National MP Stuart Smith has found himself advocating a crackdown on public sector use of the word ‘Aotearoa’ in a war on a phantom name change, Marc Daalder writes

Analysis: New Zealand’s sleek black passports could undergo a revamp to remove the prominent placement of the word ‘Aotearoa’ – if National Party MP Stuart Smith had his way.

The proposal to prohibit government departments from using ‘Aotearoa’ in any context is the latest development in Smith’s bizarre attack on changing the name of New Zealand to Aotearoa or Aotearoa New Zealand. This is a war against a phantom enemy, however, as the Government says it has no plans to formally change the name of the country, and the use of Aotearoa by the public sector long predates the Labour government.

After all, it was John Key’s National Government that put Aotearoa on the passport in 2011. And the Reserve Bank chose to put the term on bank notes in 2015 – though it acts independently of government.

When asked whether he wanted to see a referendum before any government department was allowed to use the word Aotearoa in its name or documents, Smith said, “Absolutely”.

He told Newsroom that “you’d have to think” the Government is intent on changing the country’s name, citing “the wording around funding that’s tied to the media funding” and “a list of the names of government departments and how they’re using Aotearoa and not New Zealand. A whole lot of government documents are using the same.”

A non-exhaustive list provided afterwards by a National Party spokesperson mostly dealt with departments using Aotearoa for their Māori names, as with the New Zealand Customs Service/Te Mana Arai O Aotearoa. Documents on the list included the Climate Change Commission’s final report (which uses Aotearoa in place of New Zealand) and the Ministry of Health’s elimination strategy, which both refer to Aotearoa/New Zealand.

National MP Stuart Smith. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

When asked whether this was hard evidence the Government is trying to change the name, Smith demurred.

“Ask the people, I think you’ll find it is,” he said. It’s unclear how popular sentiment – or Smith’s estimate of it – might determine what is or is not hard evidence of a hidden plot to change the name.

This deferral to a Trumpian “some people are saying” excuse was repeated by National Party Leader Judith Collins.

“If you look at most of the government agencies, they’re now changing it. The Prime Minister changes the way she talks about – you barely ever hear her talk about New Zealand these days,” she said.

“I think it is becoming [an official change], that’s what people are saying.”

Smith’s caucus colleagues don’t all agree with his idea, however.

“I don’t think we should be doing something that drastic at all,” Simon Bridges said, before adding that he did think it was overused in the public sector and backed a referendum to decide the name of the country once and for all.

“Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand and that’s one of our official languages,” Tim van de Molen said, after telling Newsroom he didn’t support a ban.

National’s deputy leader Shane Reti went the other way, saying that if a referendum determined Aotearoa wasn’t part of the country’s official name, he wasn’t sure if he would use it in any context.

“I would take advice from kuia and kaumatua who would advise me as to, ‘Shane, this is how we think you should phrase it’. They always help me with my speeches. I would use what’s ever comfortable and appropriate for the moment,” he said.

Beyond a bit of caucus disagreement, however, the saga highlights one of National’s ongoing issues. Collins started the year by telling her caucus not to fall for “distractions” and “bait” and to instead focus on the “things that really matter to New Zealanders”.

Again and again, that warning has gone unheeded. This latest crusade against a name change that isn’t in the works is just the latest example.

When asked about Smith’s proposal on Tuesday, ACT Party Leader David Seymour – who now enjoys more personal support among prospective National voters than Collins herself – hit the nail on the head.

“Look, I just think, ultimately, Stuart Smith needs to focus on bigger issues,” he said.

There may be some appetite for these culture war issues on the right of the electorate, but that’s not where National needs to pick up supporters from. That’s a point undiplomatically made by Labour’s Willie Jackson.

“I think Stuart Smith is desperate and stupid, and part of the more stupider National Party MPs at the moment who will do anything and everything to get their miserable vote up.”

The vast majority of New Zealanders either don’t care or support the move to a bilingual society – with or without a formal name change – Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said.

“It’s a name that I think a lot of New Zealanders use. It’s one that I use a lot. The official name of New Zealand is New Zealand, obviously, but Aotearoa New Zealand is something people are proud of using,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious thing, I think it’s something that’s evolved in New Zealand over time.”

Te Paati Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi agreed.

“The country is changing,” he told Newsroom. “Those types of thinkers are going to get left behind, because there’s a new generation on the rise.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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