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By Giles Dexter, RNZ News political reporter

New Zealand’s Te Pāti Māori has handed over its petition — with 70,000 signatures — calling for the country to officially be named Aotearoa.

It is on our passports, on our money, and in our national anthem. But Aotearoa is not our official name, yet.

The petition was delivered to Parliament today. It calls to change the country’s official name to Aotearoa, and begin a process to restore te reo Māori names for all towns, cities, and places by 2026.

“Whether you’re for or against, the thing is everyone knows that Aotearoa is a legitimate name given to this country by Kupe — not by Governor Grey or any written book, this is well before any of those things,” Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said.

Te Reo fluency among Māori dropped from 90 percent in 1910 to 26 percent in 1950.

Today, just 20 percent of the Māori population speak it. That’s three percent of the whole country.

Waititi said the only way to restore the language was to make it visible in as many places as possible.

‘Pebble being dropped in the water’
“This is the pebble being dropped in the water, the initial pebble hitting the water. And what it’ll do, from now for many years to come, is those ripples will continue to get bigger and bigger.”

The petition now goes to a select committee, which will decide what to do next. Whether that was a bill or even a public referendum, it had already succeeded, Waititi said.

“It’s starting the dialogue, it’s building awareness. It has started a wananga across the country.”

National leader Christopher Luxon said changing the name was a constitutional issue.

“I think those are decisions for the New Zealand people, if there’s widespread support it should go to referendum and it should be a decision that they get to make. It’s not something the government makes,” he said.

But just last week Luxon posted a tribute in te reo Māori to kaumatua Joe Hawke, resulting in a tirade of anti-Māori remarks from National supporters.

Waititi brushed off any backlash the petition, and by extension he, received.

“If they’re getting their undies in a twist, that’s their undies, not my undies,” he said.

Time for a discussion
Government ministers said it was time for a discussion over changing the name, but were not actually committing to one.

“These things evolve over time, but it’s up to every New Zealander to be part of the debate,” Andrew Little said.

“I’m mindful that representatives from Ngāi Tahu have pointed out that Aotearoa tends to focus on the North Island, but that’s a debate that can rightly happen,” David Clark said.

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall admitted she had not given it any thought.

“But I’m very comfortable having the country referred to as Aotearoa-New Zealand,” she said.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said it was not something the Labour caucus had discussed, while Michael Wood called for open-mindedness.

“I think any question like that needs to be worked through really carefully. It’s the name of our country, the identity of our country,” he said.

Labour’s Māori caucus divided
Labour’s Māori caucus was somewhat divided

“I think we should have a good conversation about it. I’ve personally got no problems with us using Aotearoa but it’s a question for the whole country,” Kelvin Davis said.

Minister of Māori Development Willie Jackson supported the use of Aotearoa, but said he had recently been travelling around the country, speaking to Māori communities, and changing the country’s name never came up.

“We have other kaupapa more important right now,” he said.

Peeni Henare believed the country was ready.

“I’m encouraging one and all to have a very mature debate over what I think is a pretty cool kaupapa,” he said.

Artist Hohepa Thompson, also known as Hori, backed the petition.

Hori’s Pledge response
Hori’s Pledge is a response to billboards popping up around the country saying “New Zealand, not Aotearoa”, funded by lobby group Hobson’s Pledge.

Thompson had been driving across Te Ika a Maui, with his own billboard in tow, to call for change.

He believed a hyphenated ‘Aotearoa-New Zealand’ would not go far enough.

“Māori have taken the backseat for many, many times. So when it comes to Aotearoa-New Zealand, let’s have this. Aotearoa, boom.”

The most positive conversations on his trip came from people who did not even know Pākehā history, he said.

“The only renaming that happened here was from that side. So we’re not trying to create ‘change’, were just re-instating what was already here.”

He pointed out a similar subject that took place recently.

Three years ago, some said a national holiday for Matariki would never happen. Later this month, it will be officially celebrated for the first time.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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