Winston Peters labels Māori Party petition to change country's name to Aotearoa 'left-wing radical bull dust'

Former deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has labelled a campaign by the Māori Party to change the country's name to Aotearoa "left-wing radical bull dust" and "dumb extremism". 

A petition was launched by the political party on Tuesday calling on the House of Representatives to change the country's official name to Aotearoa and "officially restore the Te Reo Māori names for all towns, cities and place names".

But the petition, launched during Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori / Māori Language Week, hasn't gone down well with Peters, the New Zealand First leader who left Parliament at last year's election.

"This is just more left-wing radical bull dust," Peters said on his Twitter account, which he began tweeting from again last week after silence since October. "Changing our country's name and town and city names is just dumb extremism."

"We are not changing to some name with no historical credibility. We are for keeping us New Zealand."

Changing the name of the country as well as towns and cities by 2026 were policies of the Māori Party at the 2020 general election. 

At the time, Peters called it "headline hunting without any regard to the cost to this country". He said it would make the country's "international marketing brand confusing". 

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said on Tuesday that it was "well past time that Te Reo Māori was restored to its rightful place as the first and official language of this country".

"We are a Polynesian country, we are Aotearoa.

"Tangata whenua are sick to death of our ancestral names being mangled, bastardised, and ignored. It’s the 21st Century, this must change.

"Article 3 of Te Tiriti o Waitangi promises tangata whenua the same rights as British citizens, that te reo Māori me ōna tikanga katoa be treated and valued exactly the same as the English language – ko te mana ōrite tērā."

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the party's other co-leader, said name changes over whenua (land) and "the imposition of a colonial agenda" in the education system in the early 1900s had led to Te Reo Māori fluency among tupuna (grandparents or ancestors) falling "from 90 percent in 1910 to 26 percent in 1950". 

It's only continued to fall from there and Ngarewa-Packer said it was the "duty of the Crown to do all that it can to restore the status of our language to where it was when the moment they arrived and interrupted our natural development".

"That means it needs to be accessible in the most obvious of places; on our televisions, on our radio stations, on road signs and maps and in our education system."

It's not the first time a petition has been created to official change the country's name.

In 2019, Parliament's Governance and Administration Select Committee considered two petitions related to the use of Aotearoa. One asked that country's name be Aotearoa New Zealand, while the second called for a referendum on the matter. 

The committee noted that Aotearoa is "increasingly being used as an alternative way to refer to New Zealand", with references to it in legislation, but it didn't recommend a name change. 

"While not legislated, the use of bilingual titles throughout Parliament and government agencies is common," the committee said. "We thank the petitioners for bringing this matter to our attention. However, at present we do not consider that a legal name change, or a referendum on the same change, is needed."

As Kerry Howe, an author on New Zealand and Pacific history, wrote for Newsroom last year, the origins of Aotearoa are "obscure". While he says it is the "modern name favoured by many Māori and others", it isn't found in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. However, evidence of its use has been found as early as 1855, Howe said.

New Zealand's name became a topic again this year after Stuart Smith, National's MP for Kaikoura, called for a referendum on whether the country should be called New Zealand or Aotearoa. It came after he said he received "overwhelming" correspondence from Kiwis saying the Government had been "arrogant in changing it de facto without any public discussion". 

His leader, Judith Collins, backed the call, claiming Government agencies were "changing it" and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern "barely" spoke "about New Zealand these days". Government ministers called the idea "ridiculous" and the ACT Party said there were more important things to focus on

Aotearoa has also been on the cover of New Zealand passports since 2009, when National was in Government. New Zealand banknotes also feature 'Aotearoa', which Sir John Key revealed in 2015.