Skip to content

Tokenism

June 17, 2022

Former Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan made what could be one of the most important and logical comments about the use of Te Reo Maori in official documents I have heard in a very long time.

In the last few days before she stepped down from the role to taken her new position as Justice Minister, a flurry of emails from within the department seemed to suggest she had given an instruction to the effect that Te Reo Maori was not to be used in official documents unless it was a greeting or a sign off.

It turns out however that was not correct. In a response on social media the following day Ms Allan, a fluent speaker of Maori, said the email was an incorrect articulation of any direction she had provided and was absolutely inaccurate. She went on to make it clear she encouraged the use of the Maori language but she would not tolerate the tokenistic use of the language by Government agencies as an attempt to show they were culturally competent. That is a long overdue and very welcome breath of common sense at a time when tokenism towards things Maori has reached an astonishing level of mindless, sycophantic stupidity.

Over the past few years, a growing number of central and local government bodies have decided that there must be a Maori cultural component included in almost every event and official gathering. A few badly pronounced phrases, learned by rote with minimal understanding and the repetition of Christian missionary prayers of the 1850s poorly translated into Maori pass as Maori culture. Worse is the inclusion in many official documents of Maori words and phrases with no attempt to translate them let alone the meanings and the two can be quite different.

Government departments have adopted dual names, which would not be an issue if they were always used together but they are not. With growing frequency only the Maori name is used and even that would not be a problem more people spoke and used Maori every day but most do not and it will be a long time before they do. An example of this nonsense is the New Zealand Transport Agency, also known now as Waka Kotahi, which can be translated as First Canoe or even Flag Ship!
This sycophantic attempt at appeasement can be both demeaning to Maori and offensive to Pakeha, although few will admit it for fear of being labelled racist.

Of greater concern is the inclusion of Maori terminology without translation or interpretation in Bills under consideration by Parliament. An example of that is the Water Entities Bill, the first of two Bills to facilitate the takeover of Three waters from local authorities. The Bill, if or when it becomes law, will require local authorities to recognise and include Matauranga Maori. This term can mean almost anything anyone wants it to mean. The term translates as the sum total of Maori folklore and knowledge but that differs significantly between regions and even between knowledgeable people within the same region. So too with Tikanga, which translates as the correct way of doing things but, like matauranga that differs enormously between regions and groups.

There is also kaitiakitanga which means stewardship or caretakership but, under existing statute that is a role district councils cannot delegate to anyone other than another local body or a properly constituted subcommittee of the council.

Finally, there is mana whenua, for an identified area, which means the iwi or hapū holding and exercising, in accordance with tikanga, authority or other customary rights or interests in an area. The reality is that authority held by such people is informal, has no legal status and does not apply to Maori or non-Maori who choose to ignore it.

The Bill also requires local authorities to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
It will be one of many statutes to include that requirement but, unless, or until, the principles of the treaty are themselves written into statute this will be an impossible requirement to meet.
There has only ever been one attempt to define the principles. They were informally established in 1989 by the Government, under Labour Prime Minister David Lange, in collaboration with the Waitangi Tribunal and the New Zealand Maori Council.
They were;

  1. The government has the right to govern and to make laws
  2. Iwi have the right to organise as iwi and, under the law, to control the resources they own.
  3. All New Zealanders are equal under the law
  4. Both the government and the Iwi are obliged to accord each other reasonable cooperation on major issues of common concern.
  5. The government is responsible for providing effective processes for the resolution of grievances in the expectation that reconciliation can occur.
    These principles have never been written into law. Although more than 40 of our laws now require them be observed, no government has attempted to define them in any detail or give clear instructions on how that observation will be applied in practical terms.

There will no doubt come a time, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when we will again hear and speak Maori every day as we did when I started school all those years ago. In the meantime, it would be of enormous benefit to the nation if Kiritapu Allan were run a workshop for drafters of new legislation, and her Parliamentary colleagues, on the correct use of the Maori language, accurate translations and how to avoid tokenism. She certainly appears to have the credentials to do that.