Emma Espiner: The threat of Te Reo

I checked Twitter first thing Sunday morning. It was about 6.30am. This is a terrible approach to a Sunday morning, in case you're wondering. A friend had sent me this Facebook post authored by Don Brash:

I've written here about how I was pleasantly surprised by Brash at a political debate on a marae. Specifically for his support for Te Reo lessons being funded by the State. Clearly this support doesn't extend to RNZ exercising its responsibilities under the RNZ Charter which states explicitly that “the public radio company must endeavour to provide services of the highest quality, which:” 

It's become a running joke among friends and family that my husband, vampire-like, feeds on and grows stronger with each criticism of his use of Te Reo in his role as co-presenter of RNZ's Morning Report. What's less of a joke is the sustained attempts by some, who agree with Brash, who are fighting against the use of Te Reo and against Guyon and RNZ in the form of BSA complaints and letters to RNZ's managers, CEO and Board.

I dislike the 'old white men' argument where one simply says those three words and the offending viewpoint is rejected because of its provenance without any further need for debate. So I've been trying to find a way to describe the demographic similarities of the people for whom Te Reo is so deeply offensive which doesn't use those adjectives in that order. Readers might be able to assist me with this, because I haven't yet found a way.

What's interesting to me as a Māori woman, is the way that my Pākēhā husband has been able to champion Te Reo into the mainstream in a way that it would be impossible for me to do, were I in his position. As a Pākēhā man with a powerful role in the New Zealand media he has a position of extraordinary privilege from which to challenge the status quo. He has strong support in this endeavour among the leadership of RNZ, most importantly from other noted Pākeha man, CEO Paul Thompson. Over at TVNZ Jack Tame is cutting a similarly admirable path on the flagship Breakfast show.

Perhaps this is why it's so threatening for the complainers. These are people who look like them, in spaces which they feel entitled to, doing something that they can't fathom.

None of this would even be an option for Guyon were it not for the work of the Māori language advocates without whom there would be no language to speak. Here and now, in 2017, Guyon has been the beneficiary of inexplicably generous support from Stacey and Scotty Morrison and colleagues at RNZ Mihingarangi Forbes and Shannon Haunui-Thompson. Our television is permanently set on Māori Television cycling through high quality programmes in Te Reo like Ōpaki, Kawekōrero, Ako and Pukuhohe. The person that's probably helped him the least (ironically because people assume the opposite) has been me! He’s wandering our house burbling away to himself and our daughter in Te Reo while I’ve been cramming medical textbooks into my head. It’s only now that our daughter is enrolled in a bilingual school (see a discussion of that decision here) that I’ve pulled finger and committed to 30 minutes a day courtesy of Scotty Morrison’s Māori Made Easy to boost my latent reo.

I don’t have room here to fully detail the systematic suppression of Te Reo Māori by early New Zealand governments, but the long road to 2017 and a literally infinitesimal (but wholly rage-inducing to some) amount of Te Reo used by the public broadcaster has been a long one. In the 1980s the Waitangi Tribunal heard from a generation of Māori who were punished for speaking Te Reo under the authority of the Native Schools Act. This led to the establishment of the Māori Language Act 1987 which conferred official language status to the indigenous language of our country almost 150 years after the treaty which was meant to secure equal partnership between Māori and the Crown was signed. Māori Television was established after the broadcasting assets case was taken to the courts which forced the Government to honour their obligations under Te Tiriti.  Almost every significant gain for Te Reo in the past has been fought and won in the courts. And every time, it has been fought against. Hard.

Up until the 2000s Act and the National Party were both saying that Māori Television was a waste of time. Brash and others, now, seem to be saying that this is the only place where Te Reo should be heard.

The complaints about Te Reo being used in mainstream media give me great heart looking to the future. This positive response might surprise some, but I believe we can view these people (and they're always the same people) as the rearguard of progress. As society shifts, they will continue to yap at our heels and protest, but the trend for Aotearoa is against bland mono-culturalism and fearful mono-lingualism.  A decade ago it was Māori Television. Today, it's using Te Reo on Morning Report and Breakfast TV and putting macrons in newspapers. In ten years time these things will be completely normal and there will be another battle, which the rearguard will again resist and lose.

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