Waitangi Tribunal inquiry begins into use of te reo Māori in public sector

By Taiha Molyneux of RNZ

An urgent Waitangi Tribunal inquiry into claims Coalition Government policy is causing significant irreversible harm to te reo Māori begins in Wellington today.

Ngāi Te Rangi filed the application late last year after the Government instructed non-Māori departments to prioritise Pākehā names and language.

Ngāi Te Rangi chairperson Charlie Tawhiao told Morning Report the Tauranga-based iwi had been inundated with support since lodging its application with the Tribunal.

"We know we're not operating alone. There are many Pākeha and Māori who are concerned about the impact of government actions."

Supporters of the iwi include Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo (Wellington Māori Language Board), which lodged the landmark Te Reo Māori claim in 1986, led by Te Huirangi Waikerepuru.

Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau chairperson Piripi Walker said the fight for te mana o te reo continued and Ngāi Te Rangi should be saluted for the action it had taken.

"Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau are urging the government to hold status quo on te reo, to reverse the positions adopted in the coalition agreement reducing and suppressing the use of te reo in Aotearoa and also urging them to not implement the changes to the understandings on the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Māori Language Act

The original claim filed by Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo played a vital role in embedding legislative protection and promotion of te reo Māori.

Introduced in 1987, the Māori Language Act formally recognised te reo Māori as an official language of Aotearoa.

Since then, Māori and non-Māori organisations across the country had worked to embrace the language and normalise its use in practical settings.

Te reo Māori can officially be used in the courts, and universities are obliged to support students who want to submit their work in te reo.

Many organisations and tertiary institutions - including Massey and Otago - are taking steps to become tiriti-led universities.

Dr Hinurewa Poutu is a kura kaupapa Māori graduate and her eventual decision to complete and submit her doctorate in te reo was a natural progression.

While successful in her journey, Poutu told RNZ it was a very challenging journey with limited resources and expertise available to support students.

Universities and any other organisations adopting approaches focusing on being "tiriti-led" carried obligations to nurture te reo and ensure the right internal support was available, she said.

"There's a very specific way, in terms of academic writing and research practices. And while there is work that is happening that recognises Māori research methodologies, on top of that there's also Māori language research methodologies."

Piripi Walker said trailblazers championing te mana o te reo and advances made over the last 40 years were being forced backwards by the coalition agreement.

"As the languages start to make a little bit of space for each other, so they can both flourish. [These policies say] we don't want it, we only want to go back to the pre-1975 situation, the old Māori affairs act of the 1950s where you can speak your own language, which is your birth right in your own little area. That is where they are heading, that is where the policy explicitly goes."

The Tribunal decision granting the urgent application clearly identified the high likelihood of irreversible damage government actions could cause the language, he said.

"It's one thing to suffer significant harm for a language, it's quite another thing for it to be irreversible.

"My call is [to] those parliamentarians who are sitting there and to ask them, do they want to go down in history as part of a Parliament which banned and suppressed te reo in its hours of need and likewise the treaty principles?"

In May, counsel for the Crown advised the Tribunal the Government was committed to upholding its legal obligations under the Māori Language Act and recognised te reo Māori as a "taonga of iwi and Māori".

According to crown counsel evidence submitted to the tribunal, the Minister of Public Services Nicola Willis had decided against issuing directives across the public sector regarding the use of te reo Māori.

The minister had instead left decisions with Individual ministers and agencies to respond to the coalition commitment on a case-by-case basis.

The evidence also said the minister had agreed public sector agencies should recognise staff for specific skills, including te reo Māori.

However, she had urged agencies to plan ahead and recognise those skills in base salaries as opposed to additional allowances where possible.

A contingent of iwi representatives travelled to Wellington on Sunday night to attend the hearing, where iwi- and Crown-nominated witnesses will give evidence over the course of the week.