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Bilingualism enters the culture wars this election year

In brief
  • Luxon says the government’s use of te reo, without translation, is a problem because many don’t understand. 
  • Stuff’s partisan opinion is that this is racist and suggests Luxon lives in a bubble. 
  • Stuff has received lots of government money to promote te reo.  
  • National isn’t against bilingual road signs, but says it’s not a priority. 
  • Hipkins, on cue, says National was dog whistling to racists. 

Luxon states his concerns with te reo Māori’s use by Government 

As election fervour ramps up, party leader Chris Luxon kicked off National’s “Get NZ Back on Track” campaign at the Birkenhead Bowling Club in Auckland on 23 May 2023.

Luxon was asked about the extensive use of te reo Māori by government and business. The party leader said he thought it was a problem because many people simply don’t understand what they’re reading and hearing. 

Stuff political reporter Glenn McConnell immediately labelled such concerns as racist. McConnell condescendingly refers to the crowd of mostly Pākehā pensioners as the Bowls Bubble; suggesting they (and Luxon) are out of touch with everyday Kiwis – hardly any of whom speak te reo. One wonders if McConnell would be so glib when describing a meeting of elderly Māori on a marae? 

Notably, Stuff has received large amounts of money from the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF), with significant portions going to promoting te reo Māori

The PIJF supports the normalisation of te reo Māori as part of a broader effort to achieve Vision 2040 – Māori self determination by the 200th anniversary of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. 

While there’s nothing wrong with te reo Māori, and possibly public support for its promotion, some may be concerned it’s being pushed on them and this doesn’t make them racist. 

Bilingualism enters the culture wars this election year - Centrist
Does having any criticism of bilingual road signs mean you’re a racist? Image by Waka Kotahi

Brown raises concerns over te reo Māori on road signs

Waka Kotahi (NZ Transport Authority) released for public consultation its He Tohu Huarahi Māori Bilingual Traffic Signs programme. The signs all feature te reo Māori first and then the English counterpart beneath. At a Tauranga public meeting National’s Simeon Brown raised concerns that two languages on signage may be confusing. 

Brown argued that bilingual signage is not a priority and the agency should focus on fixing roads rather than promoting te reo Māori.

The comments caused a minor furore. Several National MPs said they had no problem with the use of te reo on the signage. 

Luxon clarified later that the party had no issue with the use of te reo Māori, but the bilingual sign programme was a “nice-to-have” and not a “need-to-have”.

At least with signs, which have each language, it can help people learn.

Hipkins throws gasoline

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins attacked National’s stance on bilingual signage by saying the party was dog whistling to racists. 

Hipkins justified his attack on Luxon because of Luxon’s past efforts as CEO of Air New Zealand to trademark “Kia Ora” for the airline’s use. 

National’s Chris Bishop says the claims were ridiculous. He lamented that anytime anyone says anything about te reo Māori, which doesn’t align with what the Prime Minister thinks, the Prime Minister considers it dog-whistling to racists. 

Nothing new

NZ First leader Winston Peters says NZ First will remove Māori names from all government departments. He decries the use of te reo Māori by the Government as “woke” virtue signalling. 

“Why are we putting up with this bull dust?” asks Peters. 

The debate over bilingualism is not new but is perhaps heating up.

Feature image by Waka Kotahi

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