Fear of lost votes is te reo's worst enemy

01:47, Aug 25 2014

Kia ora tatou. Luckily my employer doesn't reprimand me for greeting you in Maori, unlike the boss of Monet-Mei Clarke, a young woman in Whangarei, a town with a large Maori population.

The KiwiYo frozen yoghurt chain have a scripted "Hello, Welcome to KiwiYo" McGreeting from which staff are apparently forbidden to deviate. Even though the word "Kiwi" is a Maori one, Monet-Mei says she was reprimanded for saying "kia ora" to customers, so quit.

The owner of KiwiYo reckons he has no problem with kia ora as long as it is followed by the McGreeting laid out in company policy. Surely if you want your staff to closely follow a scripted greeting, you should hire an actor.

It's bad enough with fast-food workers, TV presenters and even our prime minister repeating scripted lines all the time, such as "at the end of the day", "screaming Left-wing conspiracy", and "it's like a rugby game". But let's not cry over spilt yoghurt. KiwiYo is a private company and the owner is entitled to do what he likes. But the incident did cause me to wonder if Maori, an official language, is being suitably supported by our government.

Recently, I was lucky enough to chair a meeting of party education spokespersons. No, really, I enjoyed it. All candidates, including Education Minister Hekia Parata, spoke well and the audience was largely well behaved. It was only the next day when I read the newspapers that I discovered that the meeting was "fiery" and "unsettled".

One of the most interesting questions asked at the meeting concerned making te reo compulsory in primary schools. According to the Maori questioner, making indigenous languages compulsory in other countries has helped the language thrive, so why not here?


The only politicians who favoured compulsion were the Internet Mana Party candidate, whose party had not yet released their education policy, and the Maori Party candidate. Labour and National certainly want te reo promoted, but don't favour compulsion. The Greens talk of making Maori available in every primary school. Many parties point out that recruiting enough te reo teachers would be a challenge.

Parata, herself a beautifully eloquent Maori speaker, does not favour compulsion. She believes that forcing people to take a subject can turn them against it. As a failed maths teacher, I can see her point, but can you imagine what would happen if we didn't make maths, English and science compulsory because we were worried it might turn students off?

I suspect there is a far more insidious reason that most political parties will not make te reo compulsory. It would lose them votes. Though many Pakeha love the haka and sing the national anthem in Maori, there is a sizeable minority who loathe the Maori language and its speakers.

They will loudly deride "primitive" Maori culture, conveniently forgetting that Maori were traversing the Pacific when European navigators were worried they'd fall off the Earth.

These people will happily drive their kids around town to learn "useful" languages like Mandarin or Spanish from private tutors, but the last thing they want is their darlings learning "bloody Maori". If that happened, their kids would be in grave danger of making Maori friends, understanding tikanga, and not believing the fearful things that their parents tell them. Though these children would find it much easier to learn "'business" languages like Korean if they had exposure to Maori, their parents rarely consider that.

This sentiment of this small but vocal Pakeha minority is summed up best by Louis Crimp, one of the biggest donors to the ACT party last election. "All the white New Zealanders I've spoken to don't like the Maoris," said Crimp from Invercargill. He has described the Maori language as "the biggest waste of money that New Zealand has ever spent on anything". He's obviously never heard of Novopay.

Though compulsory Maori in primary schools might provide a shot in the arm for our indigenous language, don't expect it to happen soon. That will put a big smile on the face of the Louis Crimps of the world, as they happily look forward to the language being marginalised, if not made extinct.

Haere ra e te reo Maori?

The Dominion Post