Don Brash has criticised the use of powhiri at official functions, saying a "half-naked man poking his tongue out" is not a particularly civilised way to greet foreign dignitaries.
The National Party leader told the Herald on Sunday yesterday he did not object to Maori culture being part of official functions but did not see why it was compulsory at every event.
His comments have angered Maori Party co-leader Dr Pita Sharples, who compared it to asking a performing culture group to "put all the pretty girls in the front and the fat ones in the back".
"You either use the indigenous and distinctive welcome of this country, which is Maori, and take it for what it is or you don't," he said.
Speaking to Newstalk ZB's Mike Yardley last week, Dr Brash said he was comfortable with the All Black haka but was less relaxed about a strong Maori component in official welcomes for foreign visitors.
"They must wonder what kind of country they get when the only official welcome they have is a Maori New Zealander jumping around half-naked.
"I mean, I think there is a place for Maori culture but why is it that we always use a semi-naked male, sometimes quite pale-skinned Maori, leaping around in, you know, mock battle?" In some cases a handshake or an honour guard was "all that's appropriate", he said.
Prime Minister Helen Clark said she had never come across a dignitary who had been horrified or offended by powhiri.
"He doesn't know what he's talking about. I greet many international visitors, heads of government, and everyone says how special New Zealand is because we include something from indigenous culture as well as the formality of the formal welcome with a military honour guard. It gets a very good reception."
Dr Sharples, who trained powhiri performers for the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, said it was up to organisers to decide whether a powhiri was a welcome addition to a ceremony and Maori did not force the custom on others.
"If Dr Brash is saying he does not want the powhiri any more it's a shame because I thought at the Commonwealth Games we showed the whole world how we respected the local customs and we carried it out with dignity."
Education Minister Trevor Mallard, who is also Race Relations Minister, sparked an outcry in September last year when he criticised the duration of some Maori welcomes and the way they sometimes consigned women to a minor role.
Dr Brash said yesterday his reference to "pale-skinned Maori" was meant as a judgment on how much Maori heritage performers claimed.
"What I've said on a number of occasions is that you get into definitional problems as to what constitutes a Maori if you have different rules for Maori than for non-Maori. From my point of view it doesn't make any difference.
"But as you're well aware there are some people who claim the particular rights of Maori even though their Maori heritage is very slight."
Earlier this week in Whangarei Dr Brash returned to the subject matter of his incendiary 2004 race relations speech at Orewa, renewing the commitment to end race-based funding and separate representation and consultation rights for Maori.
(additional reporting by Amanda Spratt)
- HERALD ON SUNDAY