Te Paati Māori continues to provide a breath of fresh air in the political space, otherwise thoroughly choked by Covid19. Its call this week this week for a referendum on changing the country’s name to Aotearoa by 2026 is timely and a welcome diversion to the necessarily short-term focus engendered by Covid19.
It has always seemed incongruous that our country bears the name bestowed upon it by a Dutch explorer who spent less than three weeks off our shores without ever landing here 479 years ago. While there might arguably be a legitimate debate about whether “naming rights” for our country should have rested with the indigenous people here at the time Abel Tasman skirted our shores, or with the British colonisers who arrived nearly two hundred years later, it is increasingly difficult to argue that Tasman’s choice has a great deal of relevance to our country as it is today.
Therefore, the proposal of a referendum to decide the future name of the country should be welcomed. It will hopefully set off a full public debate about the nature of our country today and its ongoing national identity – something various Prime Ministers have said for years has been inevitable, but which none has had the courage to initiate.
However, changing the name of the country is not without its challenges, not the least of which is the national flag. On the assumption we do vote to change our country’s name, the incongruity of still having a national flag containing the British Union Jack would become even greater than it is today. So, either alongside the national name change debate, or shortly thereafter, assuming a vote for change, there would need to be a fresh discussion about the design of the national flag. Following the unsatisfactory (in terms of process and design) referendum about changing the flag in 2016, there are many lessons to be learned about how such a process could be better streamlined and structured that would need to be followed here.
While changing the name of the country is an idea whose time may well have come, which could receive surprisingly strong support at a referendum, the second part of Te Paati Māori’s proposal to replace all European town, city and district names with their Māori antecedents looks more problematic and potentially divisive. Many of those names date from our colonial history in some way or another – either as the name of settlements that did not exist beforehand, or place names that were bestowed by Captain Cook during his voyage of discovery.
Given that the Treaty of Waitangi was intended to usher in a relationship of partnership between tangata whenua and the new settlers, something we are still getting to grips with over 180 years later, that partnership needs to be reflected in the place names we adopt. In many cases, the appropriate place name from a traditional and historical significance aspect one will be the traditional Māori name, and we should have little hesitation in adopting that. But there will be other situations where the same reasons will apply in reverse and the retention of the European name will be the more appropriate course to follow. In other words, any alterations to the names of cities, towns and districts should be on a case-by-case basis, reflective of local circumstances and not imposed by a national referendum.
While Te Paati Māori’s claim that doing things this way, and not by a blanket national referendum would lessen the likelihood of any local change ever occurring has some merit, a blanket imposition of change at a local level is likely to cause unnecessary division and upheaval that would detract from the overall push Te Paati Māori is making. That would be a great shame and diminish the rare opportunity being provided here to have a say about our nationhood. Therefore, an intermediate position may be in order, allowing Māori and European place names to be used and recognised alongside each other, until a preferred usage emerges in each case over time.
For my own part, as a third-generation citizen of Irish descent, I would be proud to say my country is Aotearoa. As Norman Kirk once said, all of us who live here, whatever our origins, bear the unique and common bond of calling these islands home. The mix of cultures, backgrounds and experiences, and the people that breeds, is unique and something for us to celebrate the world over. What better way to do that than proclaiming our place as citizens and residents of Aotearoa?
So, hats off to Te Paati Māori for initiating this debate. While there will be passionate views on all sides, the challenge to our national character will be to proceed without bigotry, intolerance and division overshadowing what is an important issue for the future of our country. Te Paati Māori has shown courage and commitment, but also a respect for tradition, in launching the referendum proposal. The challenge now for the rest of the country is to show the same courage and respect in considering the important issues it has raised.