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Herald on Sunday editorial: Election reshuffle risks te reo

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Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples. Photo / Stephen Parker
Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples. Photo / Stephen Parker

When a worthy public project is not having its desired result, the first instinct of bureaucrats is to rearrange its deck chairs. Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission) is about to be moved to a lower deck.

The commission was set up 17 years ago to ensure New Zealand did not lose a distinctive language. Few tasks are harder than stopping the decline of a minority language as generations pass. The commission has done its best, promoting te reo, protecting its integrity and adapting it to modern needs.

Despite is best efforts, the number of Maori speakers is declining. Last year's Census found the proportion of the Maori population using their native language had dropped from 24 per cent in 2006 to 21 per cent now.

The decline was halted for a period after the launch of pre-school kohanga reo in 1982, te kura kaupapa Maori primary schools and iwi radio stations. But decline resumed around the millennium and has continued even after the establishment of a dedicated television channel in 2004.

The commission has made no secret of the problem, acknowledging it each annual Maori language week, and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples has been searching since at least 2010 for a way to revive the language in household conversation, where it matters most.

Now, for want of any other solution, he is proposing a complicated new administrative set-up. The commission, along with the broadcasting funding agency Te Mangai Paho, and the Maori Television Service, will be put under the control of a new national body of iwi representatives, to be called Te Matawai.

This looks like an empowering device for iwi but it is not. As the commission points out, Te Matawai will not make decisions about what can be done with the funds budgeted for Maori language programmes and services. That will be decided by the Crown on the advice of Te Puni Kokiri.

Te Matawai will act as "owner" of the language commission and Te Mangai Paho, appointing their boards, setting their overall direction, approving their activities and managing their assets. It will have a board of representatives of seven regional "clusters" of iwi, plus three appointees of language "stakeholders".

Like most bureaucratic restructuring, this one looks like it is being done because nobody can suggest anything more effective. It is also a half-measure. If the minister believes iwi representatives can do a better job than the commission, he ought to abolish the commission, not add one more statutory body to the apparatus. A hierarchy of so many boards, each with a set of goals and appointments to make, is a recipe for confusion, inaction and wasted public expense.

A language is priceless; a language unique to a country is a national treasure. Te reo has been given the status of an official language and the Crown accepts a duty under the Treaty to help Maori ensure it remains a living language.

As English speakers, we are lucky to share such a widely understood language and need no other for international use. But every language has words without precise equivalents in others.

Maori has many, like mana and tapu, that all New Zealander use. In fact it has many more expressions that would enrich the minds and speech of all of us. It deserves better than a bureaucratic reshuffle. It should be in the primary school curriculum, essential to being a New Zealander.

- Herald on Sunday

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