'Feelings are hurt': Judith Collins insists she's fine with 'Aotearoa', but others are feeling 'left out'

A historian says there doesn't appear to be any agenda behind the growing use of 'Aotearoa' as an alternative name to New Zealand - it just happened.

The National Party has called for a referendum on the name of the country, claiming the Government is changing it "by stealth" by increasingly using Aotearoa instead of New Zealand. 

The idea was floated by Kaikōura MP Stuart Smith, who said "judging by my inbox" there was significant support for holding a referendum. 

In a column for Stuff he said while there was "there is no right or wrong perspective", and enjoyed using Te Reo place names himself, it was "wrong for a public service and Government to decide a way forward with no regard for how New Zealanders think or feel about it". 

National leader Judith Collins on Wednesday told The AM Show they've been hearing "from people around New Zealand who feel they're left out of the debate on this".

"If there's enough support for a referendum, then obviously we'd be happy to put it to the people. It doesn't particularly worry me what the name is, but I know for a lot of New Zealanders, they're feeling they're left out of the debate."

Like Smith, Collins says she's "very happy with New Zealand myself", but is also "not averse to Aotea-New Zealand if that's what New Zealanders want [sic]". 

"But it's just like when we wanted to change the flag, or John Key wanted to change the flag, he put it to a referendum. That's the sort of thing people expect - they don't expect to have changes by stealth or even be able to have conversations."

Judith Collins.
Judith Collins. Photo credit: The AM Show

The flag referendum cost $26 million and ended in a relatively comfortable win for the incumbent. 

Asked if a referendum pitting the English name against a Maori one would cause racial division, Collins said "I don't think so". 

"Why can't people discuss this? The answer is because somebody might have a hurt feeling or something. What about the people who are currently feeling like their feelings are hurt? It's something people are saying to us. We'll see what happens." 

Is the Government really using 'Aotearoa more often'? 

Newshub looked at how often the Government uses Aotearoa in its communications. The Beehive website has an archive of press releases going back to 1993. In that term of Government, the word Aotearoa was used in press releases just seven times, rising to 72 in between 1996 and 1999. 

The John Key-led Government's first term saw it appear 307 times, falling to 237 and 167 in the following terms. The return of Labour in 2017 however saw use of the word Aotearoa spike - a search bringing up 539 results. In the 10 months since the 2020 election, it's appeared  a whopping 224 times.

A historian's view

Graeme Ball, NZ History Teachers' Association - which also goes by the name Te Puna Matauranga o nga kaiwhakaako Hitori o Aotearoa - said he has no strong opinion on which name we should use, and likes the option of having both. 

He noted the name Aotearoa doesn't appear on the Treaty of Waitangi - instead there's 'Niu Tīreni', a transliteration of the name European explorers gave the islands. Maori reportedly at the time didn't have a name for the entire archipelago.

Niu Tīreni never caught on.

"Some things get traction, some things don't," said Ball. "That was I think Henry Williams, the missionary, who translated it. It was a transliteration. Clearly it didn't gain any currency." 

A Maori dictionary published in 1844 also didn't have Aotearoa.

"As far as we're aware it wasn't starting to be used as a name for the whole of the country until the 1860s, 1870s," said Ball. "If you're an iwi that whakapapa back to Kupe, there's a lot of use of the word Aotearoa in places that were named by him or after him."

Graeme Ball.
Graeme Ball. Photo credit: The AM Show

Initially that was just in the North Island, but soon got applied to the entire country - it "morphed over time", in Ball's words. The resurgence of the Maori language in the past few decades saw it become more common.

"I believe it began to be popularised in the 1980s, and I don't think it was any great effort by anyone in particular," said Ball. "It's just one of those things that started to happen."

It was the National-led Government which put Aotearoa on the New Zealand passport and the currency, as ACT's David Seymour pointed out on The AM Show.

"Personally I say New Zealand - I'm not interested in going out, trying to police what other people say. I know a lot of young people out there who say, 'You can call it Timbuktu if you like, so long as I can afford a house there. I just think that there are some bigger issues for most people." 

Ball agrees, saying it's not yet time to spend up on a referendum. That might one day change - but it's likely to be driven by people who actually want a new name for the nation. 

"If there ever came a time when there was a stronger movement to actually change the name of country, then yes - I think actually the people should have a say in that."