What’s in a name? Plenty if you are a politician pushing an agenda, or if you’re someone who doesn’t engage or even understand the name.
Take Waka Kotahi or Oranga Tamariki. Or Kāinga Ora. Most of us now recognise these names. Nearly every government department has an English name and what that name translates to in te reo Māori. Why is it such a drama that Waka Kotahi, also known as the New Zealand Transport Agency, has a Māori name? Or that Housing New Zealand is also now Kāinga Ora and the Children’s Ministry is Oranga Tamariki?
The opposition is more understandable when it comes to less recognisable names. As Simon Wilson pointed out in the Herald last week, not many of us recognise Te Toka Tumai: “Many of the people who get a letter from this organisation are vulnerable and frightened about what life is about to throw at them, and they need clear, simple information. Te Toka Tumai is Auckland City Hospital.” And there is a fair argument that there were too many changes, too fast.
So it’s no bad thing that government departments and public agencies will now have to also use their English-language names. The agreement struck between New Zealand First and National included requiring that public service departments “have their primary name in English, except for those specifically related to Māori”.
It also included a requirement that “public service departments and Crown Entities ... communicate primarily in English”.
But the upset should give us pause to reflect. Is it because it is a Māori name where the disquiet is felt by a large section of New Zealanders? Do we still have New Zealanders who won’t sing the Māori version of the national anthem, but will give a rousing rendition of the English words to God Defend New Zealand? Are they the same New Zealanders who insist on watching the haka before the All Blacks or other sporting teams play?
In South Africa, prior to winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup, they had Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (Lord, Bless Africa) as the official anthem of the African National Congress, while Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa) was the country’s national anthem. The songs were played and heard alongside each other. Two years later, they merged the two into one song.
Every child in New Zealand knows our national anthem, both versions. Our ability to sing that song, perform a haka and sing along to Tūtira mai nga iwi, is what makes us unique from every other nation on the planet.
When young people travel overseas, often it’s the haka which brings them together as a group - it binds us as a people and as a nation.
That is why there are a lot of more important issues we should be concerned about than the Māori name of a government department.
When politicians put their own spin on a name - as Winston Peters has with Waka Kotahi: ”How can you have a waka on the road?” he belittles a bunch of people who are directed by their political masters on the work streams they want accomplished.
Child poverty, the cost of living and social housing are issues we should be focused on - not whether waka means vessel and kotahi means “one”. Waka Kotahi is the concept of “travelling together as one” but that’s not what’s happening here.
Māori is an official language of New Zealand, as is sign language. Will Peters and David Seymour drop sign language people from press conferences? The majority of New Zealanders don’t speak te reo and some ask why it is rammed down their throats. News channels cross to reporters in te reo and guests often start with “kia ora”. Why are some people so offended?
Strange, but almost 40 years ago in 1984, Māori Post Office worker Naida Glavish felt her bosses’ ire when she kept answering the switch board phone “kia ora”. How far have we really come?
Does it make a difference if Inland Revenue - Te Tari Taake - also has a Māori name on its letterhead, when they demand you pay taxes owed?
It’s not that English names shouldn’t be used. But it’s good for us that Māori names are used too.