National has backed down on its opposition to bilingual road signs, with senior MP Chris Bishop now stating the party supports them “in principle”.
It came after transport spokesman Simeon Brown this month told a Bay of Plenty meeting about transport infrastructure that “we all speak English, they should all be English” when asked was asked his opinion on Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency’s proposal to introduce signs in English and te reo Māori.
“My view is it will make signs more confusing,” Brown said, telling the transport agency to just “do your job”.
The transport agency is consulting on its Tohu Huarahi Māori Bilingual Traffic Signs programme that would replace old destination signs, public and active transport signs, walking and cycling signs, general advisory and warning signs, plus motorway and expressway signs, with bilingual versions.
Existing signs would only be replaced with bilingual signs when they needed to be replaced due to damage or wear and tear. Many had also been replaced recently due to damage from the cyclones.
Bishop today clarified that National did actually support bilingual signs but wanted more focus from Waka Kotahi on “fixing potholes and upgrading our roads”.
“If they want to have bilingual road signs with te reo and English on them, that’s fine. But we just don’t think it’s a particularly good use of resources right now.”
He said, however, it was “very important” that English was “extremely prominent”.
“Because that’s what the vast bulk of New Zealanders understand. So we’ve got no issue with bilingualism, but we just don’t think it should be the priority for the Transport Agency right now.”
His comments came after Prime Minister Chris Hipkins took a swing at National during his weekly post-Cabinet press conference, referencing how Air New Zealand had tried to trademark “kia ora” while leader Christopher Luxon was CEO.
“Well, the current leader of the National Party tried to trademark ‘kia ora’, so I’m not entirely sure where they’re going with that unless it’s just an outright dog whistle.”
Bishop said Hipkins’ comments were “ridiculous”.
“Apparently, you’re not allowed to have a genuine conversation about how we can take this country forward and talk about Māori from the National Party without literally being accused of dog-whistling.”
Brown’s comments sparked debate, with some pointing out many other countries include bilingual road signs - particularly those attempting to revive indigenous languages, such as New Zealand.
Te reo Māori is an official language in New Zealand, alongside sign language. Curiously, English is only a de facto official language.
As an indigenous language, its use was actively discouraged by successive governments following colonisation by the British for generations in favour of English, but in recent decades this position has reversed off the back of political activism from Māori, and led to a renaissance.
According to Statistics NZ, in 2021 just under 8 per cent of New Zealanders were able to speak te reo Māori at least fairly well - up from 6 per cent in 2018.
Since 2018, the proportion of people able to speak more than a few words or phrases of te reo Māori also rose - from 24 per cent to 30 per cent. This followed a previous, smaller, rise between 2016 and 2018.
Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said having the language included on road signs would help those learning te reo.
“This is an environment where there’s more non-Māori learning reo than we ever had in the history of Aotearoa. It’s important that we embrace our nationhood, including our indigenous people and our language,” Ngarewa-Packer said.
National’s clarification on the issue comes a day after it was accused of flip-flopping on a rare bipartisan housing accord with Labour.
On Sunday, Bishop announced National was withdrawing its support for a medium-density framework that allowed three-storey dwellings to be built on all residential land in the main cities.
Bishop also unveiled National’s own new housing framework which he said would address the housing crisis.
Housing Minister Megan Woods said National, which had been a proponent of the original framework, had “flip-flopped” on the issue.
She said it was important to have bipartisan support for such legislation to give certainty to developers and regulators, and so would still look to work through the issues with National.