Associate Maori Affairs Minister John Tamihere was called a "black fella" by National's new Maori affairs spokesman, Gerry Brownlee, in Parliament last night.

Mr Brownlee later sent Mr Tamihere an apology.

Mr Tamihere had just finished calling Mr Brownlee a "big fella" after the National MP, who has just replaced Georgina te Heuheu in the Maori spokesperson role, raised a point of order about what he claimed were personal insults.

The exchange occurred while Mr Tamihere was attacking National's new direction on race relations.

"He does not like it. The big fella does not like it when people are talking straight," said Mr Tamihere.

Mr Brownlee: "Although I can take any barb at all that anyone wants to throw across this House, I am going to ask you [the Speaker] to rule right now. In future contributions to this House, would it be all right for me to refer to Mr Tamihere as 'the black fella'?"

Assistant Speaker Ross Robertson said such exchanges could lead to disorder and asked both MPs, who were interjecting, to sit down.

Mr Tamihere later said he had been upset by the reference. Asked if he thought Mr Brownlee was racist, he said: "The question's got to be put to him, why did he do that?"

Mr Brownlee told the Herald the exchange had been "silly on both our parts".