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Waitangi Tribunal Inquiry: Crown Accused Of 'Gaslighting' Māori Through te reo Policy

Pokere Paewai , Māori issues reporter
Tuwhenuaroa Natanahira, Māori news journalist

An emotional final day has wrapped up the Waitangi Tribunal inquiry into the use of te reo in the public sector.

Claimants on Friday accused the government of gaslighting Māori through its te reo policy, something lawyers for the Crown denied.

Lawyer Annette Sykes battled through tears recalling the gains te reo Māori advocates had made across the decades.

"I've fought for our reo for years and you're dismantling its protections," she said.

"I've seen people die who fought for our reo, who never saw it as an official language. Who went to kōhanga for nothing, for 40 years - that's right 'til last year - never paid a dime to promote our reo.

"You cannot tell me that any government should condone small minor parties coming in to dismantle the apparatus of transformation that has occurred in this country in the last 40 years.

"That is a denial of our mana Māori motuhake, that is a denial of our tino rangatiratanga, that is an overstep by a power of kāwanatanga. It is as confronting as a declaration of war to my people."

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Māori would not tolerate the loss of the mana of te reo - and would fight against it through every means available, she said.

Tauranga-based iwi Ngāi Te Rangi put the claim forward in December, arguing the coalition's policy to prioritise English would cause irreversible harm to te reo Maori.

Since then, Minister for the Public Service Nicola Willis has decided against issuing directives to the public sector regarding the use of te reo Māori, instead leaving it up to individual ministers.

Claimant lawyer Mataanuku Mahuika was asked by the tribunal if this amounted to the government putting the brakes on the policy.

He replied that the government would be judged on actions rather than words. In the week before the hearing started, claimants received a letter saying the Ministry of Transport was removing some te reo obligations, he said.

"Is that we make policy, is that how we give Māori people comfort about their language? 'Just trust us we've got it,' because everything we're seeing is going in the other direction and there comes a point where the Crown needs to be reminded of its responsibilities."

Asking Māori to blindly trust the Crown was "gaslighting", he said.

"Engari e kī mai te Karauna ki a tātau 'kei te pai i tēnei wā, ahakoa ngā mahi o mua i tēnei wā hika he pai kaua koutou e āwangawanga,' nā reira koina te take he gaslight."

"What the Crown is saying to us is 'everything is ok now, despite what happened before now everything is fine, there's no need to worry,' that's why we call it gaslighting."

But Crown counsel Seb Bisley denied that was what the evidence given by Crown witnesses amounted to.

"What the Crown has been saying all the way through this tribunal hearing is - 'here we are'. We are putting before you all the information that we have, we are putting before you witnesses who give testimony that doesn't always agree because we want the tribunal to have the benefit of the full range of Crown perspectives on these issues."

Crown decisions were taking place in a complex policy environment and coalition agreements were not the same as Crown action, he said.

"[Willis] had a position which she described at a very very early stage and then there was quite a careful and comprehensive process of advice which has culminated in a totally different outcome."

Te Rūnanga o Ngai Te Rangi chairperson Charlie Tawhiao thanked the Crown representatives who were present.

"Nā te karauna e timata e au e runga e tāku huarahi ki te reo. Engari ko te ahua nei kua āhua rerekē ngā mahi o te karauna."

"It was my time in the public sector which started me on the path to learning te reo, but seems like things have changed now."

In closing statements, Judge Te Kani Williams became visibly emotional while acknowledging the claimants and lawyers who had stood before the tribunal throughout the week.

He said the tribunal was thankful to all those who shared their thoughts and kōrero.

"I kite au te wairuatanga, i te hohonutanga i roto i ngā taunakitanga, i kite mātou i ngā roimata e taka ana i ngā kaikōrero, e taka hoki mai ana i ngā roia hoki . Mea rawa ake e rite pea ana ki ngā roimata e taka mai ana i a Rangi tae noa ki Papatuānuku i tenei wā tonu."

"We have heard and felt the spiritual depth of every submission, we have seen tears shed by claimants, witnesses and their legal representatives. This is perhaps inherently linked to the tears being shed by Rangi which are falling on Papatuānuku as we speak."

Judge Williams said the tribunal would do its best to complete a comprehensive report before the end of the year.

The report would be completed and presented in "ngā reo e rua" - both languages - to acknowledge te reo Māori and those who had dedicated their lives to fighting for its mana as well as those who had appeared before them throughout the week, he said.

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