Te Reo Māori: Crown or Iwi control?

Prior to this week’s episode of Native Affairs, I had very little knowledge on the raruraru concerning the Māori Language (Te Reo Māori) Bill (‘the Bill’). Well, I knew there was some contention but was unsure of the specifics.

Native Affairs host Mihi Forbes interviewed Dr Pita Sharples and Maanu Paul regarding the  Bill. The argument boiled down to what Paul described as deficient consultation and the allegation that Sharples was intentionally denying the New Zealand Māori Council (NZMC) access to justice by rushing the Bill through Parliament thereby preventing the NZMC from bringing the Bill before the Waitangi Tribunal.

During the interview, Forbes asked Sharples if his actions in blocking the NZMC from going to the Waitangi Tribunal were equivalent to Labour’s blocking Māori from their right to be heard in court regarding the Foreshore and Seabed. It was a tough question, because in both instances, the right to be heard is prima facie infringed. However, in my view, confiscating land through the unilateral actions of the Crown against recommendations from the UN and with the intended purpose to override a court decision (see Ngati Apa), compared with putting a bill before the house following a 4 year consultation period are not, at least in my opinion, equivalent. I agree there needs to be clarification around what amounts to sufficient consultation, and the conflicting accounts of whether it was sufficient in this case make it difficult to assess from an external perspective.

What is on record, is that Sharples began the consultation in 2010 when he set up Te Paepae Motuhake to review the Māori language strategy. Since then he has met with reo stakeholders, iwi leaders, reo exponents and experts as well as the NZMC who also came to all these hui. In addition, the Bill will pass through the legislative process under which it will be subject to public scrutiny and further input through the select committee process.

During the airing of the Native Affairs interview, there was also an interesting exchange on twitter between Adrian Rurawhe (Labour Party) and Chris McKenzie (Māori Party) – both candidates for the Te Tai Hauāuru Māori electorate seat in the upcoming election, with Rurawhe in favour of the NZMC and McKenzie supporting Sharples.

Rurawhe argued that the NZMC were correct and that the bill should be put before the Waitangi Tribunal and criticised Sharples admission of wanting to implement the bill prior to his resignation. Rurawhe was not alone in criticising Sharples timeframe and I too think Sharples erred in his choice of words. But as we learnt with David Cunliffe’s apology the preceding week, context is important. I suppose we ought to ask whether wanting to complete work that has undergone a four-year consultation period before resigning so that work started is not left incomplete for incoming parliamentarians is equivalent to or carries the same intention as rushing through legislation? I guess people will make up their own minds depending on their levels of cynicism. It might be worthwhile remembering that rushing through legislation is what the Labour Party did when it passed the Foreshore & Seabed legislation that amounted to the largest confiscation of land since the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.  Or what National did when it rushed through the Mixed Ownership Model Bill despite strong public opposition.

McKenzie’s reply to Rurawhe was that the NZMC are an organisation that purport to represent all Māori yet there was no consultation when they [the NZMC] were appointed and that there are few representatives on the Council itself, suggesting there was a certain irony in the claim they sought to bring before the Waitangi Tribunal.

The Labour Party’s Māori Affairs spokesperson, Nanaia Mahuta has called on Sharples to immediately withdraw the bill. Mahuta claims:

“The proposed Te Matawai agency will effectively replace the Maori Language Commission for no good reason and without any evidence it will protect Te Reo Maori”

And the New Zealand Herald reports that the  NZMC want an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing to:

“stop proposed legislation that will see control of the agencies that safeguard Te Reo Māori given to iwi” (emphasis added)

McKenzie has also criticised that nobody had done anything about a reo strategy for years including during the years of plenty and that Te Mātāwai was in fact no different to Te Ohu Kaimoana or the NZMC.

Before proceeding, I must respectfully acknowledge that it was the NZMC that successfully brought the Te Reo Māori claim before the Waitangi Tribunal in 1985 and the following year Māori became an official language of NZ under the Māori Language Act 1987.  Noting,  it is this Act that is to be reformed to transfer control of te reo Māori from the Crown back to iwi.

What is clear here is that both the Labour Party and the NZMC are signalling a preference for Crown control of Te Reo Māori over Māori control but criticism is not limited to Labour and the NZMC.  Other commenter’s insisted that the reforms were a different kind of centralisation which still deprived whānau, hapu and the less dominant iwi groups control over te reo.  However, in other discussions,  another commenter put it a bit differently claiming:

“Isn’t it wonderful that question is not whether Māori should be running te reo, but who in Māoridom should be running it?”  [emphasis added]

It seems that many of those opposing the Māori Language Bill are content to see te reo controlled by the Crown and are resigned to the framing of the issue in terms of ‘whether or not Māori should be running te reo’. But isn’t preferencing the Crown over iwi something Māori have been fighting against since the inception of Te Tiriti o Waitangi?

I do share the concern with those who think that some iwi are privileged over others under the Bill. But I also hold out hope that the reforms put the centre of any power over te reo closer to the community meaning there is more opportunity to participate and for further decentralisation over time.

What must be remembered is that it is currently the Crown that runs the Māori language strategy. We can either maintain the status quo or start taking steps toward decentralising control to put our taonga back in the hands of our people.



  1. Tena koe. Ka pai enei korero. I must point out that the claimants in the Te Reo Maori claim, WAI 11, were Huirangi Waikerepuru and Nga Kaiwhakapumau i te Reo, not the NZ Maori Council. Those claimants were later joined by Sir Graham Latimer and the NZ Maori Council in a series of cases relating to Maori Language and broadcasting, including spectrum, that went to the Privy Council in London, and are still going after nearly thirty years. Kia ora.


  2. Haapu control of their own dialect sound; traditional Iwi not IWI Incorporations entrusted to defined dialects of region or nationally; Crown to fund such development.


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