The politicians who are promising a hard line on the three Rs are setting a bad example with H, says Brian Rudman.

Wat a great whimp-out the Government's decision on wether Whanganui should be spelt with an H has been. These are the politicians who promised to usher in a new Golden Age in which right would be upheld, and wrong stamped out. In which kids will be tested on their reading, writing and arithmetic skills from the moment they are potty trained.

But when it comes to this simple spelling test, it's back to the play-way system they so despise. Spell it with an H if you want, or leave it out, says Maurice Williamson, the minister responsible for spelling Maori placenames correctly. Just do what makes you feel good.

This is straight out of the Pakuranga School of New Age postmodernist mumbo-jumbo, where every belief, however wacky, is regarded as valid and equal. Global warming deniers, creationists and other flat-earthers welcome.

All Mr Williamson had to do, if he was worried about National Party grassroots backlash, was to declare his hands were tied. That Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission), and the New Zealand Geographic Board Nga Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa, had declared the correct spelling of the city's name to be Whanganui, and he had to accept the superior scholarship of statutory bodies specifically established to rule on such matters.

On September 17, Geographic Board chairman Dr Don Grant had put it bluntly. "We could not overlook the fact that Wanganui is not correctly spelt and it is a Maori name that is of significant cultural importance."

He said historical evidence showed "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."

End, you might have thought, of story. But given the choice of being lynched by either a bunch of National-voting rednecks or a tribe of angry Maori, Mr Williamson decided to toss a trinket to each side and flee the fray.

He travelled to the river town and told the warring parties to call it what they wanted.

"My intention to assign alternative names for the city allows people to choose the name they prefer."

For a Government about to enforce "national standards" on our primary kids, this was a D minus example to set.

Watching him on television as he announced his cop-out to the warring parties of Whanganui, Mr Williamson looked even more apprehensive than usual. There was a hilarious moment when Maori stirrer Ken Mair scurried across the stage behind the minister, who seemed to cringe slightly as though expecting a greenstone mere to mash his head.

All the hogwash about the cost of changing letterheads and signs is just a smokescreen by a majority unwilling to accept the hurt they're causing a minority of their fellow residents.

It's not as though they're being asked to drive on the other side of the road, a change which truly would be costly and disruptive. All they are being asked is to correct a historic spelling error. A change which would, says local dialect expert, Che Philip Wilson, bring meaning and 1000 years of history back to the town's name.

He says Whanganui means "the long wait"and refers to the time spent by the crew of the great navigator Kupe, waiting for Kupe to return from his explorations up the river.

As I've said before, most towns would be delighted to be able to link their town to an event 1000 years ago. But not, it seems these insular descendants of much more recent white settlers.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. The state-owned electronic media has matched the Government's craziness with a decision equally bizarre. In following the government ruling that state organisations have to adopt the correct (with an H) spelling, both state radio and television have decided to replace the spelling error with a pronunciation howler.

After years of public debate, there must be few New Zealanders who are unaware that local Maori pronounce Whanganui with a silent "H". Mayor Michael Laws, in his typically understated way, warned, after Mr Williamson statement, that "anyone that comes in and starts pronouncing Whanganui as 'Fanganui' is in a serious lot of bother and you will get hell raining on you from both houses".

Despite this apocalyptic curse, Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand reporters have been directed to say "Fanganui" as if it was just another place name beginning with WH such as Whangarei.

But state-funded Maori Television and TV3 will do the correct thing and follow local usage, leaving the H silent.

Chester Borrows, the local National MP, has appealed for local usage to be respected.

"To have national media presenters reading the news or weather and talking about 'Fanganui' will cause further friction. No one likes having their name mispronounced - whether it is done out of malice or ignorance."

Of course he's right. Just a shame he couldn't bring his Government to accept no one likes to have their name misspelt either.

* This is Brian Rudman's last column of the year. He returns on January 20.