinion that we can resolve those".