Laws: Wanganui upset over 'h' decision

07:11, Sep 17 2009

The people of Wanganui are "angry, upset and disappointed” by a New Zealand Geographic Board ruling that the city's spelling must include an "h", Mayor Michael Laws says.

"This council will fight for the democratic rights of its constituents," Mr Laws said at a packed press conference this afternoon.

He said Wanganui was not a Maori word, but had a culture, heritage and mana all of its own.

The Geographic Board's decision was "racist", biased and failed to take referendum results into account, he said.

But he had always been confident in democracy and he would be petitioning Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson to uphold the wishes of the Wanganui community.

The board met yesterday to debate the request from local iwi Tupoho, before issuing its decision this morning.


The issue will now go before Mr Williamson, who will consider whether to formalise the change to Whanganui.

"I will be carefully considering the board's report and the submissions, after which I will make a decision. Until then I will not be making any further comment," Mr Williamson said.


Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia wept when she heard the news.

"I know that they were many of our old people who wept this morning at this result.

"It's quite emotional I have to say... because our people have been hoping for it a long time."

The spelling change was "the right thing to do", and she did not agree with Mr Laws that it was a racist decision.

"I hope that Michael will take a stance which is more unifying than he has."

"I think that those who value doing what is right will see that this is a very important step in going forward.

"It's about who we are, it's about our genealogy."


Almost 900 public submissions were received on the issue, which has raised debate across the country.

Mr Laws has fought the name change, and earlier this month made headlines after angrily responding to Otaki schoolchildren who wrote to him asking him to reconsider.

A Wanganui District Council referendum held in May found 77 per cent of respondents wanted the spelling of their city's name to remain unchanged.

However, the board had already concluded Wanganui - without the 'h' - was not an official place name as it had never been formally gazetted.

Board chairman Don Grant said the board was referring the final determination to the minister because objections were received on the proposal, and they were not upheld.

"If the minister confirms Whanganui as official, Government departments and local authorities that publish new/revised documents ... will be expected to use the official name.

"However, for private businesses and organisations, it would only apply to publications they produce that are intended for travellers or tourists, and for geographic and scientific publications."

Dr Grant said businesses could choose whether to adopt the official name in names and publications, or whether to retain the current spelling Wanganui. Even within the tourist industry, there would be no requirement to change the names of any business or company.

"The board wants to minimise the costs involved in a decision such as this, and believes the 12-month minimum transition period will ensure costs are kept down for those affected," Dr Grant said.

Public submissions on the proposal were fairly evenly split, with 444 opposed, and 436 in support. Nine were neutral. Views expressed directly to the Land Information Minister included 22 opposed and one in support.

"We took careful note of the Wanganui District Council submission, the referendum conducted by the council in 2009, and the research of Dr Diana Beaglehole commissioned by the council," Dr Grant said.

Other information the board considered included evidence of the use of the 'h' in early historical records, and the fact that the issue of spelling was one that began from the 1840s. Views of the Human Rights Commission and the Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (Maori Language Commission) were also noted.

"In the end we could not overlook the fact that Wanganui is not correctly spelt and it is a Maori name that is of significant cultural importance," Dr Grant said.

"Historical evidence has shown 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, not Wanganui."

Te Runanga o Tupoho and the Wanganui District Council were advised of the board's decision this morning.

- with

The Dominion Post