Wai 262: Te Reo Māori chapter

Last week the Waitangi Tribunal released a pre-publication chapter that will form a part of the much anticipated Wai 262 report.  Wai 262 (so called because it was the two hundred and sixty second claim to be registered with the Waitangi Tribunal) is sometimes referred to as the Indigenous Flora and Fauna claim, but may be better described as the ‘Traditional Knowledge’ claim as the inquiry encompasses issues around cultural intellectual property that run much wider than flora and fauna.  The Waitangi Tribunal produced a Statement of Issues for the final stages of the inquiry, which gives some indication of the breadth of the issues to be addressed.  The chapter that was released last week covers matters relating to te reo Māori, the Māori language.  The Tribunal had not intended to release pre-publication chapters for this report in the way that some of the recent historical inquiries have done.  However, the decision was taken to release this chapter in order to be able to feed into the review of the Māori language strategy and sector that was announced in July of this year.

There has been reasonably wide media coverage of aspects of the released chapter, particularly around the Tribunal’s findings about the precarious state of te reo.  The Tribunal identifies a number of indicators that suggest a recent decline in the health of te reo, which is certainly alarming and may come as a surprise to many.  The Tribunal recommends a number of measures be taken to halt and reverse this decline, including revitalizing Te Taura Whiri I te Reo Māori by providing it with the powers and resources necessary to lead the recovery of te reo.

Perhaps not so widely-reported is the Tribunal’s analysis of Treaty principles that underpins its findings and recommendations.  The Tribunal sets out the now undisputed status of te reo Māori as a taonga that attracts the protections guaranteed in Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi.  In doing so, the Tribunal draws support from its 1986 Te Reo Māori Report, the 1993 decision of the Privy Council in the Broadcasting Assets case, and more recently, the recognition of language rights in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Furthermore, because of its central role in the maintenance and development of Māori culture as a whole, the Tribunal found that “[t]he language is clearly a taonga of quite transcendent importance to Māori…”.  Distinctive tribal dialects also ought to be protected and nurtured as integral to the health of a diverse and dynamic Māori language.  The Crown will, therefore, need to adopt a variety of approaches in order to satisfy the particular preferences of different iwi. 

So the Crown has clear duties arising from the Treaty in relation to te reo, and what is more, the Tribunal notes, there are no real countervailing interests that impact on the Crown’s duty, except perhaps the limitations of financial cost.  In fact, interestingly, the Tribunal points out that it may be argued that all New Zealanders have a vested interest in ensuring the survival and growth of te reo because “te reo helps shape our collective identity”.  The Tribunal is, however, careful to point out that both Māori and the Crown have obligations to foster the growth of te reo.  Noting that the most successful language revitalization strategies in regards to te reo have been the initiatives of Māori communities themselves, the Tribunal’s recommendations aim to empower Māori to take a lead in the development of te reo strategy.  As part of the Treaty principle of partnership, Māori communities must have ownership of the issues surrounding the health of te reo and contribute the initiative, the ideas, and energetic leadership.  Māori must also take the primary responsibility for speaking Māori in the home, where it is neither possible nor appropriate for the government to give direction in these matters.  The Crown for its part must provide expertise and resources in support and ensure that arrangements for decision-making authority encourage and reflect Māori ownership of the issues.  The Crown also has obligations to provide “a Māori-speaking government”.  The Tribunal notes that not only would widespread use of te reo throughout the public sector send a strong message about the importance of te reo through leading by example, but also it would enable and encourage Māori speakers to engage with the state in te reo Māori for all official purposes.  Te reo Māori is, after all, one of our official languages.

The Tribunal notes, in its letter of transmittal to the Minister of Māori Affairs, that although the te reo chapter is being released ahead of the other parts of the Wai 262 report, the Tribunal is still of the view that the real value of the Wai 262 report will come when it can be considered as a whole.  The Tribunal itself has indicated that it is nearing completion of the entire report.  Many people, not least of all the parties involved, will be looking forward to the release of this major report.  If the chapter on te reo Māori is any indication, we can expect a number of significant and wide-ranging recommendations from the complete report.

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