Shane Jones, David Seymour, and Winston Peters.
A government of racists, or really smart politicians? (Design: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONĀteaJuly 4, 2024

Could dropping reo Māori names from government agencies actually be giving mana to te reo Māori?

Shane Jones, David Seymour, and Winston Peters.
A government of racists, or really smart politicians? (Design: Tina Tiller)

The controversial policy has many supporters, for vastly different reasons. Liam Rātana explains.

During the 2023 election campaign, there was a Māori MPs debate at Terenga Paraoa Marae in Whangārei, hosted by the Public Service Association. Present are the electorate’s incumbent Kelvin Davis, Mariameno Kapa-Kingi from Te Paati Māori, Green Party local stalwart Hūhana Lyndon, and NZ First Whangārei candidate Gavin Benney.

“I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion in 2023,” Davis self-righteously exclaimed in response to a question from my uncle Ted Ratana, who asked whether or not Davis thought government departments deserved reo Māori names, even if they didn’t live up to the title.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the issue would soon balloon into a national debate.

Why is the issue so topical?

Last year, it was revealed that the new government, as part of its coalition agreement with New Zealand First, had promised to ensure that all public service departments would have their primary name in English, with the exception of those specifically related to Māori.

This led to several government agencies reverting to their English names, such as Waka Kotahi rebranding (back) to the New Zealand Transport Agency, or Toitū Te Whenua going back to Land Information New Zealand. 

The policy caused an uproar from many Māori and non-Māori who viewed it as being racist and anti-Māori. It was just one policy among several that drove thousands to protest earlier this year. In response to the announcement, Ngāi Te Rangi lodged an urgent Waitangi Tribunal claim that the policy is causing significant irreversible harm to te reo Māori. Hearings recently concluded and were emotionally charged, with some claimants and those giving evidence brought to tears.

The hīkoi that took place in May proceeds down Queen St in Tāmaki Makaurau (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

So New Zealand First doesn’t support te reo Māori?

While it may appear that New Zealand First is against the use of te reo Māori, further investigation shows that it might not be that simple. First up, the party’s leaders are both Māori and while they have been the subject of much controversy, there’s no denying that Shane Jones in particular has been a strong advocate for te reo Māori over the years. Jones is fluent in te reo, conducts interviews in te reo, and was once a lecturer of Māori Studies at Victoria University. Whenever I interview him, Jones always begins by speaking to me in te reo.

Then why would they request government agencies be known primarily by their English names?

The play by New Zealand First appears to be two-pronged. Firstly, pandering to its older, predominantly Pākehā voter base. Many New Zealand First voters are of an era where mispronunciation of Māori place names and phrases was common practice. A lot of these people find it difficult to pronounce, let alone understand, what is being referred to when someone mentions Te Aka Whai Ora or Ara Poutama Aotearoa. New Zealand First’s push shows its voter base that they are being heard. But beneath the political pandering, there is an argument that government agencies shouldn’t have reo Māori names unless they actually live up to the titles they are given. This is what my uncle was getting at before being scolded by Kelvin Davis. Peters and Jones are well aware that a significant portion of Māori are against these agencies having reo Māori names, so they are simultaneously appealing to anti-reo Pākehā and pro-reo Māori. It’s smart politicking.

What does ‘living up to their titles’ mean?

Take Kāinga Ora for example. Literally translated, it means “healthy homes”. The agency provides a different translation of wellbeing through places and communities. Many Kāinga Ora residents will tell you that the houses being provided by the government agency are not really healthy or conducive to positive wellbeing. Multiple reports have found that Kāinga Ora is failing as an agency, plus it has recently been announced that the chief executive and five board members are all leaving as part of a shake up by the government.

Oranga Tamariki is another classic example of an agency that many view as not being worthy of its title. The name translates to “the wellbeing of children” but again, many would argue that in reality, the agency is far from providing positive outcomes for the wellbeing of the children in its care. Many New Zealanders would say Oranga Tamariki has associations with the opposite of children being supported. This notion is also reinforced by several reports that find Oranga Tamariki is a failing agency in need of a complete overhaul.

The Department of Lands and Survey, established in 1876, was a government agency involved in the administration and allocation of land, including Māori land that had been stolen, confiscated, or acquired through purchase. It is easy to see how the agency’s Māori name Toitū Te Whenua – which translates to “the land remains” and is a catch cry for many protesting the theft of Māori land – might be seen as ironic to some, and plainly offensive to others.

But surely any use of te reo Māori is good?

Yes and no. On one hand, the normalisation of the language by encouraging everyday use is certainly a positive. It promotes te reo to the wider population and effectively forces people to speak a few words of te reo Māori, even if it’s poorly pronounced. 

On the other hand, the use of reo Māori names from failing government agencies is a slap in the face for many Māori. It appears as tokenistic and a band-aid on agencies failing to live up to the titles bestowed upon them. As Peters has said before, the issue can detract from addressing underlying problems these agencies are facing. More than a Māori name, many are actually after tangible changes in terms of outcome from these agencies. Waka Kotahi should fix the roads, Kāinga Ora should provide healthy homes, and Oranga Tamariki should actually ensure the wellbeing of our children.

There are also potentially negative connotations with the use of reo Māori names with certain agencies and ministries. For example, Ara Poutama, which means “pathway of excellence” is the name Corrections uses. Many of the agencies mentioned above are disproportionately failing Māori or serving as a tool used for the perpetuation of negative social outcomes for Māori.

So is it better for no reo Māori names to be used?

It’s not a question I can answer on my own. I think it should be up to the wider Māori population to decide whether or not they think reo Māori names should be bestowed upon these government agencies and ministries. It certainly shouldn’t be up to the (predominantly Pākehā) executives to decide.

There is no set process for how government agencies decide what their reo Māori names are. Many are gifted by local iwi or a language expert, but external feedback is almost never gathered and the gifting of a name to an agency purporting to represent the whole nation by one kaumātua or kuia is problematic to say the least.

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