In tense situations, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is known for remaining curiously upbeat. As an executive at Merrill Lynch in the mid-’90s, the cheerfulness with which he axed hundreds of employees inspired his co-workers to call him “the smiling assassin.” But after joking that he “would have been dinner” if he’d eaten with a Maori tribe in the wake of a land dispute, Key has landed in hot water—evidence, perhaps, that in politics, empathy is often a wiser tack than humour.
Key made the quip, which refers to the Tuhoe tribe’s historic cannibalism (a practice that experts say ended 200 years ago), at a tourism conference earlier this month. Leaders of the Maori, who represent 15 per cent of the country’s population, were quick to register their discontent. “In the bigger context, we should expect more from our prime minister,” said Tamati Kruger, chief negotiator for the Tuhoe.
Meanwhile, Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell called the remark “probably not wise in the current climate.”
In addition to the racial overtones, critics are reacting to the timing. Just days earlier, Key made a divisive ruling in negotiations over Te Urewera National Park, vetoing the Tuhoe’s ownership claim of the 2,000-sq.-km region. The dispute is one of about 60 outstanding land claims stemming from the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1840 agreement that was intended to protect Maori lands while turning New Zealand over to Britain. Key maintains that ceding ownership to the Tuhoe would have set a precedent, opening the door for many of the country’s national parks to be turned over to Maori groups.
The rationale for his quip, however, has not been as easy to explain. “It was a lighthearted joke, a bit of self-deprecating humour,” he told reporters. The Associated Press remarked that, to some, it was “in poor taste, no pun intended”; in the New Zealand Herald, an editorial cartoon depicted Key in a cauldron, explaining why he’s not good eating (“Too bland and tough as old boots”). The joke, it seems, is on him.