Simon Bridges says comments by New Zealand First's Shane Jones about the Indian community fell short of being racist, but instead reflected "poll-driven desperation".
Regional Economic Development Minister Jones has been at the centre of a political maelstrom over the last week after saying people who disagreed with a tighter Immigration New Zealand policy could "catch the next flight home".
The comments came as the Indian community were angered by the policy which made it more difficult for those with arranged marriages to bring their spouses to New Zealand.
Last week, Mandeep Singh Bela, coordinator of the Union Network of Migrants and the Indian Workers Association, told Newshub he was fearful the rhetoric could stoke hate crimes against the Indian community.
"To 'take the next flight home' is quite racist and discriminatory towards the Indian community. The last thing we want to see is what happened in Christchurch."
Jones doubled down on Tuesday, saying that those sort of comments were a "Bollywood overreaction". He doesn't believe he's been racist.
Bridges, the National Party leader, doesn't think so either - but instead says Jones' comments were "wrong and distasteful" and smack of political desperation.
This is pretty transparent isn't it. This is poll-driven desperation.
"The rural and regional voters have deserted New Zealand First. I don't think you can find a single person who says they voted for them at the last election."
Bridges said Jones was purposefully striking out to get attention for himself and New Zealand First as the party has fallen below the 5 percent party vote threshold. The latest Newshub-Reid Research poll found NZ First only commanded 4 percent of the vote.
"His leader is thoroughly distracted by a court case and I don't know whatever else is going on his life and so Shane is doing this.
"He knows what he is doing, and he is doing it whilst short of racism to try and get himself in the polls. He is talking about a community of New Zealanders getting on the first plane home and all these sorts of things."
Sharing a Newshub article about Jones' comments on Tuesday afternoon, Green MP Golriz Ghahraman said racial stereotypes should not be part of a "legitimate immigration debate".
"Racial stereotypes that paint migrants of colour as backward caricatures, here to fleece the system, is never legitimate immigration debate," she said.
It is always deeply harmful, not only to the targeted communities, but us all and a nation of equals.
Jones, however, remains adamant he's speaking on behalf of New Zealanders who want more control on immigration.
"I'm giving a voice to the anxieties of hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who upon learning we're now reaching 5 million people, substantially grown by immigration, they're actually very happy that they have a voice," he said on Tuesday.
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said Jones is responsible for his comments. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also distanced herself from the comments of her minister.