New Zealand opposition leader Judith Collins has thrown her National party’s election campaign further off kilter with unfortunate off-the-cuff comments on obesity.
Already a huge underdog in Saturday’s election against popular PM Jacinda Ardern, Ms Collins’ stunned Kiwis for calling obesity a personal choice and joking it wasn’t an epidemic.
Ms Collins told radio station Newstalk ZB “people need to start taking some personal responsibility for their weight” before suggesting that gaining it “wasn’t catching”.
With 31 per cent of Kiwis seen as obese, the OECD lists New Zealand as the third fattest country in the world.
Aotearoa sits behind only Mexico (32 per cent) and the United States (38 per cent), with Australia not far behind with 28 per cent of adults suffering from obesity.
Ms Collins attacked suggestions her views oversimplified a complex issue or were heartless.
“Do you know what is heartless? Thinking that someone else can cure these issues. We can all take personal responsibility,” she said.
She attacked parents on The AM Show, saying, “it doesn’t take actually much to get frozen vegetables out of the freezer and pull them out and do something with them. It’s not that hard”.
Ms Collins comments were also racially tone deaf, with two in three Pasifika (66 per cent) and half of Maori (48 per cent) obese.
Lisa Te Morenga, senior lecturer in Maori health and nutrition at Victoria University, called Ms Collins’ remarks “outrageous and disappointing”.
“Making healthy food choices is really difficult for people when they are constrained by income, lack of access to healthy foods and the environment is full of junk food options,” she told AAP.
“And Maori and Pasifika families earn less money, are more likely to live in poverty and in areas not well served by shops.”
Dr Te Morenga said healthy food was more expensive in New Zealand than many places abroad, suggesting healthy food subsidies, above an often-mooted sugar tax, as a response.
“Lifting wages also helps,” she said.
“People need a living wage so they can pay their bills, not be stressed financially or mentally and make healthy choices.”
During Ms Ardern’s three years in office, applications for emergency food grants have skyrocketed – but the Labour leader said she was proud low-income Kiwis were being fed.
“We have made access to these grants easier. We’ve done that purposely. We don’t want there to be unseen or unmet need,” she said.
Ms Collins’ comments have blunted National’s efforts to run a disciplined campaign.
In the COVID-centric election, National’s pitch for government has been based on tax cuts – compared with Labour’s mild tax hike – and infrastructure delivery, another weak point of PM Jacinda Ardern’s tenure.
Ms Collins’ comments were so unpopular that within 24 hours, her own MPs were distancing themselves from them.
Mark Mitchell, a former defence minister and expected leadership contender should Ms Collins lose, said obesity was “a lot more complex”.
“Some obesity is related to medical conditions, even psychological conditions that need treating, so it’s a more complex issue,” he told Newstalk ZB.