Election 2023: Chris Hipkins says National might be trying to appeal to 'racist underbelly' with road sign rhetoric

The Prime Minister thinks National could be trying to appeal to a "racist underbelly" as politicians continue trading barbs over whether te reo Māori should be added to traffic signs.

"There is a racist underbelly in some of the public dialogue around this and that does seem to be an audience the National Party are trying to appeal to," Chris Hipkins told AM.

ACT has said road signs "should be in the language all drivers understand", with leader David Seymour calling for the Government to "take a practical approach to basic tasks and focus on the big things like crime, education and living costs".

The furore around te reo Māori on traffic signs came about this month after the NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi released a package of proposed bilingual traffic signs for consultation.

National's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown was subsequently reported as saying by Stuff, "We all speak English" and road signs "should be in English".

National's campaign chair Chris Bishop clarified the party's stance on Monday, saying it had no issue with the bilingual signs but they should be in the "nice-to-have category" with the focus instead on "fixing potholes and upgradings our roads".

"I'm not saying there's a problem with having Te Reo on signs. I'm simply saying you've got to have English prominently displayed so that people can follow the road code and follow the law."

But National's stance has been dismissed by the Prime Minister, who suggested at his post-Cabinet press conference on Monday the party could be "dog whistling".

Speaking to AM on Tuesday, he reiterated his belief Brown's comments were a "dog whistle" and said National should be called out over them.

"Many other countries have bilingual street signs - there's nothing to be afraid of having bilingual street signs," Hipkins told host Ryan Bridge.

"In fact, if you look at where [the signs] are first being rolled out - in the cyclone-affected areas of Tairāwhiti - actually, half the population there are Māori so I don't really understand what the concern is."

He said he wasn't sure what Brown's point was, given Bishop had since come out and clarified National's stance.

"People who are objecting to having te reo Māori used in any context I think need to think again," Hipkins said.

He said politicians shouldn't be using te reo Māori as "a wedge to divide between people".

"Te Reo Māori is one of the official languages of New Zealand, it's our indigenous language - I don't think we've got anything to fear by having te reo Māori on street signs."

Bishop said Hipkins' dog whistle accusations were "ridiculous".

"Apparently you're not allowed to have a genuine conversation about how we can take this country forward and talk about Māori from the National Party without literally being accused of dog-whistling."

He accused Hipkins of making dog whistle accusations "whenever anyone says anything about Te Reo in this country".

Waka Kotahi said the agency had "undertaken research to identify international precedents and to examine the safety implications of bilingual signage".