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Complaint on the spelling of Wanganui/Whanganui

10 March 2006

Complaint on the spelling of Wanganui/Whanganui

Complaints received by the Human Rights Commission in relation to the spelling of Wanganui/Whanganui cannot be formally dealt with under the Commission's dispute resolution process, Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres said today.

The actions of the Mayor and Council on the issue are not covered by the discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Act, which are very specific and particular about what constitutes unlawful discrimination.

It is the Commission's view that the dispute clearly falls outside the provisions of the Act, whatever the merits or otherwise of the issue.

Complainants can challenge this interpretation by appealing to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. They can also take the matter up with the New Zealand Geographic Board which last considered the issue in 1991 when it corrected the spelling of the Whanganui River. The Board's functions include the examination of cases of doubtful spelling, the encouragement of the use of original Maori place names, and the investigation of any proposed alteration of place names.

"The Commission has the ability to undertake informal mediation - as it did recently in the Danish cartoon controversy - but this would only be fruitful if both parties wanted to enter into a dialogue on the issue. That is clearly not the case here," said Mr de Bres.

"The recent non-binding referendum on the issue makes it very clear that the majority of the community do not support a change to the spelling. The division of views is unequal, but strongly felt, with a very disaffected minority. It is reflected within the Council itself. That indicates a need for ongoing dialogue rather than rapid result mediation.

"The referendum will not make the underlying issue go away, as revisiting the names and spelling of place names and the correct use of te reo Maori is part of an ongoing process of negotiation and reconciliation between Maori, government and non-Maori community members," he said.

The Maori spelling of Whanganui is used for the national park, the river, administrative, land and ecological districts and the local parliamentary electorate. It is increasingly used for regional and district organisations such as the district health board, the UCOL campus, the regional museum, and the community foundation.

"Community organisations like the community law office, the volunteer centre, the brain injury association, and the disability resource centre are also using it, as well as the Whanganui Bulk Barn," said Mr de Bres.

Mr de Bres said that voluntary evolutionary development was a good way forward for those who wanted to see a change.

"There is a certain inevitability about it given that it is not about a Maori name versus a Pakeha name, but only about the correct spelling of the Maori name."

Mr de Bres noted that the Wanganui District's Council's own website today features the Whanganui Artists Open Studios this weekend (spelt with an h) as the feature story on its home page.


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