(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, December 11.)
It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that for years, a determined campaign has been underway to rename New Zealand.
It’s being driven by activists, bureaucrats, teachers, academics, politicians and people in the media who think “New Zealand” is too Eurocentric and insufficiently reflective of the biculturalism that is said to define us as a country.
It’s not a formal, co-ordinated campaign but a spontaneous, unofficial one that started small and has steadily gathered momentum as more people take up the cause.
Radio New Zealand was an early adopter and remains in the front line of the push for change, as it is with usage of the Maori language generally. Aotearoa is frequently used by RNZ journalists and presenters in preference to New Zealand, and lately the same trend has been creeping into the print media.
In defence of the practice, it can be argued that every New Zealander knows what Aotearoa means. But some RNZ journalists go a whole lot further – for example, by referring to Christchurch as Otautahi and Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau.
That’s overstepping the mark. It’s arrogant and elitist, and shows contempt for listeners because it leaves them to guess what place the reporter is talking about. The intention, clearly, is to encourage people to adopt these names in everyday usage. But arbitrarily renaming cities is not one of the statutory functions of Radio NZ.
This is not to say there isn’t a good case for a public debate about the adoption of Maori place names. But let’s be transparent about it, and follow democratic process rather than having change imposed by gradual indoctrination.
That debate might start with the fact that “New Zealand” says nothing about us or our place in the world. It was conferred by historical accident and treats us not as a country in our own right, worthy of our own distinctive name, but as an offshoot of Europe.
We can only conclude that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman displayed a mischievous sense of humour when he named New Zealand after a province of his homeland. By his own description, the country he sighted in 1642 was “a large land, uplifted high” (he was looking at the mountains of the West Coast).
So what did he do? He named it after a low-lying, mainly flat province that was largely reclaimed from the sea. Zeeland’s highest point, as far as I can ascertain from Google, is 54 metres.
It can be argued that this striking mismatch between name and place gives Aotearoa a head start in any debate about what we should call ourselves. It’s also more euphonious, more poetic and more descriptive. And it’s exclusively ours, not a 17th century hand-me-down from Holland.
Another ground for objecting to “New Zealand” is that it conveys the Eurocentric implication that the country didn’t exist until Tasman gave it a name, although Maori had been here since the 13th century.
But hold on a minute. There are other factors to consider, starting with the fact that we’ve been known as New Zealand for more than 300 years.
Admittedly other countries have changed their names. Ceylon became Sri Lanka, Persia became Iran and Burma became Myanmar, to name just three examples. The world got used to the new names and moved on, but it would be wrong to ignore the enormous economic cost and the long, hard process of adjustment and acceptance required.
And like it or not, the name New Zealand stands for something in the world – in trade, tourism, diplomacy, sport, war and the arts. It’s a powerful brand, built up over two and a half centuries. We mess with that legacy at our peril.
Then there’s the pronunciation to consider. Aotearoa isn’t a name that the world could effortlessly get its tongue around. Even well-meaning New Zealanders struggle with it, and they’re not helped by te reo purists who sneer when people get it wrong.
These are all factors that could be explored and weighed if we were to have an open debate, as we did over the national flag. There’s no reason why the Aotearoa/New Zealand issue couldn’t eventually be decided by referendum.
New Zealanders have shown they are not averse to the adoption of Maori place names. The acceptance of Taranaki as an alternative to Egmont, and increasingly of Aoraki in place of Mt Cook, is proof of that. Expect Whakaari to replace White Island before long, too.
There’s scope for many more places to revert to their Maori names as the significance of names bestowed during the colonial era recedes into the mists of history. How about Ahuriri instead of Napier, for starters, or Taitoko for Levin?