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Māori Language Sector Reforms

What is policy issue arising?

On 14 April Te Pire mō Te Reo Māori (Māori Language) Bill was read in Parliament for a third time, and then passed into law (after receiving Royal Assent from the Governor-General).

This Act replaced the Māori Language Act (1987), and brought about significant change proposals in relation to the functions of Māori language entities, including the establishment of a new statutory entity, Te Mātāwai, which will be tasked with developing a Māori led, Māori Language Strategy (separate from the Crown’s Māori Language Strategy, which is also provided for within the bill). Concerns remain, however, as to whether these changes will be effective in revitalising Te Reo Māori.


What is background context?

By way of succinct background the new bill was first read in Parliament in July 2014,1 but after the September 2014 election the new Minister for Māori Development, Te Ururoa Flavell, established a Ministerial Advisory Group to review the bill, who in turn proposed significant changes. The Minister then took the proposed changes to Cabinet for agreement; and these changes were largely accepted in October 2015. Pānui edition 38/2015 outlines the policy changes occurring in October 2015, and our initial assessment at that time.2

In October 2015 our interim assessment was that a number of macro and operational policy issues were presenting within this proposed legislation; but that overall changes were generally positive, and if enacted, will better support Māori language revitalisation. However when the final Bill was publicly released from the Māori Affairs Select Committee in March 2016 we were able to reassessed the policy proposal in full, and consider that these changes are suboptimal, with unmitigated risks.


Our Summary Policy Assessment

Language Status: within this legislation the Crown acknowledges the taonga status of Te Reo Māori and the importance of the language to New Zealand (refer clause 2), and finally acknowledges the harm of past Crown actions caused the langauge. (For example, state sector employees (teachers) physically harming children who spoke Māori in state schools.) But an acknowledgement is not an apology – and this lack of a full apology for past wrongs is, in our view, an untenable policy position that undermines the positive aspirations of the new Act.3 In­ short historic state sanctioned actions are an important contributing factor as to why most Māori cannot speak Māori, and because of this meaningful financial redress for iwi to develop language revitalisation strategies should be on the agenda as a matter of recourse. (Rather than iwi having to bid against each other for one-off low-level funds, as is both the present and the foreseeable policy situation).

Language Funding: despite creating a new entity the legislation has not yet been matched with new financial support. The current plan is that the Government will simply siphon off funding from Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori (Te Taura Whiri) to provide operational and service funding for Te Mātāwai. This is not a winning recipe, particularly because the two entities could end up competing somewhat in the area of community language services and grants, due to their respective mandates. Overall the main issue here is that Government funding is based on what it considers appropriate, not cost factors. The actual cost of Māori language revitalisation – i.e. ensuring most Māori are able to speak Māori – has yet to be priced by the Government.

Language Services: the new legislation contains new guidance for Government agencies and departments that, as far as is reasonably practical, they should consult with iwi and Māori on Māori language use, and promote services to iwi and Māori, including within the Māori language (clause 7 refers). This is positive and, overall, is perhaps the most practical change arising from these reforms. However we advise that requiring public services to consider using official languages where appropriate is not a new idea, and parallel text has actually existed within the New Zealand Sign Language Act for ten years.  There is also a clause that limits the legal effect of this.  We consider that this clause actually risks reducing present Māori language protections that may indirectly exist within other legislative and regulatory settings.

Autonomy / Rangatiratanga: within his media statements on this topic Minister Flavell has noted that the new model retains “Sir Pita’s intent of giving iwi and Māori a stronger leadership role in the goal to revive te reo Māori”. Our view on this is mixed. Positively, there is clearly a greater role for iwi and Māori language entities within legislative arrangements relating to the Māori language (as governors of Te Mātāwai). But Dr Sir Pita Sharples had actually introduced a bill which would have transferred two Crown entities to be outside of the Crown’s direct purview, to be overseen directly by Te Mātāwai on behalf of iwi and Māori.4 Not only has this concept been retracted, but Te Mātāwai will clearly have the full range of Government control levellers which are applied to Crown entities. That is, the so-called independent Te Mātāwai will have to prepare a Statement of Intent (approved plan), will have a service purchasing agreement with the Minister that is monitored (i.e. the Minister determines exactly what will be funded), and will be required to provide an annual report to the Minister, which in turn will be tabled in Parliament (i.e. standard Parliamentary scrutiny). The Minister will also appoint two board members on Te Mātāwai, and will make other appointments to fill any vacancies that iwi and Māori cannot agree on. In this context Te Mātāwai presents clearly as a child of the state – albeit as an illegitimate child, with all the physical features, but just not the surname name.

In addition we also note a new, just-in-case, clause for Te Mātāwai has been inserted into the legislation, as determined by the Cabinet last October. Namely that the Minister will be able to review the entity at any time. In our assessment this does not present as balanced partnership, reflectively of Māori exercising rangatiratanga in this domain.

35 (1) The Minister may review the operations and performance of Te Mātāwai at any time.”

Maihi Māori: as noted above, the proposed legislation determines that there will be a ‘Maihi Māori’ (that is a Māori-led Māori language strategy) developed by Te Mātāwai, and focusing on language planning at the iwi and community level. In our view clarifying that the Government’s Māori language strategy is not the same as a Māori-led Māori language strategy is useful because ultimately it is up to Māori whānau to speak and use the Māori language. Accordingly the idea of complementary strategies with different foci makes sense in terms of the distinct roles and responsibilities that exist.

Aspects of this arrangement, however, do not present as well considered. First, there is an inherent oxymoron in the Government dictating that Māori will have a Māori-led Māori language strategy, and that it will focus on some particular issues, and be organised by a set group of people.5 Surely it is for Māori to determine to do this, and how? I.e. maybe the legislation should just have invited Māori to present a strategy/strategies, as opposed to authorising one.

Second, related to this is consideration as to how Māori communities are organised, i.e. tribally. In our view nearly all large iwi already have their own iwi language strategy; so perhaps the Crown needs to shift and align its strategy to these, as opposed to dictating terms for a single Māori-led strategy, which can be directly and indirectly controlled through the institutional and funding arrangements for Te Mātāwai. Surely as an alternate policy model it would be possible for Te Mātāwai to focus on investing in individual iwi and sector Māori language strategies? In this regard the proposed legislative model is deficient, and would seem to be out-of-date even before implementation. In our view this ties back to points one and two above – that without an apology and a redress mechanism, including significant financial input into iwi language planning, all of this work might simply be inviting more chiefs to sit at a table, but without anything much to feast on.

[Or put another way, Te Taura Whiri has five governors and circa twenty staff, Te Māngai Pāho has seven governors and circa ten staff; hence adding thirteen more Te Mātāwai governors to the mix does not in itself do a lot to improve the health of the Māori language. Add to this some entity role confusion, and complex / contestable election processes to appoint Te Mātāwai members, we consider there is potential for large energy losses in this policy area – and hence the operational efficiency of this legislative proposal without a clearer focus on supporting iwi / sector Māori language activities is questionable.]


1 By the former Minister of Māori Affairs, Dr Pita Sharples.

2 Panui editions 23/2014, 25/2014, 39/2014 and 20/2015 also provided other updates as this policy has evolved.

3 For example in 2015 at the Waitangi Tribunal Te Papa rahi o Te Raki (Northland) inquiry, Dover Samuels gave evidence relating to receiving physical punishment (canings) at school for speaking Te Reo Māori, when he was a young child. Mr Samuels is a former Member of Parliament (and Minister of Māori Affairs) for the Labour Party. He proposed that the Crown apologise to his generation of Māori for this type of action that occurred across the country, and establish a scholarship fund as a means of redress. The current Minister for Māori Development, Te Ururoa Flavell, responded at the time indicating he supported a Crown apology of this nature – yet there is nothing within the proposed policy changes.

4When he was the Minister of Māori Affairs.

5 This philosophical issue has practical implications too. While Te Mātāwai will develop a Māori-led Māori Language Strategy, this work and related implementation activities will require approval from the Minister for Māori Development as part of the institutional arrangements described above.