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Maori language edicts strains NZ government

Ben McKay -

As New Zealand grapples with a new style of government and a new approach to the Maori language, Prime Minister Chris Luxon has fallen foul of his own advice to the public service.

Mr Luxon appears guilty of a double standard after scolding bureaucrats for taking cash bonuses for understanding the Maori language, while using taxpayer funds to learn himself.

Public money has paid for Mr Luxon's private tuition in te reo, the Maori language, with the prime minister arguing it was "highly relevant" to his role.

This month, Mr Luxon confirmed his government would axe payments to te reo-speaking public servants, criticising those who took the bonuses.

"People are completely free to learn for themselves," he said.

"That's what happens out there in the real world, in corporate life, or any other community life across New Zealand.

"I've got a number of MPs, for example, that have made a big effort to learn te reo ... they've driven that learning themselves because they want to do it.

"In the real world outside of Wellington and outside the bubble of MPs, people who want to learn te reo or want to learn any other education actually pay for it themselves."

However, Mr Luxon did not follow his own advice.

After repeated requests, the prime minister's office confirmed taxpayers paid for Mr Luxon's own classes using a budget offered to the leader of the opposition.

"As leader of the opposition and a potential prime minister at the time, developing better skills in te reo was highly relevant to his role," the spokesman said.

Mr Luxon announced in January last year he was beginning one-on-one tuition with a secret high-profile teacher.

"I don't want to embarrass them," he said in May last year, "but (it's) someone who is really well respected and who has been very helpful to a number of other people."

A month into Mr Luxon's right-leaning coalition, consisting of the National, ACT and New Zealand First parties, the government has already strained relations with many in Maoridom, particularly over plans to wind back te reo use, championed by the Labour government.

Public servants have been told to communicate in English while public bodies - such as Waka Kotahi for the New Zealand Transport Agency - must revert to using their English-language name first.

Detractors say the government is bashing a minority and inflaming a culture war; the government argues changes have confused non-te reo speakers.

Te reo use is on the rise in New Zealand but remains firmly a second language.

Competent speakers have grown from six to eight per cent from 2016 to 2021, including 23 per cent of Maori, up from 17 per cent.

Assimilationist governments banned the language in schools for much of the 20th century, causing trauma for many Maori.

Some government members are hostile to te reo use, with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters believing Aotearoa, the Maori term for New Zealand, is illegitimate.

In parliament last week, the 78-year-old declined to answer a question in te reo from Rawiri Waititi, the Maori Party co-leader who has mobilised thousands to protest the new government.

Mr Luxon insisted he supported the language and wanted others to learn too.

"It's a fantastic language. I wish I had learned as a younger person ... I'm trying to learn. I've found it actually very hard and very difficult," he said.

"I want to encourage as many New Zealanders to learn te reo as possible."

Mr Luxon had a chequered record with the indigenous language in his former job as Air New Zealand chief executive.

Under his leadership, stewards began using te reo greetings such as "kia ora" for hello, and "ma te wa" for see you soon.

In September 2019, the airline sought to trademark "kia ora," the name of the in-flight magazine.

After consulting with Maori leaders, and a local and international backlash, Air New Zealand abandoned the bid a week later.

Ben McKay - AAP

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