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PoliticsSeptember 14, 2022

The ‘McMāori’ saga and the business of te reo


Following the launch of Whittaker’s miraka kirīmi block, former race relations commissioner Joris de Bres remembers when he started a nationwide debate by suggesting businesses use more Māori words.

When I was asked by the Dominion Post in early 2003 to comment, as race relations commissioner, on the use of te reo in the public sphere, I chose to focus on the private sector, noting that companies were lagging behind the public and community sector. I said it would be good for their business, good for the language and good for the image of the country if more companies used it. “Using Māori in publications, having a Māori company name and using Māori wherever possible alongside English would be good for companies,” I said.

At the time it was hard to find any product with a Māori name or any use of te reo by private companies. I said the only examples I could find were the health warning on cigarette packets and the Māori name on the banner of the Gisborne Herald, Te Nupepa o Tairāwhiti.

I didn’t think the Dominion Post would give my comments a lot of space (if it published them at all) but the story appeared on the front page with the heading “Firms urged to adopt Māori names”. An accompanying cartoon had a McDonald’s sign changed to “McMāori” with a customer being asked “Do you want fries with your hāngi?”

Dominion Post front page: March 6, 2003 (Image: Supplied)

They were obviously hoping for a reaction, and they got it. National MP Murray McCully issued a press release saying I was “taking political correctness to new extremes”, that my comments were “unsolicited and no doubt totally unwanted by the nation’s private sector businesses”, and that I should “let the private sector organise its own affairs”.

That afternoon he raised the issue in Parliament’s question time. He was supported by New Zealand First MP Dail Jones and United Future MP Marc Alexander. Jones said I should stick to my responsibilities rather than giving advice about how businesses should run their business. Alexander called my comments a “jaw-dropping initiative” and asked whether I would lead by example and change my name to “Hone de Bres”.

The Dominion Post duly reported the debate the next morning with some further comment from the MPs. Alexander was quoted as saying: “You have to wonder if Mr de Bres has a secret agenda to deliberately sabotage race relations in this country. We are a multicultural nation and, frankly, business is there to do business, not run flaky social agendas for the pleasure of Mr de Bres and his ilk.”

The NZ Press Association picked up the story and it appeared in other newspapers, including Hawke’s Bay Today, who featured it prominently and made it the subject of their daily editorial under the heading “A dose of unrealism”. They said I had “advanced the unreality [my] position seems to foster by saying private businesses ought to use Māori names”.

“The idea is daft, not because using the Māori language is inappropriate, but because it is unrealistic. There has been no impediment to private firms using Māori in their names. But the point is that business knows best what’s best for business, without being told what to do by someone whose background is conspicuously lacking in any hands-on business experience.”

Dominion Post front page: March 7, 2003 (Image: Supplied)

The response from business people approached by the Dominion Post was less hysterical. Montana Wines spokeswoman Zirk van den Berg merely said using Māori was a marketing issue. “So far there are not enough people who speak Māori that we feel it necessary to put it on our bottles.”

Telecom spokeswoman Allanah James said essential information in the front of the phone book was translated into Māori, Cook Island Māori, Sāmoan, Tongan and Chinese.

Air New Zealand spokeswoman Rosie Paul said there was “no formal policy on using Māori culture, language and people but it’s just something that follows – if you’re promoting New Zealand as a destination, then our whānau becomes part of that promotion.”

There was one business executive who was interested in further exploring what I was suggesting. Ted van Arkel, managing director of Progressive Enterprises, owners of Foodtown and Woolworths supermarkets (now Countdown), arranged for me to speak at his Rotary Club in Parnell. I got a good reception there. On the basis of that, Ted invited me to address the company’s annual store managers’ conference in Auckland later in the year (they had over 160 stores throughout New Zealand).

I assembled a small group including Lana Simmonds-Donaldson from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, Ana Tapiata from Te Puni Kōkiri, Kallon Basham from the Human Rights Commission and designer Jenny Ralston from JR Design to strategise and work on the presentation. We met at the Backbencher and the resulting powerpoint was a virtual journey through a re-imagined Woolworths supermarket with te reo used throughout, from a parallel name (Te Whata, proposed by fellow human rights commissioner Dr Merimeri Penfold) to a store welcome, trolley advertisements, products with bilingual signage and a till receipt with a Māori message.

There was demographic information to support the proposal and other reasons why it made good business and social sense to use te reo. After the rumpus earlier in the year, I was very nervous before the presentation but it was very positively received by the store managers.

A highly productive partnership ensued between the Human Rights Commission, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori and Te Puni Kōkiri, to promote te reo to all New Zealanders in Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori each year. Progressive Enterprises became a supporter of that campaign, initially by producing a bilingual version of its weekly grocery mailer for Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori and then by adopting bilingual signage for all the departments in its supermarkets. This week, they have launched te reo as a self-checkout language option. Independently, their shelves began to fill with more and more wine and food products with Māori names.

It’s difficult to imagine today that te reo was almost completely absent from the business sector a mere 20 years ago. The now widespread use of the language in the media, in branding, in business and workplace communication and in advertising is welcome, but when it is not accompanied by a genuine commitment to the revitalisation and normalisation of the language it risks being merely tokenistic or appropriating the language simply for business gain. Te Taura Whiri recommends that with appropriate advice businesses develop a te reo policy and plan and regard their use of te reo as a continuing journey.

It’s sad that there are still racist objections when a chocolate company produces and promotes a single product with a wrapper using te reo alongside English. But perhaps the objections of this noisy minority are even more hysterical because the use of te reo in business is now simply a fact of life in Aotearoa. The challenge now is for businesses to promote and use it in a manner that reflects a genuine commitment to reo and tikanga, avoids tokenism and cultural expropriation, reflects genuine engagement with tangata whenua and involves a commitment to continuing innovation.

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