Ardern listening, not leading on NZ racism

Ben McKay
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is treading carefully on issues of racism in New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern is playing a long game on questions of New Zealand's racism and decolonisation, sidestepping tricky issues highlighted by Black Lives Matter protests.

In keeping with her deferential style on cultural and Maori flashpoints, the prime minister isn't picking sides on statues, place renaming and systemic racism.

In the past fortnight, Ms Ardern has been indirect on questions that have sprung from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Two weeks ago she declined to say whether she believed US president Donald Trump is racist.

She criticised protesters who did not socially distance at rallies despite a week without new cases of COVID-19.

On Monday, Ms Ardern didn't accede to the protest organisers' request to publicly condemn the police violence that led to Mr Floyd's death, and avoided answering whether she believed New Zealand was "suffering systemic racism".

Ms Ardern isn't one to dwell on previous misdeeds or revolutionise Kiwi systems.

Instead, she hopes to reform.

"We do acknowledge that change is needed and none of these things are going to happen quickly because they do need to be systemic," she told Radio NZ, pointing instead to practical changes made.

"It's making sure you have more Maori representation in your DHBs (district health boards) ... even more Maori represented within the police. All of that creates change."

Her government is championing a language renewal, with growing numbers speaking Maori.

Maori government representation has grown and she has begun an annual commemoration of the New Zealand Wars in October.

"My leadership, I would like to think, is making it finally universal that New Zealand children will learn New Zealand history in schools," she said.

"That's the kind of thing that creates change."

Still, many - including the thousands protesting in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin on Sunday - would prefer Ms Ardern to be bolder.

In Hamilton last week - the centre of Ms Ardern's home region, the Waikato - a statue of Captain John Hamilton was removed from the town square by the council, to prevent it being vandalised or destroyed by Maori who decry his role in colonial-era killings.

Given the city bears Captain Hamilton's name, there are renewed calls for the city to be re-badged as 'Kirikiriroa'.

Ms Ardern said it was "fantastic" that many Kiwi places were adopting interchangeable names - similarly to Aotearoa New Zealand - but wouldn't be drawn on individual places.

"I am required and forced to have a view on many, many things. There are some things that local people should take the lead on," Ms Ardern told Newshub.

"Place names, statues, these are rightfully things that are dealt with at a local level. Kirikiriroa Hamilton ... that is a matter for them."

The 39-year-old used an example from North Island's East coast, her favoured holiday spot, to suggest she did not favour the removal of imperial monuments including of Captain James Cook.

"In Gisborne, yes you have statues of Cook, but you also have a statue of (Maori chief) Te Maro of Ngati Oneone, who was amongst those killed during Cook's arrival," she said.

"They said (Cook is) part of our history but we haven't been telling our whole history. I personally am of the view that we have been remiss in not always telling our full history."