The Race is On.

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill

For the first time in years there’s a real competition over who gets to be the next PM of New Zealand.


It’s a tight race between Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark and National Opposition Leader Don Brash.

HELEN CLARK, NEW ZEALAND PRIME MINISTER: You know, what I’m hearing from this Tory crowd here is they want to pay everything for their public schools out of their own pockets. I’ll tell you what, most Kiwis don’t.

DON BRASH, NATIONAL PARTY LEADER: Mark, Mark. Mark, Mark. Can anyone seriously believe that a Labour-Green coalition is what this country wants? Can anyone seriously believe that? A Green Minister of Energy, a Green Transport Minister. We’d be riding round on bicycles.

The standard debates over tax, education and health have all been played out in this campaign, but there’s a deeper issue here that’s hitting a lot of raw nerves – race. National Party leader Don Brash put race relations firmly on the agenda last year. In a landmark speech he questioned the special rights Maori hold as the indigenous people of New Zealand.

DON BRASH: There can be no basis for special privileges for any race, no basis for government funding based on race, and no obligation for local governments to consult Maori in preference to other New Zealanders.

COLIN JAMES: When Don Brash did his speech in January 2004 the National Party, which was running on an average of about 27/28% of the polls, leapt 20% in the polls. I’ve never seen that before in 30 years of journalism.

The reason Dr Brash’s speech struck such a chord is that the Maori role in New Zealand has been transformed in the last 20 years. When PM Helen Clark is welcomed here at Takapuna Grammar it’s Maori culture that is so proudly on display.

Clark’s recognition of Maori rights has been a feature of her last two terms. Today, Maori are entitled to claim both land and compensation, under New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. It has given Maori enormous economic opportunities and political recognition that some new Zealanders feel has gone too far.

DON BRASH: Most new Zealanders have felt, for a long time, that this trend to separatism which we’ve seen in New Zealand particularly strongly in the last five or six years under the Labour Government, is something they do not want, they do not like, but they have, indeed, been afraid to say it out loud.

Helen Clark is clearly worried by the popularity of Brash’s message so last year her government decided to overturn a court decision which gave Maori new rights to seek title over foreshore areas. Maori were outraged.

MAN: Take what’s ours.

15,000 people marched on Parliament and, in response, Maori formed their own political party to take on Labour.

Here in Rotorua the Maori Party are filming their new campaign ads. Pita Sharples is co-leader of the new party.

DR PITA SHARPLES, CO-LEADER, MAORI PARTY: This is where we have to get a little bit – not mean, but a bit more hardline.

REPORTER: So it’s coming to the crunch?

PITA SHARPLES: It’s coming to the crunch and we’re being attacked.

15% of the New Zealand’s population and one in four children under 20 are Maori. Under New Zealand’s electoral system they are allocated seven special parliamentary seats.

PITA SHARPLES: For the first time in this country’s history we will have a strong, independent Maori voice in Parliament.

They have traditionally been Labour strongholds but the Maori party could win four seats this election, possibly giving it the balance of power.

HELEN CLARK: I think it’s an unfortunate development because it’s a separatist party. Our party, the Labour Party, has long enjoyed strong support from Maoridom and I expect we will see strong support again this time.

PITA SHARPLES: When we come along with a Maori party it’s branded as separatist when in actual fact it is something that should be celebrated – to have your indigenous people still surviving, with their language just intact and bringing a special character to New Zealand is something the whole country should be celebrating.

Two weeks out from election day, I’ve come to the blue ribbon National seat of Whangarai. The audience is keen to hear Dr Brash challenge Maori rights.

WOMAN: I reckon they should be the same as us. We’re all New Zealanders so why have something different.

Local Maori Party candidate Hone Harawira has come to remind Dr Brash what he’s up against.

REPORTER: You looking forward to today?

HONE HARAWIRA: Always looking forward to today, and tomorrow, and 17 September.

DON BRASH: Most ordinary New Zealanders have no idea where all the race-related consultative nonsense comes from. Having the process drag on and on poisons the relationship between Maori and other New Zealanders because of a perception that somehow Maori are getting something at the expense of the rest of us.

Labour’s grandstanding on these issues is nothing but a sham and a hoax.

HONE HARAWIRA: I just want to say I thought your performance on the leader’s debate was gentlemanly but I think the racism of your speech inside belittles you. I just wanted to make that comment.

DON BRASH: I appreciate that Hone.

HONE HARAWIRA: Last year’s remarks about the country being on the brink of civil war were sniggered at, but this country is heading down a dangerous path. Our colonial past is coming back to haunt us. Hitler had plans for the Jews. Pauline Hanson had similar plans for the Aboriginal people of Australia, Don Brash wants Maori to be subsumed within the larger culture of this country and to become one people. The treaty is under threat. Maori rights are under threat. Maori are under threat.

Here in Rotorua at a traditional hui, the deep anger in the community is apparent. Many feel that Dr Brash’s attacks and Labour’s foreshore legislation threaten the rights they have spent years fighting for.

MAN, (Translation): I am very familiar with the content of the Treaty of Waitangi and the inconsistencies within that treaty which are the causes of our land loss, my friends! The treaty states certain things but those things have been misinterpreted. Now, it’s been left to the white people to tell us when and where we can gather pipis. Here ends my speech. I have no questions. You’ve definitely got my vote.

Out on the hustings the former Reserve Bank governor does not come across as someone who is trying to stir up racial tension.

DON BRASH: My policies are absolutely not driven by division and fear. On the contrary, I want every new Zealander to have the same rights. How can that be divisive?

REPORTER: Mr Brash says that he just wants to treat all new Zealanders as equal. That’s right. What’s wrong with that?

PITA SHARPLES: Because equal means like Mr Brash and Mrs Brash and the little Brashs and we don’t want to be like that. We want to be like Pita Sharples, and we want to be like Arapina, we want to be like ourselves and we want to do our own culture.

Unfortunately many New Zealanders have got a mono-cultural headlock.

MARK,TV ONE NEWS: Have a look at this – a new party leading the polls. National storms up six points to 46%. Here’s where it came from – Labour down 5 this poll to 38% and an 8-point gap two weeks out from polling day.

BERNIE: Well, Mark, this is a massive swing for National. What’s behind it?

MARK: I think you’ve got to look at one thing and that’s race.

The National Party’s campaign has clearly struck a chord and political commentators are pointing to an overseas connection.

COLIN JAMES, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Quite a lot of what I saw in the Australian campaign last year is emerging in this campaign. And particularly one might talk about dog whistle politics. You use key words which, for most people, don’t mean very much but for particular constituencies do have a resonance.

REPORTER: Don, I understand you’re getting some Australian help on your campaign. How’s that going?

DON BRASH: That’s not quite accurate. We have used an Australian polling company to a limited extent. I don’t get involved with that at all. That’s done by the party.

But the same strategist that has been behind John Howard’s last four campaigns are not just helping out with polling. Mark Textor has been specifically hired by the National Party to provide campaign advice. He and his company have been accused of injecting the race card into other conservative party campaigns, in both Australia and the UK.

REPORTER: Crosby/Textor are known for their politics on wedge issues. In Australia it was refugees, in the UK it was immigrants and gypsies, and here has it just become the Maori issue?

COLIN JAMES: Yes. It is.

REPORTER: Where do you think the introduction of race into this election has come from?

HELEN CLARKE: Right-wing parties in democracies often resort to these kinds of issues. In our country there’s traditionally been a lot of tolerance and respect across all ethnicities.

MAN ON STREET: Two votes, one for the party, one for the candidate. Are you ready to party, ladies and gentleman? Are you ready to party?

Brash’s campaign has mobilised Maori political engagement like never before and there’s one particular issue – his plan to abolish the seven Maori seats – that could prove explosive.

MAORI MAN: The way I see it is I’ve got a lot of cousins and a lot of whanau that are ready to take up arms if we have to cause National’s just going in the wrong direction. We don’t want that as a country, you know.

COLIN JAMES: Abolishing the Maori seats would, I think, create quite serious tension in New Zealand. We’re going to have tension as it is. We are going through very deep changes in society that does cause tensions. We have managed them extraordinarily well up until now. No-one’s blown anything up yet, and yet we have had the sort of tensions that, in other countries, might have led to that.

PITA SHARPLES: If you do that then that’s, sort of, the ultimate kick in the face. Maori control some of the activities of this place and if all the truck drivers never went to work the country would be in the poo. Things like that – we have that kind of power, we have real people power and if we use that people power we could disrupt this country.

DON BRASH: We’ve got to find a peaceful way through this. Nobody, but nobody wants civil unrest. But we cannot pretend that this issue will go away by just deferring another 10 or 20 or 100 years.

At Auckland’s Eden Park on a Saturday night it’s rugby not politics that’s on everybody’s mind and there’s no division here between Maori and non-Maori. A mix of both New Zealand’s cultures is celebrated in the country’s most loved possession – the All Blacks.

The polls are tight and if Don Brash wins this Saturday then New Zealand’s harmonious relations with the Maori cannot be guaranteed.

PITA SHARPLES: That’s why we will stand together, Maori and Pakeha, for this haka like this.