The National Party has elected its first Maori leader, Simon Bridges. And to make it even more significant, deputy leader Paula Bennett is also Maori. The Labour Party has never elected a Maori leader, and that means Bridges is also the first ever Maori leader of a major party. And he might well be New Zealand's first Maori prime minister.

The media is rightly highlighting this milestone. See for example The Guardian's article on this by Eleanor Ainge Roy – New Zealand: National party elects Maori leader and deputy to take on Jacindamania.

Criticism from National's opponents

There are legitimate and complex questions about the significance of this achievement, including how important it is for Maori voters and for advancing Maori interests, and what impact it might have on politics.

Unfortunately, much of the questioning so far has been along the lines of: How Maori is Simon Bridges really? Is he Maori enough? I raised this on TVNZ's Breakfast today, saying "There's been a lot of people suggesting he's not really a 'proper' Maori, questioning his Maori-ness and I think that won't go down well with the public and I think it will backfire because it's becoming increasingly unacceptable really to question whether someone is Maori or not" – see: Questioning Simon Bridges' 'Maoriness' will 'backfire' and he's the 'right choice' to lead National Party, says political commentator.

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Most of the questioning of Bridge's Maori "authenticity" has taken place on social media, especially by some on the political left. Gwynn Compton suggests it's evidence that "Bridges Derangement Syndrome" is already in full swing. He says Bridges opponents are dogmatically obsessed with finding something to criticise the politician for, and are as bad as those who have criticised Jacinda Ardern, John Key and Helen Clark in a similarly petty way – see: Leaders who bring out the worst in their opposition.

Newly elected National Party leader Simon Bridges and his deputy Paula Bennett after the caucus leadership vote. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Newly elected National Party leader Simon Bridges and his deputy Paula Bennett after the caucus leadership vote. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Compton hits back hard against those questioning Bridges' Maori identity, and is worth quoting at length: "This absurd line of attack seems to draw on two equally as stupid measures: one being what percentage of Māori ancestry they have, and the other being whether they're either fluent in te reo or able to recite a mihi. What makes these lines of argument absurd, and essentially racist, is that they completely ignore the fact that both Bridges and Bennett's experience of being urban Maori are largely representative of urban Maori in general over the past century. The migration of Maori from rural New Zealand to urban centres over the past century, combined with backwards policies towards Maori culture for much of that time, saw many Maori separated from their cultural identity."

An excellent response to Bridges' ethnicity deniers comes from Ward Kamo, writing in the Herald today: "Unfortunately there is going to be a period where some will attempt to question 'the Maoriness' of these leaders. Winston Peters has already run that gauntlet and Bridges better get his running shoes on. Except that Bridges should just not run that race. It's just insulting for that question to even be raised. As we say in Maori – his whakapapa is his whakapapa and no one can question that. And that's my point. To be Maori is to have a whakapapa and a right to exercise that if it is your wish. You are not less Maori if you don't go to the marae, if you don't speak te reo, if you don't fit 'what a Maori is'. Your heritage is your heritage. All the leaders of Maori decent in Parliament have acknowledged their Maori whakapapa and it's a beautiful thing" – see: Today is a watershed moment for Maori in NZ politics.

Media coverage of Simon Bridges' ethnicity

It's not only Bridges' leftwing opponents who are questioning Bridges' Maori identity. Newstalk ZB's political editor Barry Soper made similar arguments in his column today: "Bridges' generational change then is about as solid as his claims to his Maori heritage and that of his deputy, neither of whom have made much of it in their rise up through the ranks, not altogether surprising considering their new leader is just three sixteenths Maori and Bennett's grandmother was half-Maori. They're now fully fledged tangata whenua it seems and he's pleading for the Maori vote which is unlikely to wash" – see: National selecting Simon Bridges counts itself out of next election.

And Audrey Young has pointed out that Bridges has referred to Maori in ways in which suggest he doesn't identify as Maori himself, saying "although like Winston Peters he tends to describe Maori in terms of 'they' rather than 'we'." – see: New National leader Simon Bridges brings out mongrel in Jacinda Ardern.

But Maori TV's Jessica Tyson reports Bridges as saying: "I think it's definitely a part of who I am. It's a part of what makes me and I hope Maori New Zealanders see that and are excited about that. It shows them that actually they can achieve and they can do interesting things with their lives and there's a lot of opportunity in this country" – see: Simon Bridges is the new leader of the National Party. This report also says that "Bridges grew up in Te Atatu in west Auckland, with a pakeha mum and a Maori dad, who was a Baptist minister."

And previously on Maori TV, Bridges has explained himself further: "I understand my whakapapa. As a minister, professionally, I've spent a lot of time with iwi. My first three years in Parliament I was in the Maori Affairs select committee… I hope I can be a drawcard to Maori, and to a wide cross-section of New Zealanders" – see: National leadership contenders throw their hats in the ring.

You can watch a ten-minute segment of an interview in which I asked him about his Maori heritage and orientation – see: Vote Chat with Simon Bridges – Part 2.

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Maori reactions

Many Maori leaders and public figures have been far more accepting of Bridges. Maori TV's Talisa Kupenga reports the reactions of a number of Labour Maori MPs to Bridges' election, and emphasises the tribal affiliations of the new leadership team – see: Maniapoto-Tainui iwi duo new National Party leadership. For example, Labour's Willie Jackson responds, saying "Maori are looking at this very closely, and are surprised – but it is a big honour for him and for Ngati Maniapoto."

Bridges has received strong endorsements from two former Maori politicians, Marama Fox and Tau Henare – see Jenna Lynch's Maori leaders 'proud' of new National leader Simon Bridges. Fox, in particular, goes against the idea that Maori have to wait and see: "People have debated, [saying] 'well actually start walking the walk and then we might be proud of you' – but I'm proud of him as he is, the person that he's been… He's come up through the ranks, he's smart, he's intelligent, he's articulate and he's Maori. Good on him."

Annabelle Lee, the executive producer of TV Three's the Hui, has been reported saying that "Maori will be waiting to see if Mr Bridges lives up to his promises" – see Newshub's Maori leaders doubt Simon Bridges. She says: "Simon is strongly identifying through this leadership process as being Maori and in doing so there is a lot of expectation he will stand and deliver when it comes to kaupapa Maori issues."

Many on social media have made much of Bridges' inability to speak te reo Maori, suggesting this makes him less Maori. Bridges has responded to questions about his language skills, saying "I've tried about four or five times. I'd love to speak te reo" – see 1News' 'I'd love to speak te reo' – Simon Bridges praises Maori language revitalization.

Real diversity or just symbolism?

Questions of political representation and demographics always raise difficult but important questions about identity, and how best to fix problems relating to inequality of power and resources in society.

But there's no doubt that New Zealand is currently witnessing some real improvements in terms of diversity in politics. Today's Otago Daily Times celebrates this in its editorial, which says Bridges' win is "another sign of New Zealand politics being able to cope with youth, gender and diversity" – see: Bridges, not barriers.

The newspaper points out the bigger picture improvement: "Five leaders or deputy leaders of political parties are now Maori. New Zealand has a young female prime minister and a gay finance minister in Grant Robertson – diversity indeed. The Green Party will soon elect its female co-leader to replace Metiria Turei, who is no longer in Parliament. There is a sea-change within the major parties represented in the House, which can only be healthy."

National Party Leader Simon Bridges. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Party Leader Simon Bridges. Photo / Mark Mitchell

This significant increase in Maori political leaders is an issue of great importance according to Ward Kamo, who explains, with reference to the election of Barack Obama in the US: "A black man was elected by a predominantly white electorate to run the biggest economy and most powerful country in the world. I can't overstate what this meant to countless brown and black-skinned people in the world. The symbolism was immense. Well, we are now in our own NZ watershed moment. We have Maori in positions of power as of merit. From Kelvin Davis within the Labour Government, Winston Peters of NZ First, to Simon Bridges of National, our political world is changing. And the beauty is these leaders are all infinitely electable in their own right. Not one of these leaders is there as some sort of nod to PC culture. They are not there as part of the 'Maori quota'. No, these leaders are there because their parties back them to win your vote."

Part of the problem for Bridges' opponents is that his election as Leader of the Opposition, has occurred in a centre-right party, and not the Labour Party. After all, it has always rankled with many on the left that National's Jenny Shipley was New Zealand's first woman prime minister. Indeed, much effort still goes into explaining that Jenny Shipley's achievement wasn't as significant as that of Helen Clark, who got the top job as a result of a general election rather than a leadership change.

And today, Morgan Godfery usefully raises some similar points in his Spinoff article, calling on Labour to catch up with National. He suggests they can do so by electing a Maori leader after Jacinda Ardern: "if the party wants the mana of a Maori prime minister they had better start looking for their first Maori leader." Similarly, he argues for the Greens to elect Marama Davidson as their co-leader.

Godfery thoughtfully raises the question of whether such achievements are really just a mirage, especially when it comes to the political right electing Maori leaders: "This is progress. But is it false progress? When Maori make it to the top it often obscures how outcomes at the bottom remain more or less the same".

But Godfery suggests that identity is treated more superficially on the political right: "you can spot the difference between the right and left. For the right politics is about making space, whether for the first woman prime minister or the first Maori prime minister. Their identity only matters in so far as it's a signifier ('if Simon Bridges can make it, there's no excuse for Maori who can't). But for the left politics is about actually making demands for power, sometimes putting leftist Māori offside with voters, colleagues and even comrades."

For more on these identity politics issues, see Laura Walters' latest article, Political representation is becoming more diverse – but so what?. She interviews Bridges about his Maori identity, and also seeks the views of two political scientists – Victoria University of Wellington's Hilde Coffe and Massey University's Grant Duncan.

Coffe is reported as believing that "having a diverse representation was important for both symbolic and substantive reasons." She is quoted as saying that diversity of MPs helps show that being in politics is "not something that only Pakeha, middle-aged, white men do".

In contrast, Duncan believes that some people take "identity politics too far", and that there are "more substantive things to discuss". In the case of Simon Bridges, he says it's important not to "lose sight of the bigger picture: what does the new leader of the opposition actually stand for?"

Finally, for more examples of the social media arguments about ethnicity and leadership, see my blog post, Top tweets about Simon Bridges being Maori.