A comment Prime Minister John Key repeated today about Tuhoe having him for dinner may have been a typically flippant one, but it has been labelled insensitive and badly timed.

At a tourism event in Auckland Mr Key joked about enjoying a dinner at a Ngati Porou marae on the East Coast of the North Island this week.

"The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi which is Tuhoe, in which case I would have been dinner, which wouldn't have been quite so attractive," he said.

The remark, which Mr Key's office said was simply flippant and light-hearted, came three days after he announced Tuhoe would not be given Te Urewera National Park as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement. This was despite iwi understanding a settlement was ready to be signed off after 18 months of negotiations.


Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell said Mr Key could be humorous when speaking publicly, and any suggestion his comment was related to cannibalism - as some had suggested - might be off the mark, but it was still badly timed and not the best way to go about settling the situation.

Tuhoe were outraged about Monday's announcement and Mr Flavell questioned whether Mr Key appreciated how significant it was, considering how close a settlement appeared to be.

He said many officials and some of Mr Key's own colleagues already appeared to have accepted an agreement had been reached with Tuhoe.

This week's developments had ramifications for others seeking settlements, Mr Flavell told NZPA.

"If you're other iwi in settlements now, knowing full well that your settlement is heading to the Cabinet table then I would be worried, because you would certainly be thinking about whether the prime minister thought you were getting too much and pulled the plug against the advice of officials and ministerial colleagues."

Chief Tuhoe negotiator Tamati Kruger said he wasn't insulted by the dinner comment, but in light of where the Tuhoe people were with the prime minister "it gives me the sense that whatever we say or do he will never, ever take it seriously.

"He is affirming a rigidness which is not really in the spirit of good faith negotiations. He is really going to force Tuhoe into a position that makes us look like the bad guys - like we are walking out of negotiations..."

Mr Kruger told NZPA Tuhoe and the Crown had often been at odds since right back to the 1800s and there were not many times when peace prevailed.


"This is just one of those moments that I've felt on both sides there has been sincerity and openness when dealing with Crown negotiators." That situation appeared to have been "bombed" by Mr Key's announcement, he said.

On Radio Live talk-back today, Mr Key still appeared to be joking around over the dinner comment, but said he apologised if anyone was offended.

He told reporters this morning he was still hopeful of a successful conclusion to negotiations with Tuhoe, but "that may take some time".

A 2014 goal of settling all claims was aspirational but he was not prepared to meet that if it came at too high a cost.

Mr Flavell said Tuhoe had hui planned over the coming weeks and had some hard decisions to make, while Mr Kruger said he wasn't sure who Tuhoe were now negotiating with.

Labour MP Shane Jones said Mr Key had "gone back to Don Brash's territory".

"He can see that Winston Peters is starting to encroach in that territory and has gone back to ngati redneck."