NZ lawmaker slammed on campaign remarks

By Ray Lilley, AP

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Minority lawmakers accused a senior New Zealand politician of racism Thursday for disparaging comments he made about Asian and Pacific Island migrant workers while campaigning for next month’s elections.

Opposition National Party lawmaker Lockwood Smith, in line to become the Minister for Immigration if his party wins in the Nov. 8 elections, said Pacific Island workers needed guidance using toilets, showers and washing machines, and that the “smaller hands” of Asians made them better for grape pruning.

Smith made the remarks while campaigning in the wine producing region of Marlborough, where Asians and indigenous Pacific Islanders often number among the seasonal workers, according to a Marlborough Express report Wednesday. Smith was quoted as saying Asians were better at pruning vines “because their hands are smaller,” and some employers of Pacific Islands workers were having to teach them “how to use a toilet and … a shower, a washing machine, you name it.”

Tariana Turia, a leader of the minority Maori Party that represents New Zealand’s indigenous minority, slammed the comments as racist and deeply offensive. Maori are of Polynesian descent and share a strong affinity with South Pacific islanders.

“It’s outrageous that such a senior person on the National Party harbors these views,” Turia said.

Winston Peters, leader of the minority New Zealand First Party, also seized on the comments, saying in a speech Thursday that “when it comes to immigration, National’s racist undertones are clear.”

Smith said he was simply passing on the views of wine grape growers and regretted the comments had been taken out of context.

“I can see that my reported comments may have caused offense. I sincerely regret that because it certainly was not my intention,” he said in a brief statement. The row is an unwelcome distraction for National, which has been making a push for votes among Asian and Pacific Islanders in recent months in a bid to undercut some of the traditional strength of the ruling Labour Party. National currently leads Labour in opinion polls, though the race is tight.

National Party leader John Key said the comments could be taken as offensive and that Smith’s statement expressing regret was “wholly appropriate.”

Prime Minister Helen Clark said Smith had said “terrible and unspeakable things.”

Peters’ credibility on the issue was undercut by his own comments last week when he said Chinese workers were threatening New Zealanders’ jobs and described immigrants as being “like moths to a neon light.”