The Waitangi Tribunal has released a scathing assessment of the Crown's performance on te reo Maori in the last 25 years, recommending urgent action to halt the decline of the language.

Led by presiding officer Justice Joe Williams, the tribunal has taken the unusual step of releasing a single chapter of an upcoming inquiry report.

Click here to read the chapter.

In the report, the tribunal says the Government has underperformed in its duty to protect te reo Maori and the language is now approaching crisis point.

"We make no apology for the fact that our proposals are far-reaching. Simply the gravity of the situation calls for appropriate action," the report says.

The tribunal says diminishing numbers of younger speakers of te reo Maori mean older speakers passing away are not being replaced.

It describes initiatives such as Te Puni Kokiri's 2003 Maori Language Strategy as a policy failure "constructed within the parameters of a bureaucratic comfort zone."

It says not enough has been done to implement a 1986 tribunal recommendation that speakers be enabled to use te reo in any dealings with public bodies.

The tribunal also says the Crown has failed to train enough teachers to meet what is says are predictable demands for Maori medium education.

The decline

The tribunal found:

* Since 1993 the proportion of Maori children in kohanga had fallen from a-half to a-quarter

* In 2009 15.2 per cent of Maori children participated in Maori medium education. A decade earlier it was 18.6 per cent

* If peak proportions of the 1990s had been maintained there would be 9,600 more Maori children attending kohanga reo and an extra 5,700 children learning via the medium of te reo

* At the 2006 census there were 8,000 fewer Maori conversational speakers than there would have been had the 2001 proportion been maintained


To arrest the decline the tribunal wants Te Taura Whiri, The Maori Language Commission, to have more powers to compel public bodies to contribute to te reo's revival.

It says targets for training te reo teachers must be met and language plans for public bodies and schools approved, as well as education curricula.

Furthermore, the tribunal says Te Taura Whiri's board should become a Crown-Maori partnership. In practice that would mean having equal appointees from both sides to reflect shared responsibility in te reo survival.

Currently, Te Puni Kokiri has a major role in language survival but the tribunal also wants this to pass to the commission so that problems around "leadership" can be overcome.

WAI 262 inquiry

The findings have morphed out of the tribunal's WAI 262 inquiry, a wide-ranging case where six iwi are claiming ownership of all of the country's indigenous flora and fauna.

It covers the guardianship of all taonga where taonga can include anything from traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights over cultural ideas and designs, and the protection of language.

The te reo part of the inquiry was meant to focus on just two issues, the protection of the language from misuse and the well-being of tribal dialects.

However, in a letter to Maori Affairs minister Dr Pita Sharples, Justice Williams said as the inquiry hearings progressed it became obvious that any inquiry into the "narrow" issues meant both the Crown and claimants were providing evidence that looked at the state of the government's language policy.

That wider context became the point of that part of the inquiry, he said.

Government response

The chapter's early release, separate from the bulk of the report, was brought on by the Minister of Maori Affairs' ongoing government value for money review of the language sector.

Its recommendations are non-binding.

Today Dr Sharples said the report identified many concerns he shared.

"As Minister of Maori Affairs, I accept responsibility for the Crown's role in the survival and development of te reo Maori.

"I am sure the government can do more, and do it better, to support te reo Maori and the communities who are the kaitiaki of their reo," he said.

But Dr Sharples said the chapter of the report was provisional and called for responses.

"Because of that I will not be commenting in detail on the report's findings at this stage. I also do not want to pre-empt the findings of the independent review panel."

Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson said he appreciated the tribunal's intention in releasing the chapter today but said the government was "committed to considering the report in its entirety".