Wanganui Council to appeal 'H' decision

File photo / Wanganui Chronicle
File photo / Wanganui Chronicle

The Wanganui District Council plans to appeal the New Zealand Geographic Boards' decision today to insert the letter H in Wanganui, Mayor Michael Laws says.

The board proposed the spelling be changed to Whanganui after local iwi committee Te Runanga O Tupoho petitioned for the change, a move vehemently opposed by Mr Laws, who today labelled the decision "racist".

Any name change has yet to be approved by Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson, who may confirm, modify or reject it.

Mr Laws said at a press conference today he thought the Government would finally make the right decision, having last week discussed the issue with Prime Minister John Key.

Mr Laws earlier labelled the geographic board's decision "racist".

He made the comment on his talkback show this morning after commenting that the board's decision followed the views of the local Maori trust, Tupoho Whanau Trust.

Te Runanga o Tupoho Trust spokesman Ken Mair said the issue wasn't over yet, as Mr Williamson still had the final say on the decision.

"We want to encourage the Government to do the right thing and that is to spell our name correctly and that's all we're asking for."

He said he was under no illusion that this wouldn't be a popular decision amongst all.

"There's no doubt in my mind there are people that are opposed to the change and that hasn't been helped by some of the information that's been given out by the council or the mayor," Mr Mair said.

But I think once people understand that really, it's the simple issue of a name that's been mis-spelt which needs to be corrected.

"It's not about numbers, it's not about majority it's not about a referendum. People should do the right thing and correct it. It's a simple spelling mistake."

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia hailed the decision as a "great day" for the city.

Mrs Turia welcomed the board's "historic" decision, which she believed righted a wrong which occurred many years ago.

She said she applauded the tangata whenua of Whanganui for their patience in "seeking justice".

"It is incredibly uplifting to look through the submissions and to see the strength of support from people right across New Zealand who sought to recognise the distinctive Maori heritage of Whanganui," Mrs Turia said.

"The challenge we will all face now, is the vital need to bring all the people of Whanganui together in understanding the significance of this decision."

Mr Laws said the council's referendum result clearly showed residents were against changing the name but the board seemed to have ignored the result.

He also said the majority of the public submissions were in favour of keeping the status-quo and the board had gone against that.

"Why have submissions at all?" Mr Laws asked.

However, Geographic Board of New Zealand chairman Don Grant said public submissions on the proposal were relatively evenly split, with 444 opposed, and 436 in support. Nine were neutral.

The Geographic Board's decision was unanimous and was released publicly this morning.

The Board will recommend to Mr Williamson that a minimum 12 month transition period be applied. Both names could be used during the transition period.

Dr Grant said the board weighed up the community's views and long-term usage of Wanganui when making its decision.

It also looked at evidence of the use of the 'h' in early historical records, and the fact that the issue of spelling was one that began in the 1840s.

"In the end we could not overlook the fact that Wanganui is not correctly spelt and it is a Maori name that is of significant cultural importance," Dr Grant said.

He said if the Minister adopts the spelling change then official documents will have to be changed within 12 months. Most businesses can chose to ignore the change but those in the tourist industry publishing material for overseas visitors would have to include the 'h'.

"The Board wants to minimise the costs involved in a decision such as this, and believes the 12 month minimum transition period will ensure costs are kept down for those affected," Dr Grant said.

"We took careful note of the Wanganui District Council submission, the referendum conducted by the council in 2009, and the research of Dr Diana Beaglehole commissioned by the council," he said.

"Historical evidence has shown that early settlers clearly intended the name of the city to be derived from the Maori name for the river, and consistent modern usage of the language showed the spelling should be Whanganui, not Wanganui," Dr Grant said.

Public consultation on the proposed name change opened in May after the board's decision in March that there was a valid case to change the name. Submissions closed last month.

Iwi group Te Runanga o Tupoho had applied to the board to change the name to Whanganui on the grounds that Wanganui was a meaningless word.

However, Mr Laws argued the move was a needlessly provocative gesture and contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of Wanganui's residents.

A referendum subsequently held by the district council in May found 77 per cent of voters wanted the spelling to remain Wanganui, while 23 per cent wanted it changed to Whanganui.

A 2006 referendum also found the majority of residents preferred the status quo.

In 1991 the Geographic Board changed the spelling of Wanganui River to Whanganui River, while the district health board also adopted Whanganui.


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