Willie Jackson, Erica Stanford clash over importance of Māori history in curriculum

  • 09/02/2024

Discussions over possible changes to the Aotearoa New Zealand's histories curriculum saw a fiery clash between Education Minister Erica Stanford and Labour's Willie Jackson on Friday, with Jackson calling the plan to "restore balance" to the syllabus "a load of nonsense".  

The National Party's coalition agreement with ACT states there is a goal to "restore balance" to the Aotearoa New Zealand's histories curriculum, which was implemented nationwide from term 1 of 2023.

Under the curriculum, students are taught about topics including the origin and meaning of the name Aotearoa, the impact of colonisation, traditional Māori tales, the arrival of James Cook, the New Zealand Land Wars, Parihaka, and The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti.

The content of the syllabus, which is taught from year 1 to year 10, has been criticised by National and ACT for presenting a "narrow" view. When the public was asked to give feedback on the draft version of the curriculum, many voiced concerns about a lack of "balance" between "Māori and Pākehā histories", with some suggesting there was too much focus on Māori history in the draft. 

On AM on Friday morning, host Melissa Chan-Green asked Stanford if she believed the curriculum was unbalanced, to which she said there are "other stories" that should also be taught in schools and kura.   

"We've heard from the community that they want to see other stories represented in the history curriculum as well. We've got an amazing, rich history, from the people who travelled thousands of kilometres across the Pacific to get here, right through to the Chinese settlers, the Dutch settlers, the French settlers in Akaroa. We've got so many amazing stories to tell," she said.  

"We also have a really important duty to talk about the Treaty of Waitangi and our Māori history, but there are other stories to tell as well and I think that should be reflected."  

When pressed if she thought the current curriculum focused too heavily on Māori history, Stanford responded: "The point we've agreed to look at is just to make sure we're representing everybody's history in the history curriculum, and I think that's a perfectly reasonable position to take.

"Especially as it's such a new curriculum, it's worth taking a look after a short period of time to make sure we're representing everyone's stories."  

But Labour list MP and former Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson staunchly opposed the coalition Government's position on the syllabus, branding it "a load of nonsense".  

"This is part of the ACT Party's strategy in terms of beating up on Māori. We've got such a rich history in terms of Māori - Erica, you know it because you studied Māori at university," he said, referring to Stanford completing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Auckland with a minor in Māori Studies.  

"But most New Zealanders don't know about the [Battle of Ruapekapeka]... these wonderful chiefs like Te Whiti [o Rongomai III] and Tohu [Kākahi], who were pacifists and led the way... I grew up learning about Gallipoli, which is fantastic, but you've got ACT [saying] 'restoring the balance' - what the heck is [David] Seymour on about?  

"We don't know about Māori history. It's a beautiful, rich history that Erica and I should celebrate.

"I'm in my 60s, all my life it's been unbalanced... and Erica, you should be backing this, given your background in terms of education and Māori. Instead of waffling on about everyone else, let's concentrate on Māori."  

Stanford hit back that "there's room for both", arguing that from years 1 to 10, there's "plenty of time and plenty of opportunity to talk about everybody's history".  

"Why do we want to talk about everybody when we haven't even talked about Māori?" Jackson hit back.  

"There's no balance at all, it's been imbalanced for all my life... let's prioritise indigenous people to start off with."  

Stanford added that as work hasn't begun on rewriting the history curriculum, Māori advisors have yet to be brought in and consulted.  

"We will turn our minds to this in the coming months."

Watch the full interview above.