It’s probably no bad thing that the Maori Party has initiated a petition calling for New Zealand’s name to be changed to Aotearoa. It may have the effect of forcing action on an issue that needs to be resolved.
What we’ve been observing for the past few months is a sort of phony war in which politicians, government officials and the media have been freely using Aotearoa despite the name having no official status and without any public mandate.
This practice began almost hesitantly and often in tandem with “New Zealand” as a sort of each-way bet. But the use of Aotearoa as a stand-alone name has become steadily more brazen and confident, to the point where it seems unexceptional – which is exactly the aim of those promoting it.
The purpose, clearly, is to impose the name on us: not by stealth (you could hardly call it surreptitious) but by sheer frequency of usage, in the hope that it will stick – or to quote the prime minister, that Aotearoa (which, incidentally, isn’t recognised by my Spellcheck) will be adopted “organically”.
By launching its petition, the Maori Party has put the issue formally on the public agenda. This might at least serve as the catalyst for a free and open debate that’s well overdue. It would be no surprise if calls for a referendum gather momentum to the point where they can no longer be ignored.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there are good arguments for adopting Aotearoa. Setting aside all the arguments about its dubious authenticity, the name at least says something about us and our place in the world which New Zealand does not. It also acknowledges the people who were here first, which must count for something.
Against that, as I said on this blog a few weeks ago, New Zealand is the name by which the rest of the world has known us since we first existed as a national entity. It may have been bestowed by historical accident, but it has acquired its own powerful resonance in all manner of spheres: sport, warfare, diplomacy, trade, tourism and the arts, to mention a few. That has to be weighed against the appeal of an alternative that is more distinctively our own.
What matters is that the issue must be resolved through a transparent, democratic process in which the majority will prevails. So let’s have a debate and put an end to all the dishonest ideological shadow-boxing.
The same should apply to the names of towns and cities. If the citizens of New Plymouth, Gisborne, Christchurch and Dunedin want their cities to be renamed Ngamotu, Turanganui-a-Kiwa, Otautahi and Otepoti respectively, so be it.
But that seems improbable. While many Maori place names have greater cultural resonance than English ones, whose origins are mostly forgotten and of minimal historical relevance anyway, I suspect the sense of local identity attached to existing names is too strong to be renounced.
Besides, it’s absurd to suggest, as Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi does, that these cities and towns originally had Maori names. They didn’t. New Zealand’s cities and towns are wholly the creations of British colonialism. They are therefore totally distinct entities from any Maori settlements that may have originally occupied the same sites.
Take Auckland, for example. That it happens to occupy a general location originally known to Maori as Tamaki Makaurau is hardly a compelling argument that historically, that’s the city’s rightful name. The current fashion for using Tamaki Makaurau to refer to a vast metropolis far beyond the wildest imaginings of any 19th century Maori (or British settler, for that matter) is virtuous posturing. That doesn’t mean Auckland shouldn’t change its name – merely that the people who live there should be the ones who decide.
How about this for a rule of thumb? We should retain or restore the Maori names of everything that existed pre-colonisation and for which Maori had their own established nomenclature. That includes geographical features such as mountains, lakes, rivers, coastal features and islands – yes, even the North and South Islands (Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu respectively) and Stewart Island (Rakiura). This wouldn’t require a seismic adjustment because many are referred to by their Maori names anyway – even some that were once known by English names, such as Mt Taranaki/Egmont.
But for everything created post-colonisation and given an English or European name, the status quo should prevail unless the people decide otherwise. This would acknowledge both the Tangata Whenua and the Tangata Tiriti (i.e. non-Maori), but wouldn’t preclude the citizens of any locality from deciding to ditch their English place name in favour of a Maori one. I for one would rather live in Ngamotu than New Plymouth and Taitoko rather than Levin.
The bottom line in all cases is that decisions should be made democratically, not imposed by the political elite or the raucous proponents of identity politics.
Update (added at 3.40pm): A Curia Research poll published today found that 49 percent of respondents opposed a change from New Zealand to Aotearoa - 39.2 percent "strongly" and 9.6 percent "somewhat". There was support for the change from 28 percent of respondents (18.4 percent "strongly") and 22 percent were neutral.