Māori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell looks back on 29 years of the Māori Language Act 1987 and why a new act was needed.

In 1987, the then Minister of Māori Affairs Hon Koro Wetere introduced the Māori Language Bill with a mihi in te reo Māori.

While you might think that this would be the appropriate way to introduce the Bill that sought to make Māori an official language of this country, after just five sentences he was interrupted with a point of order.

“I wonder whether you, as distinct from the rest of us, know what he is saying,” one MP asked the acting speaker.  “Do you have the translation before you, so that you can rule on the content of his speech?”

After several points of order, and the Minister giving assurances to the House that a full translation would be available at the end of the “Māori part”, he was allowed to continue his mihi.

Fast forward a few decades, in Parliament last month (March) when I moved the second reading of the Māori Language (Te Reo Māori) Bill entirely in te reo Māori.  Across 13 speeches, more than half of the two-hour debate was in te reo Māori.  The Assistant Speaker himself attempted some te reo Māori.  There was respect for the language that was lacking 29 years ago.  Even the act itself is walking the talk.  It is the first act in te reo Māori and English, where the Māori version prevails in the case of any conflict of meaning. That is hugely historic.

Since 1987, there have been many great strides in Māori language revitalisation:

There are now about 460 kōhanga reo throughout Aotearoa and more than 70 kura kaupapa and wharekura.
Nearly 18,000 (2.3%) school students are enrolled in Māori-medium education.  A further 155,000 (20%) learn Māori at school.
Our presence in broadcasting has grown since the first Māori-owned Māori language radio station went to air in 1985.  Now there are 28 iwi radio stations, and two Māori Television Service channels - one bilingual and one in te reo Māori.
In 2008, Google, the world's largest online search engine launched the Māori-language interface.  In 2009, Māori language was added to the google translator toolkits. Māori words are increasingly being used as part of New Zealand English, with about 746 words in The Dictionary of New Zealand English.
But despite all this and more, including the tireless work in communities throughout Aotearoa, the number of Māori language speakers is slowly declining.

The last census in 2013 showed that just over one in five Māori people could hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo Māori - nearly 5% fewer than in the 2006 census.

The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) describes te reo Māori as vulnerable.  Sadly, we are not alone.  In its Atlas of World Languages, UNESCO estimates that 43% of the 6000 languages spoken around the world will be extinct by the end of the century.

Keeping te reo Māori off that extinct list is one of my greatest challenges as Minister for Māori Development, and the law as it stands, will not achieve the level of change needed to save it.

The new act outlines a better way for the Crown, iwi and Māori to work together providing a more appropriate balance of responsibility for language revitalisation.  A new entity Te Mātāwai will develop the Maihi Māori language strategy and will lead language revitalisation at the community level for Maori.  The Crown’s responsibility is at the national level, and both the Crown and Te Mātāwai will work together towards a shared vision for Māori language.

I know how hard it is to be a Māori speaking whānau today.  No matter how strong your commitment is at home and with the schools you choose, our wider society is still largely mono-lingual.  The places that our kids like to hang out - the sports arenas, the shopping malls, and social media platforms – these are all dominated by English.

My dream for Te Mātāwai is that by being closer to communities, it will have a greater influence in ensuring te reo Māori is normalised across all aspects of our society.  It will encourage intergenerational conversation in te reo Māori and will support whānau, hapū and iwi to drive local language initiatives so that te reo Māori extends beyond the marae and the classrooms. My dream is to be able to walk into a bank or a shop and be able to conduct my business in English or te reo Māori.

This article is being published in English and te reo Māori.   If you are reading it in English, then consider this.  At the turn of next century it is my hope that the story will be about the benefits of living in a multi-lingual nation and that your descendants will be reading it in te reo Māori.

Back to top