13 May 2014

CORRESPONDENT - Gareth Thomas

6:08 pm on 13 May 2014

The job of rejuvenating Te Reo Maori is getting a jolt.

The Prime Minister's about to be asked to sign off on a new plan to keep Te Reo alive and stop the slide in the number of speakers.

Twenty-one percent or 125,000 Maori can now hold a general conversation in their native tongue. Census figures show that's a 5 percent drop since the last count.

It's clear something needs to be done. The Government wants tribes to take charge of revitalising Te Reo, by setting up a group called Te Matawai. (More on that later.)

The latest Census figures show there has been a 5 percent decrease in the number of Maori who can hold a general conversation in their native tongue.

The latest Census figures show there has been a 5 percent decrease in the number of Maori who can hold a general conversation in their native tongue. Photo: PHOTO NZ

Role of the whole nation

One initiative is to increase the status of Te Reo among everyone. The people of who have contributed to the design of the new strategy say they need all New Zealanders onboard.

At this point the plan becomes fuzzy. No one seems to be sure how to get the whole nation to embrace a new approach to the official language.

Last week Professor Piri Sciascia, chair of Te Mangai Paho - the Maori Broadcasting Funding Agency - said society's attitude was the most significant contribution to the death of a language.

Once a year the red carpet is rolled out for Te Reo through Maori Language Week. We know non-Maori get involved but there's no evidence of a plan to build on this success.

The Government's new approach to kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of the language is drawn from the report Te Reo Mauriora

It said Te Matawai would engage with Crown agencies with responsibilities to revitalise the language, such as the ministries of Education, and Culture and Heritage. But Te Matawai would not have any power over those departments.

According to iwi leaders and kaumatua who had spoken to Te Manu Korihi, the vision to bring everybody onboard was nothing more than what one called a lick and a promise.

Another said it should be the responsibility of Te Matawai to involve the Pakeha community, because the nation was founded on a partnership through the Treaty of Waitangi.

An elder said the place of Pakeha in the revival plan had not been addressed.

Devolving control to the tribes

As you might expect, the strategy for getting more Maori to speak in their own language is more refined.

Speaking it at home and passing it through the generations is the priority. Part of the thinking behind shifting responsibility to an iwi group is to ensure the seven tribal dialects are retained.

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (Maori Language Commission) and Te Mangai Paho will continue to exist.

But the governance of them will fall to iwi. Te Matawai will take charge of spending Crown money allocated to boosting the number of Te Reo speakers.

Resistance to the new Te Reo plan

The Maori Council is no stranger to taking legal action against the Crown.

It's not shying away on this occasion, either. It's threatening to take a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, arguing Te Reo Maori is a taonga (treasure) and no minister has the right to delegate it to somebody else.

The council said the Maori Language Commission was hard fought for by Maori, and was already run by Maori.

There's also opposition from the Mana Party. It said "the grim reality is that iwi leaders are simply not capable of managing such an important taonga". It said runanga (tribal councils) had other corporate priorities.

Sharples' legacy

The creation of Te Matawai was likely to be the last big political decision by Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, before he leaves Parliament ahead of this year's general election in September.

For him, it's about giving the tribal group the authority he currently has over the direction of the language. Dr Sharples said it made sense to give control of Te Reo Maori back to the people who own it - the iwi and hapu.

He wants to start putting the strategy into law by the end of July.

How Te Reo strategy would work

  • Te Matawai would oversee the Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (Maori language Commission) and Te Mangai Paho (Maori Broadcasting Funding Agency).
  • Te Matawai would be made up of 12 people: seven will be iwi leaders from rohe (territories) with tribal dialects; three spots would be reserved for language guardians, such as Kohanga Reo; the final two would be Crown members.
  • Te Matawai would be given a contract.
  • Statutory managers could be brought in if the Government thinks Te Matawai is not doing its job.
  • The final funding is to be confirmed, but existing budgets for Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori and Te Mangai Paho will be used.

Follow Gareth Thomas on Twitter @rnzMaorinews