Election 2023 debate moments: Winston Peters lashes out at Te Pāti Māori candidate Tākuta Ferris who accused David Seymour of being 'Treaty illiterate'

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has labelled a Te Pāti Māori candidate's comments about the Treaty of Waitangi "bulldust" and "gobbledygook" during yet another heated scrap about race relations.

"There's been a dominant Treaty partner for 163 years," said Māori Party Te Tai Tonga candidate Tākuta Ferris during Tuesday night's The Press leaders' debate.

"You know, Aoteaora wasn't settled by conquest - the big army didn't roll in and take over this country - the British were invited in and an agreement was struck. And the fact that we're talking about referendums on the Treaty just demonstrates how much more we must learn as a country," Ferris said, referring to the ACT Party's policy to hold a referendum on the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

"You can't referendum a treaty away, it's a permanent fixture of the constitution of our country and it is not going anywhere. You know, if I think back to the middle of this year, one of the leading economists in Aotearoa described my mate over here as being economically illiterate - and I can guarantee everybody in this room and everyone watching that he's Treaty illiterate as well," said Ferris, referring to ACT leader David Seymour.

It's believed Ferris was referring to comments made by economist Shamubeel Eaqub after last year's Budget, when Seymour accused Finance Minister Grant Robertson of driving inflation with Government spending. Eaqub responded by saying Seymour's comments were "economically illiterate" and "simply not true". 

But in a rare defence of Seymour, Peters - who has frequently clashed with the ACT leader during this election campaign's earlier minor party debates - interjected and said, "No, you are" when Ferris accused Seymour of being "Treaty illiterate".

"This is gobbledygook," Peters repeatedly said while Ferris was talking. 

"Look, Dame Whina Cooper in 1990 said, 'We signed the Treaty to be one people,'" said Peters, referring to Dame Whina's speech during the opening of Auckland's Commonwealth Games.  

"You've got Sir Peter Buck... you've got Sir Āpirana Ngata... these are geniuses compared to these people rewriting history and talking bulldust in the university."

Peters' comments prompted Ferris to respond: "There's more in unity going forward than division." Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, the debate's fourth participant, said "kia ora" in agreement. Davidson was in lockstep with Ferris throughout the night, as she was with Te Pāti co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer during last month's Newshub Nation powerbrowkers debate.  

Race relations have been a persistent feature of this year's election campaign. Late last month, Peters' election rally was stormed by a protester in Gisborne accusing him of badmouthing Māori. 

During Tuesday night's debate, Peters was also challenged by moderator Tova O'Brien about scrubbing te reo Māori names of Government departments. 

"You've got a Plain Language Act that says people should be able to read the law," Peters said while Ferris interjected: "You've got a te reo Māori Act, too."

Earlier, while discussing the Māori Health Authority - which both Peters and Seymour wanted to scrap - Ferris accused politicians of "deliberately" conflating Māori affairs.

"They are deliberately erasing the Treaty of Waitangi," Ferris said.

Winston Peters and Tākuta Ferris.
Winston Peters and Tākuta Ferris. Photo credit: Stuff

But Peters said his justification for scrapping the Māori Health Authority was because "ordinary Māori out there are not going to get first-world treatment that way". 

"Let me tell you something about real Māori, if they were going to hospital and their wife was European or vice-versa, they would not think they were entitled to an operation first," he said.

"That's not the way ordinary Māori think, but these radicals do."

Ferris laughed off those comments, while Davidson accused Peters of thinking he owned "ordinary Māori" and making false claims that rectifying "inequalities" would mean others miss out on treatment.

Peters and Davidson also clashed earlier in the night, with the former accusing the latter of "nonsense" while discussing crime and how to address it. 

The NZ First leader took aim at Davidson's suggestion prison was "the last place to go for rehabilitation". 

"First of all, this was a person that said all crime was committed by cis white men," Peters said.

"Now, she's got excuse after excuse after excuse for Māori and, I'm telling you, ordinary Māori are sick and tired of it because they are the biggest victim."

However, Davidson hit back: "What I want to be really clear about in Aotearoa is we have, unfortunately, violence... happens in every community but is only stigmitised and profiled in some communities." Peters also called those comments "nonsense".