Summer Newsroom

Māoridom through the eyes of Dame Sian Elias

The use of te reo Māori by broadcasters in the past year reignited intense debate about its place in New Zealand. Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias reflects on her own relationship with Māori, and their language over the years.

For some New Zealanders, waking up to Guyon Espiner’s morning use of te reo proved a bit much this past year. 

The Pākeha journalist’s choice to use Māori greetings and phrases attracted both fierce criticism and delightful praise across the nation. Importantly, it raised the discussion (once again) around what New Zealanders - Māori and non-Māori - believe the role of Te Reo Māori to be.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias addressed the issue in her own way – by returning to a court case she was involved in about 25 years ago.

“That actually was the saddest case I was every involved in – the case to try and get a tiny bit of Māori language in mainstream media in primetime,” Elias said in an address to Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa – the New Zealand Māori Lawyer’s Society – in November.

Elias – who worked on a number of Māori rights cases before being appointed to the bench – recounted the disappointments she had in the handling of the 1993 Broadcasting Assets case. The case, which went all the way to the Privy Council, was essentially over the Crown’s responsibility to preserve the Māori language under Te Tiriti.

At the time, Elias was among the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs, which included the New Zealand Māori Council. The plaintiffs believed the Crown should ensure te reo Māori be used on programmes run by state-owned broadcasters as part of its responsibility to preserve the language.

“I feel really sad about the language case, just because of the poverty of response – I thought – from the Government,” Elias said in reflection.

In particular, the negotiation set down to try and settle the case before it escalated to the Court of Appeal proved deeply disheartening.

“We were down to something like five minutes of the language in primetime on one of the channels because the advice we had had is that it was necessary to affirm the position,” she said.

“We were negotiating directly with the Minister, and the Minister just said no, just because, no we’re not doing it. [There was] no engagement.

“That seemed to me incredibly mean-spirited,” she said.

And while Elias and her team did not return successful from the Privy Council hearing in London, it was not a battle completely lost – with the Council making it clear that the case could be revisited should the Crown not take its responsibility seriously.

Since then, several developments regarding the use of te reo in broadcasting have advanced, including the formation of Māori Television. More recently, Radio New Zealand adopted a Māori strategy to improve how it incorporates and reflects Māori language and culture in its work.

For Elias, the Broadcasting Assets case – like much of her work with Māori – was about far more than earning her daily keep.

“I have learnt so many lessons from simply hanging about some truly great human beings and observing them – they didn’t tell me what to do, or correct my errors, they showed by example.”

Included in this group were Sir James Henare, Sir Henry Mata, Sir Hepi Te Heuheu, Sir Bob Mahuta, Dame Whina Cooper, Api Mahuika, and Huirangi Waikerepuru.

Elias also touched on the impact of those people on her understanding of how Māori think and analyse the world around them.

“In cases for Arawa, I listened in awe to the grasp of genealogy and the stories told by people like Hiko Hohepa and Joe Malcolm.

“My exposure to these people and these stories means that when I travel around New Zealand, I look past the roads and towns that used to limit my imagination in the past, and I see the landforms and I have some insight into the meaning.”

Even when in London for the Broadcasting Assets case, Elias said comments from Waikerepuru about the city unexpectedly shifted the way she thought about it.

“He told me that he had walked around London... and how beautiful he thought the buildings were.

"London in those days was very dirty, and I must say that I never really appreciated it. Whenever I have been in London since, however, I looked at the buildings and thought of Huirangi, and how right he was. He made me look at something that seemed to be familiar, with new eyes.”

For Elias, her work on the case and the people she met hold a special significance in both career and life.

“It was just before Easter, and I was driving my son afterwards to the beach – he had to hang around while all this was going on,” she said of one particularly gruelling and disappointing period of work during the case. 

“I couldn’t help it – I cried all the way. He was only 15, and I kept  saying ‘I’m terribly sorry about this'.

"He said eventually: 'Look don’t think about it, don’t worry – you’re right, and in 20 years time everyone will know you’re right.”

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