I was vaguely aware last week that someone in Australia had caused a stir over a poster for the New Zealand band Six60; something to do with the band’s use of the Maori language. I didn’t bother to acquaint myself with the details, concluding that it was just another tedious skirmish in the culture wars. There are so many it can be exhausting trying to keep up with them.
I took a closer interest, however, when I found out a couple of days ago that the ruckus was triggered by Rowan Dean, a man with whom I have had dealings in his capacity as editor of the Spectator Australia, to which I occasionally contribute.
Dean presents a show on Sky News called The World According to Rowan Dean, and it was on this programme, while talking to Jonathan Ayling of the New Zealand Free Speech Union, that he drew attention to the Six60 poster.
Noting New Zealand’s “push for inclusivity” and promotion of the Maori language, Dean brought the Six60 concert poster up on screen and pointed out that it was entirely in Maori; “not a word in English”. Maori appeared to be supplanting English, Dean said, and he wanted to know how New Zealanders who don’t speak Maori felt about it.
The subject arose in the context of a rather confused interview in which Dean and Ayling sometimes appeared to be talking at cross-purposes. The recently passed Plain Language Act, the recently revived proposal for hate speech laws and the use of te reo all got tangled up together when they are separate and largely unrelated issues, the only unifying factor being Labour’s hell-bent drive to leave an indelible stamp on New Zealand before it gets jettisoned from office.
The confusion wasn’t helped by hyperbolic and not entirely accurate captions running across the bottom of the screen, such as: “NZ government hiring language officers”, “NZ passes Orwellian plain language bill”, “One step closer to the thought police” and “Concert poster excludes half of New Zealand”.
I felt sorry for any Australian viewer trying to make sense of it – but then, Australians have never been well served by news media purporting to explain what’s going on in New Zealand, which Australian commentators routinely portray as a slightly more remote, quaint and incomprehensible version of Tasmania.
All this happened two weeks ago, but it wasn’t until last week that controversy erupted on this side of the Ditch, and then only because of the Six60 poster which took up a relatively small portion of the interview. Predictably there was fury that a conservative Australian talk-show host was making what appeared to be disparaging remarks about the increasing usage of te reo in New Zealand. Dean’s offence was compounded in the eyes of his hyper-sensitive New Zealand critics by his failure to name the band correctly, as if by dismissively calling them “Sixty Sixty or whatever” he was delivering a further gratuitous slight against the nation.
In fact Dean appeared as much bemused by New Zealand’s adoption of te reo as critical of it. In common with many Australians, he fails to grasp the place of Maori in New Zealand culture.
His incomprehension highlights a crucial distinction between the two countries. In Australia, Aboriginal culture has historically been marginalised, despite belated attempts to give it greater recognition. In New Zealand, by contrast, Maori influence runs wide and deep. It’s accepted – in fact valued – as an essential element of mainstream society. No one watching the Black Ferns play England last Saturday could have been in any doubt about that.
If I wanted to appear learned and profound, which I’m not, I would speculate that this difference between the two countries arises at least in part from a striking contrast between Maori and Aboriginal cultures and their relationships with the European colonisers. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that whereas the Aboriginal reaction to the arrival of Europeans was to melt into the bush, Maori confronted the colonisers head-on. They weren’t over-awed or intimidated; they demanded to be engaged with on equal terms.
And so it has continued. Pakeha New Zealand has absorbed Maori culture in a way that many Australians just don’t get. Maori are an ineradicable and invaluable part of our national character. They help make New Zealand the unique place that it is.
That was brought home to me last weekend at a friend’s funeral. Neither she nor her late husband were Maori, but they had adopted a Maori daughter and in doing so had become part of her whanau and had gladly embraced tikanga Maori (or perhaps I should say it had embraced them, because it works both ways). The funeral, which our friend had planned down to the last detail, seamlessly fused Maori and European influences – the former represented by a spirited, moving and beautifully sung waiata, the latter by Alison Krauss singing the gospel song I’ll Fly Away. Oh, and a piper as the coffin was carried out. It couldn’t have happened anywhere but New Zealand.
Dean’s difficulty with the use of te reo in New Zealand came as no surprise to me. In 2020 I wrote an article for the Spectator Australia about the relentless promotion of biculturalism in New Zealand, with particular reference to the increased official use of Maori. I also referred to the unlawful roadblocks set up by Maori activists, ostensibly for the purpose of preventing Covid-19 from being spread to remote and vulnerable communities.
Dean subsequently invited me to take part in another Australian Sky News talk show he’s involved with, called Outsiders. I initially agreed, but on learning more about the likely tone of the show I backed away. Outsiders presents a conservative perspective and the subject was to be Maori influence in New Zealand life and politics. I was concerned that the other participants in the show, who were Australian, would be dissing an aspect of New Zealand society that they didn’t understand, and I didn’t want to be a party to it.
At this point readers of this blog might wonder whether I’m going all woke here and indulging in a bout of virtue-signalling. Not a bit. It’s possible to value and take pride in the enormous Maori contribution to our national character while simultaneously being deeply concerned about the promotion of divisive, race-based policies that threaten to drive a wedge between Maori and Pakeha. In fact I’d like to think that in this regard, I’m not far out of line with mainstream thinking.
In any case, I’m allowed to criticise New Zealand because it’s my country. But I become defensive when it’s attacked by Australians (or Poms, for that matter).
Anyway, back to The World According to Rowan Dean. I thought Six60 reacted to Dean’s remarks exactly as they should have, with characteristic New Zealand good humour. Resisting any temptation to ramp up an already overheated war over wokery, they offered Dean free tickets to one of their shows and issued a new promotional T-shirt bearing the slogan “Sixty60 or whatever”. Perfect.
For his part, Ayling quietly pointed out to Dean that te reo is officially a New Zealand language and people should be free to use it. That’s a free speech issue. Use of te reo becomes problematical only when people feel compelled to use it or discriminated against for not doing so. That’s a free speech issue too.