At least Don Brash had a sense of theatre. His venue was the Orewa Rotary Club, already infamous for Sir Robert Muldoon's annual economic decrees. A scholarly looking paper was prepared, complete with footnotes. The media were primed that one of the world's most admired monetary economists had applied his mind to the Treaty of Waitangi.
On the night, Brash delivered his predecessor Bill English's talking points, except that he meant it. No one much cared until the liberal elite reacted, driving the story along.
Helen Clark joined in, despite being in the middle of ramming through retrospective legislation to block Ngāti Apa from testing their property rights in the courts, one of the most despicable pieces of legislation presented to Parliament in contemporary times.
Ironically, the legislation was indeed the "special treatment for Māori" Brash feared, in the sense that only Māori property rights and access to the courts were extinguished, not those of others with ownership interests in the foreshore.
Still, the whole fuss won National a record 17 points in the polls, taking it from a dismal 28 per cent to a potentially election-winning 45 per cent. Less helpfully for Brash, it also collapsed Act's support, from which it has only now fully recovered.
Judith Collins' entry into the politics of race doesn't seem as well planned or even coherent.
One of Collins' first moves as National Party leader was to distance herself from its 17-year policy to boycott and abolish the Māori seats. Instead, she asked party president Peter Goodfellow to find candidates to stand in them. Goodfellow felt proximity to the election made that impractical.
Just this week, National has asked its members whether to put Te Tiriti o Waitangi or the Treaty of Waitangi into the party's constitution, and reserve one seat on its board for a Māori director.
In part, this was prompted by private discussions with Northland iwi leaders with whom National has historically had good relations, including the late, great Sir Graham Latimer being National's Māori vice-president from 1981 to 1992. Dame Whina Cooper also had close National Party links.
Unless Collins' objective is to undermine her own party's review, recent events don't seem like a strong foundation on which to attack Andrew Little's planned Māori Health Authority (MHA), warning that it puts us on track towards separate education and justice systems.
As long as New Zealand maintains parliamentary sovereignty, a universal adult franchise and something close to proportional representation, governments with the confidence of the House of Representatives can provide health, education, welfare and justice services any way they want. It has no effect on any deep constitutional principles.
In general, Labour has preferred such services to be offered by state monopolies while National has tended to support choice.
Thus, in education, it was Muldoon's National Government that first backed Te Kohanga Reo and Jim Bolger's National Government that first funded Kura Kaupapa Māori and wānanga.
National's failed 1990s health reforms were about funding private and community providers on the same basis as state providers. That helped groups like Te Whānau O Waipareira Trust to expand their services to their communities.
Pushed by the Māori Party's Dame Tariana Turia, John Key's National Government launched Whānau Ora, and National has continued to back the programme even after its relationship with the Māori Party ended.
National supported these historic developments because they were the right thing to do for Māori but also to lay the ground to argue everyone else should have similar choice. If not at a deep constitutional level then at least with social services, National not Labour can boast of a better record at delivering something like tino rangatiratanga, which Little is trying to claim for his reforms.
For the same reason, the ideologically sound right-wing position on Little's health proposals is to take aim at his Soviet-style Health New Zealand (HNZ) agency, not the MHA which will at least provide choice for one section of society.
Sure enough, the New Zealand Initiative's Oliver Hartwich has argued the MHA will at worst provide healthy competition to measure the efficacy of Little's otherwise one-size-fits-all HNZ agency, and vice versa.
In her critique of the MHA, Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden asked about the specific needs of other groups, such as Chinese and Indian New Zealanders. Well, exactly. The ideologically correct National or Act position is surely that everyone should receive a health, education and perhaps housing voucher and use it where they want, including private schools or hospitals or through some type of collective authority.
The real danger of a Labour regime is not so-called separatism, but removing choice from everyone about which early childhood centre, school, tertiary institution, Primary Health Organisation (PHO), Lead Maternity Carer (LMC), surgeon, drug therapy programme or housing provider we can use.
It is of course perfectly OK to be against competition and choice, but it is meant to be Labour that opposes those things, not National. Perhaps Collins will clarify her thinking on this point in her promised speech on her personal philosophy this weekend, because right now National seems to have things exactly the wrong way round.
It is not clear if National has thought through the implications of acknowledging Te Tiriti o Waitangi rather than the Treaty of Waitangi as the nation's founding document. To embrace the former is to reject the Crown's sovereignty.
For better or worse, National would be taking a more radical position on that deep constitutional question than Labour dares do publicly. It would be signalling support for a long-term project towards something like co-government between the Crown and iwi.
A plan to achieve that by 2040, called He Puapua, was considered by the Cabinet's Māori Crown Relations Committee back in 2019, although the Prime Minister has not yet led a national conversation on its ideas.
It is none of my business what constitutional arrangements the people of New Zealand — or whatever it is called by then — want to operate from 2040. But it does seem a topic worthy of more public debate, especially with it being under discussion at the highest levels of the Ardern Government.
Whether anyone else cares about such deep constitutional issues in the middle of a global pandemic remains to be seen. But it would be a more worthy topic of discussion for a National Party leader than what sort of PHO or LMC Māori or any other New Zealanders can choose.
Collins may also like to reflect that Brash didn't become Prime Minister. Muldoon, Bolger and Key each won three elections.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant. In 2004 he worked with the Treaty Tribes Coalition in opposition to the seabed and foreshore legislation discussed above.