Election 2023: National claims no issue with Te Reo on road signs, but says they should be 'nice-to-have'

National claims it has no issue with te reo Māori on traffic signs, but believes they should be in the "nice-to-have category" with the focus instead on "fixing potholes and upgradings our roads".

It comes after the Prime Minister on Monday afternoon suggested National's stance on the bilingual road sign programme could be a "dog whistle" and made the point that it was National leader Christopher Luxon who tried to trademark 'Kia Ora' when he headed the national airline.

Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) this month released a package of proposed bilingual traffic signs for consultation. The new signs are proposed to be introduced when existing signs need to be replaced as part of a "low-cost implementation approach".

It was reported that National's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown thought adding Te Reo would make the signage confusing.

"We all speak English, and they should be in English... it's going to be confusing if you add more words," he was reported by Stuff as saying at a Tauranga public meeting.

Asked by Newshub on Monday about National's opposition, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins responded: "Well, the current leader of the National Party tried to trademark 'Kia Ora', so I'm not entirely sure where they're going with that unless it's just an outright dog whistle."

Bishop later said National had "no issue with bilingualism", but didn't believe it should be a priority for the NZTA or where resources are going when the agency should instead be focused on fixing potholes and upgrading roads.

"I would put the bilingualism into the nice-to-have category rather than a must-do-immediately category," Bishop said.

Speaking to Brown's comments, Bishop said it was important for senior Kiwis that English was "extremely prominent because that's what the vast bulk of New Zealanders understand". 

"One of the things that has been raised with me and certainly with other MPs I know is that it is really important that as you're driving down a road that you're able to see the street signage properly. It's genuinely a legitimate complaint that people who are bit hard of eyesight say.

"I'm not saying there's a problem with having Te Reo on signs. I'm simply saying you've got to have English prominently displayed so that people can follow the road code and follow the law."

The National MP called Hipkins' comment about dog whistling "ridiculous". 

"This is just what Chris Hipkins says whenever anyone says anything about Te Reo in this country. Apparently you're not allowed to have a genuine conversation about how we can take this country forward and talk about Māori from the National Party without literally being accused of dog-whistling."

Hipkins said bilingual signs are not new internationally and made the point that there wouldn't be additional costs as the bilingual signs are only being put up when existing signs are replaced

"So it's not like there's a big re-signage campaign going on. People will be seeing it at the moment because a number of those signs were damaged during the cyclone and as they're being replaced, there's a bilingual element being added to them. 

"I've got no problem with that. I don't think it creates public safety concerns, it doesn't in other countries around the world that have bilingual signs and I don't think it needs to in New Zealand either."

The transport agency said it has "undertaken research to identify international precedents and to examine the safety implications of bilingual signage". 

"Many countries use bilingual signage, and research demonstrates that bilingual signs have not led to an increase in the number of people who have been killed or seriously injured where this has been measured (for example in Scotland and Wales)."

When Luxon, the current National leader, was the chief executive of Air New Zealand, the airline tried to trademark a 'Kia Ora' logo used for its in-flight magazine. It angered the Māori Council and the airline backed down.

Luxon at the time stressed Air New Zealand was trying to "trademark just the Kia Ora magazine logo rather than the words themselves".