Opinion: Several months ago a clip went viral on TikTok and YouTube. It shows a short exchange between two people at Avondale Market, speaking across a table with colourful goods on sale. In the background are familiar scenes: car boots open with items spilling out, shoppers browsing for bargains, a palm tree swaying behind the stalls.
The shopkeeper asks the man in front of him, wearing a flat cap, where he’s from.
The man, says: “I’m from New Zealand. Are you from New Zealand?”
The shopkeeper replies: “I’m in New Zealand”, prompting a chuckle. “Are you Māori?” The shopkeeper asks.
“Yeah!” the man nods.
“You are!”, the shopkeeper says, and ventures, “Ko wai tō ingoa? [What’s your name?]”
“Ko Jimah tōku ingoa [Jimah’s my name],” the man says, smiling.
Without missing a beat, the shopkeeper says, “Ko Tee Seang taku ingoa (Tee Seang’s my name).”
“So do you speak Malay?” Jimah asks, after mentioning he’s from Rotorua and being welcomed by Tee Seang to Auckland.
“Yes,” Tee Seang answers.
Jimah switches to Mandarin Chinese: “Do you speak Mandarin?”
“Of course!” Tee Seang fires back.
“You’re very impressive!” Jimah says. But it’s Tee Seang who’s clearly impressed, asking Jimah in Chinese where he learned the language, before Jimah tells him he learned it at university in Beijing.
Finally, they switch back to te reo Māori. “Tino makariri! [Very cold!]” Jimah says.
“Kāō! [No!]” Tee Seang insists. And they both crack up in laughter.
This is the Aotearoa New Zealand of our future – and the Aotearoa of today. A conversation where individuals move comfortably from English into te reo Māori after introducing themselves. Where strangers feel welcome in each other’s presence. Where other languages – such as Malay and Mandarin – are celebrated, before individuals revert to te reo Māori.
So many shifts in culture and language in this country have happened organically.
As Justice Sir Joe Williams (the first Māori judge on the New Zealand Supreme Court) has observed, the national anthem started to be sung in te reo Māori at the rugby without any rule requiring this.
Ruby Tui spontaneously led a 40,000-strong Eden Park crowd in ‘Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi’, after the Black Ferns’ win in the 2022 Rugby World Cup. There’s variation across the country, but generally, words such as whānau, kai, and hui are used with increasing regularity.
These developments are no cause for complacency. Shifts have occurred because of the work of Māori language activists; the establishment of kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa; and examples set by Māori language champions – sometimes supported by Pākehā and tauiwi (including in media), and resources from government.
Evidence on improving understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori language over time suggests parties stoking fear about “apartheid” and “race-based healthcare” do not necessarily represent a majority of New Zealanders
But these are important developments to remember in light of vitriol from fringe voices about Māori culture or leadership being ‘rammed down people’s throats’. Evidence shows not just Māori language and culture practices, but also understandings of the Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand history, have progressed over time.
Responses to the New Zealand Election Study show the number of people who strongly disagree with the question “Do you agree with removing the Treaty of Waitangi from the law?” increased sharply between 2002 and 2020; in the 18-39 age bracket, just under 10 percent strongly disagreed with removing the Treaty from law in 2002, and by 2020 about 30 percent strongly disagreed.
The number who disagreed increased perceptibly between 2002 and 2020, and the number strongly agreeing across all ages tumbled over two decades. Young people entering the workforce and wider community this decade will also be the first generation who will have all learned New Zealand history in school.
Some people are trying to fight back against a rising tide of public support for te reo Māori use and acknowledgment of historical wrongs
This is relevant to how we see political parties such as Act and New Zealand First (and, on some issues, National), which are scaremongering about policies and institutions that support Māori outcomes, such as the Māori Health Authority. Evidence on improving understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori language over time suggests parties stoking fear about “apartheid” and “race-based healthcare” do not necessarily represent a majority of New Zealanders.
What’s more likely is that some people are trying to fight back against a rising tide of public support for te reo Māori use and acknowledgment of historical wrongs. Action by government to give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi (ie the Māori version of the Treaty), to share power with Māori in line with Article 2, is perceived as a threat by some individuals who hold economic and political power on shaky foundations – and their response is to whip up panic about policies reflecting this country’s foundational treaty.
Saying that parties and individuals making inflammatory, false claims about Māori “advantage” or the Treaty represent only a minority is not the same as saying these parties and individuals pose no danger
Act’s proposal to rewrite the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi is a concrete example. Act would define the Treaty principles as: “the New Zealand Government has the right to govern New Zealand”, “the New Zealand Government will protect all New Zealanders’ authority over their land and other property”, and “all New Zealanders are equal under the law, with the same rights and duties”. It’s calling for a referendum on this.
The proposal radically alters Article 2 of New Zealand’s founding document, turning Te Tiriti’s protection of tino rangatiratanga over Māori taonga (sometimes translated as absolute authority, or absolute chieftainship, over Māori treasures) into a flattened-out statement about New Zealanders’ “authority over their land and other property”. This likely relies on the vacuous claim that “ki nga tangata katoa o Nu Tirani te tino rangatiratanga o o ratou whenua …” in the Māori text of Article 2 can be twisted to mean all New Zealanders in the present, though the language of Article 2 in the Māori and English versions makes clear that it is a protection of Māori authority, as is agreed by historians.
Act’s proposal would, in effect, confiscate significant Māori rights through the law. Act’s referendum is an attempt to whip up support to push back against progress on understanding Te Tiriti and New Zealand history.
It’s wrong to say simply the campaign has been ‘heated’ or ‘divisive’. There is specific evidence of anti-Māori racism, emboldened by political parties and other figures, with racism often being accompanied by misogyny and anti-Pasifika hostility
Saying that parties and individuals making inflammatory, false claims about Māori “advantage” or the Treaty represent only a minority is not the same as saying these parties and individuals pose no danger. Events of the last week underscore the concerning consequences of anti-Māori sentiment emboldened by some politicians.
Respected broadcaster Julian Wilcox said after the second leaders’ debate: “Whether we like it or not, race has been an issue in this campaign … I can tell you, going out on the campaign trail, joining some of these MPs, they are getting it right in their faces, from people in communities, particularly those MPs of [minority] ethnic origin or are Māori.”
The journalist David Fisher wrote about an “often ugly” debate in Northland this week where people “hooted abuse” at Northland Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime, and “howled derision when she used te reo Māori”. In the same week, Te Pāti Māori’s youngest candidate, Hana-Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke, had her home invaded and vandalised, with a threatening letter left behind. A letter published last Friday by Māori and community leaders – including Dame Naida Glavish, Pania Newton, and Dave Letele – said, “this election, the dog whistling and the outright public displays of racism from political candidates have increased to unacceptable levels”.
It’s wrong to say simply the campaign has been ‘heated’ or ‘divisive’. There is specific evidence of anti-Māori racism, emboldened by political parties and other figures, with racism often being accompanied by misogyny and anti-Pasifika hostility.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, to his credit, delivered a strong speech this week criticising the approach deemed acceptable in past election campaigns to “see anti-Māori positions as vote winners” or “keep quiet on Māori issues”. “I’m going to be open and transparent about why I support a Māori Health Authority,” he stated, “why I believe in Te Tiriti and why I think it’s important to our future that Māori and the Crown work together …”
Hipkins has admitted the approach taken to co-governance and Three Waters could have been defended more explicitly by Cabinet colleagues, without Nanaia Mahuta bearing the brunt of a racist response. Labour, at times, has not explicitly tied policy changes to Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
For example, the Māori Health Authority has been defended in terms of poor outcomes in the mainstream health system, rather than Article Two of Te Tiriti of Waitangi’s assurances of tino rangatiratanga (absolute authority) for Māori over their affairs – though it’s also arguable that tino rangatiratanga requires something more than Māori-led structures within the Crown sphere.
Centring Te Tiriti o Waitangi in political conversations – not just the principles or the spirit, but the text, including Article Two – can not only rebut negative attacks it also creates space for more positive Te Tiriti-based visions of Aotearoa’s political future, such as the vision sketched in the inspiring Matike Mai report.
Those visions bring us back to that conversation at Avondale Market between Jimah and Tee Seang, captured on camera and shared widely on social media.
Our community, as shown in the clip and how it went viral, is already moving towards valuing te reo Māori and practising hospitality in a way that is influenced by te ao Māori.
Is it time our politicians caught up?