AT THE CONCLUSION of every Māori Language Week I’m always left pondering how little I know about Aotearoa-New Zealand. It is not simply a matter of being unable to speak more than a few words of te reo Māori. Not understanding, not speaking, a language makes it exceptionally difficult to grasp the cultural essence of the people who made/make it. To dramatically improve the relationship between Māori and Pakeha, it seems sensible (at least to me) for the teaching of Māori to be made mandatory in all New Zealand primary and secondary schools. Only when the whole nation has achieved a measure of fluency in Māori will the full potential of New Zealand’s bi-cultural heritage be realised.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard the Minister of Defence, and Whanau Ora, Peeni Henare, tell Newshub Nation (17/9/22) that he was strongly opposed to making the teaching of Māori mandatory in schools. Not because he feared a Pakeha backlash, but because he was convinced that if all New Zealanders became proficient in Māori, then the spiritual power of the language would be fatally diminished. He did not appear to oppose individual Pakeha learning te reo – presumably because the manner in which the knowledge was transferred would remain under Māori control.
That would certainly not be the case were the teaching of Māori to become compulsory. Not only would there need to be a huge expansion in the number of Māori language teachers, but there would, inevitably, be a standardisation of both the content and instructional methodologies of the learning process. Textbooks would have to be written and examinations set, the whole paraphernalia of pedagogy would descend upon the Māori language – just as it does upon the teaching of French, German and Mandarin. Most alarming of all, from the perspective of Māori traditionalists, more and more non-Māori would necessarily become involved in the teaching of te reo.
Unsurprisingly, Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission, takes a slightly different stance on te reo to Peeni Henare’s. Their aspiration is to, eventually, have all those living in Aotearoa-New Zealand proficient in the language – a million of them by 2040!
The Commission does not, however, advocate the mandatory teaching of the Māori language. Its stated goals vis-a-vis the Ministry of Education encompass only having more children and young people learning te reo Māori; more people progressing beyond basic knowledge of te reo Māori; and more people highly proficient in te reo Māori. Indeed, Commission CEO, Ngahiwi Apanui, cautions aspiring speakers that Māori is a challenging language to learn. Even the Commission’s goal of a million te reo speakers by 2040, encompasses only the projected Māori share of New Zealand’s population. So, yes, in practical terms, the differences between the Minister and the Commission are not very great at all.
Another idea in need of revision is the claim that learning to speak another language is the fastest and most effective way of grasping the essence of its native speakers’ culture. There are very few Māori living in New Zealand who are not fluent English speakers. Accordingly, my expectation has been that the core values of the English-speaking peoples would be well understood by Māori. Even more so, I assumed, in the case of Māori academics engaged in the fraught business of “constitutional transformation”. Disturbingly, this was not the case.
Matike Mai Aotearoa is the title of the investigative exercise, commissioned by the Iwi Leaders’ Group in 2010, to identify the challenges associated with transforming the constitutional framework of Aotearoa-New Zealand. Overseen and mostly written by Moana Jackson, Matike Mai represents the activist/scholar’s last great contribution to the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights that defined and absorbed most of his adult life. Read alongside the document it clearly inspired, the He Puapua report, Matike Mai reveals clearly the revolutionary direction in which the quest for tino rangatiratanga has now begun to travel.
It is a feature common to all documents calling for revolutionary change: to paint the motivations and practices of the ancien régime in the darkest possible hues. It is vital that the ideals and institutions of the new order offer the starkest and most favourable contrast possible with everything that came before. Even so, Jackson’s explanation of how the English-speaking peoples comprehend “sovereignty” was outrageous.
Reaching all the way back to the writings of the Sixteenth Century jurist, political philosopher, and enthusiastic witch-burner, Jean Bodin, Jackson argues that the European concept of sovereignty is one of “the most high and perpetual power over citizens”. Aware, perhaps, that citing a French demonologist might raise eyebrows when debating political ideas current at the time of the Treaty of Waitangi’s composition, Jackson modifies his absolutist definition by referencing the Westminster formulation of sovereign power as “the monarch in Parliament”.
Passed over entirely in Jackson’s discussion of sovereignty is what it took, in blood and suffering, to shift the Crown from its “most high and perpetual” throne, to the chamber in which the people’s elected representatives are “in Parliament assembled”. No mention, either, by Jackson, of the fundamental principle of our constitutional monarchy: that the monarch cannot act except upon the “advice and consent” of Parliament, and of the Cabinet appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister – who must, in turn, command a majority of Parliament’s members.
Jackson thus allows all the pomp and ceremony of the Westminster system to obscure the raw historical-political fact that, in the English-speaking Commonwealth, sovereignty resides not in the “most high and perpetual” but in living, breathing, human-beings.
Tellingly, Jackson also overlooks the fact that less than ten years prior to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Great Britain had teetered on the brink of revolution over precisely this question: Who are the people? The answer, according to the Great Reform Act of 1832, was – the better-off sections of the population. But, the answer kept changing – faster here in New Zealand that in the Motherland – right up until the full enfranchisement of adult British women in 1928.
Also missing from Jackson’s treatment of the concept of sovereignty, is the even more dramatic assertion of democratic ideals in North America and across Europe in the centuries since Jean Bodin was beseeching magistrates to show no mercy to witches. Indeed, the only serious reference to democracy in Matike Mai proves just how little Jackson regarded and/or understood the concept. In his brief discussion of Athenian Democracy, he wrongly asserts that the lower classes – “the mob” – were barred from participating in political life. Nope. What made Athens different was precisely the innovation that all free citizens (i.e. all unenslaved males born in Athens) had a role to play in the life of the state.
That democracy gets such a bad rap in Matike Mai is, however, understandable. While Māori remain a minority in their own land, majority rule will always look suspiciously like tyranny. (Should Māori ever overtake Pakeha demographically, it will be interesting to see whether democracy undergoes a swift rehabilitation!)
As things now stand, however, it is this refusal on the part of Māori to acknowledge the strength of Pakeha belief in parliamentary democracy, and in the absolute sovereignty of “The People’s House”, that will render all attempts at constitutional transformation moot – in te reo Māori – or English.
To paraphrase the anarchist Emma Goldman: “If you have the revolution, and there’s no voting, I’m not coming.”
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 19 September 2022.