National MP Penny Simmonds defends academics' right to debate after they published letter challenging mātauranga Māori

National Party MP Penny Simmonds has come to the defence of seven academics who sparked controversy after publishing a letter challenging the value of mātauranga Māori.

Mātauranga Māori spans Māori knowledge, culture, values, and worldview and originates from Māori ancestors.

The academics' letter was published in The Listener in July and was signed by seven professors from the University of Auckland: Kendall Clements, Garth Cooper, Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis, Douglas Elliffe, Elizabeth Rata, Emeritus Professor Robert Nola, and Emeritus Professor John Werry.

The letter was in response to an NCEA working group's proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum, which would "promote parity for mātauranga Māori with other bodies of knowledge". It would also include discussion on the way science has been used as a rationale for the colonisation of Māori.

The professors say that while "indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways", to accept it as "equivalent to science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations".

The letter has come under fire from numerous scholars and organisations, including Auckland University and the Tertiary Education Union, and one of its authors has since resigned.

Simmonds, who is National's tertiary education spokesperson, says she is defending the ability to have the debate on mātauranga Māori and there is a "real need" to have discussions like this.

"I've been very clear that I didn't come out in support or opposition of the positions that were being taken, but rather of the real need for us to be able to have debates such as this and also the real need to not shut down people who want to debate these things," she tells The Hui.

"I just think it prevents people from expressing their views and then being able to talk together and talk over the differing views if we really slam and shut people down, and I feel in this instance that was what was happening."

Penny Simmonds.
Penny Simmonds. Photo credit: The Hui

Simmonds was the chief executive of the Southern Institute of Technology in Invercargill for 23 years before becoming an MP and partnered with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and Ngāi Tahu during her time there.

She says she's valued these and other Māori partners over the years, but wouldn't answer whether she believes mātauranga Māori is science. She says that giving her opinion would "take away" from the point she was previously making that people should be able to debate the topic.

"It will take away from the point that I'm trying to put forward - that is that people should be free to be able to debate the issue," she says.

"As soon as we shut it down we run the risk of pushing people with opinions that differ to popular opinion underground, and I think that's a very negative thing for our society."

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and NZ On Air.

National MP Penny Simmonds defends academics' right to debate after they published letter challenging mātauranga Māori