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By Johnny Blades, RNZ The House journalist

An increased appetite to learn te reo Māori among members and staff from different parts of the Parliamentary system means the work of Parliament’s Māori Language Service is in demand more than ever.

Compared to several years ago there’s now also significantly more acknowledgement of and referral to Māori customs and protocols at Parliament. This is part of the reason why Nga Ratonga Reo Māori recently changed its name to Nga Ratonga Ao Māori, opening up the service’s scope to more than just the language.

“We’re asked for advice on a lot of things — very often — a few a day, several a week, from all parts of the Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk, and they could be reo related, marae related, tikanga related, etc,” says Maika Te Amo, the man who heads the five-person unit.

“I still see my main role as supporting the House with Māori language services, primarily simultaneous interpretation of all sittings of the House and also sittings of the Māori Affairs Select Committee, at every sitting, but also any other committee that requests simultaneous interpretation.

“The other thing is translation — and that can be anything from communications through the Parliamentary Engagement team that go out on the website or the social media channels. A heavy part of our load comes from the Māori Affairs Select Committee — all of their reports are bilingual, so we translate all of those as well.”

From 1868 until 1920 Parliament had interpreters in the House. Then, for most of last century, Parliament didn’t even employ an interpreter to support MPs who spoke in Māori.

It wasn’t until this century, with the reintroduction of interpreters and Māori language services, that te reo began to flow significantly in the chamber again.

People who follow the action in the debating chamber these days will be familiar with numerous MPs fluently using te reo in speeches. If you’re watching the debate on Parliament TV you may see other MPs listening-in via an earpiece.

That is made possible because of simultaneous interpretation by Te Amo and his colleagues.

It is not only Māori MPs who use te reo in the chamber. Many MPs regularly pepper their speeches with the language, or use Māori for all their formal phrasings (e.g. asking for a supplementary question during Question Time).

Furthermore, Te Amo says there is a lot of interest in using the language among staff of the Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk.

Labour MP Kiri Allan during the General Debate
Labour MP Kiritapu Allan debating in Māori in the chamber. Image: Phil Smith/VNP

There’s also ample evidence that Māori language and practices are being used throughout the Parliamentary system. In the annual reviews where government agencies front before various select committees to give a report on how their year has gone, their representatives often introduce themselves and give closing statements in te reo.

“There is an enormous hunger among our colleagues for the language and everything associated with the language, tikanga and traditional practices, traditional perspectives, metaphors, that kind of thing, and that is very encouraging,” says Te Amo.

“We’re a small team, so we will continue to do our best to support our colleagues with various different learning opportunities.”

Pacific challenge
The struggle to preserve Indigenous language and promote its use in Parliament is an acute challenge in the Pacific Islands.

This much was clear when Maika Te Amo gave the keynote speech at the Australasian and Pacific Hansard Editors Association conference at New Zealand’s Parliament in January. His speech left an impression on other delegates such as Papaterai William, the subeditor of debates in the Cook Islands.

“One statement I enjoyed when Maika was talking says ‘if the language is no more, the Māori people are no more’. Now I can actually rephrase that our Cook Islands people ‘if the language is no more, the Cook Islands Māori are no more’,” he said.

“Nowadays people are speaking English, and not many people are speaking our language, which is the Cook Islands Māori. We’re talking about a language that will fade in the future.

“That is one thing that we are wanting to retain to make sure that it is maintained properly, that it is taught properly, because language revitalisation I believe is important going forward for our Hansard department.”

Papaterai William, the sub-editor of debates in the Cook Islands
Papaterai William, the subeditor of debates in the Cook Islands during a pōwhiri at the Australasian and Pacific Hansard Editors Association conference hosted by New Zealand’s Parliament, January 2023. Image: Office of the Clerk

William tipped his hat to Tonga where in Parliament, unlike in the Cook Islands, proceedings are captured strictly in the Indigenous language, which he said helped keep the language alive for future generations.

Tonga’s Hansard editor, Susanna Heti Lui, was also at the conference, where she explained that the Kingdom’s Parliament felt the need to preserve and revive their Tongan language.

“Our language is the official language that is used in Parliament. That is compared to the government, it uses English as the official language used in the workplace,” she said.

Language must be active to stay alive
Te Amo points out that informal settings at Parliament are also opportunities for growth in the use of te reo, “where people can just bring whatever reo they’ve got and just speak that”.

“What I also hear a lot from members is that they’d also like to increase their knowledge and fluency in the language, and it’s very difficult to find ways of doing that which fit with their schedules which are absolutely hectic of course.

“One thing I’d love to see is members in particular being more comfortable with using their reo in the cafeteria or when you’re breezing through the halls,” he said.

“The only other things really is I wish our team of five was a team of 50 so we could offer to our colleagues everything that they’re asking for, as opposed to having to prioritise.”

Rawiri Waititi, the Member of Parliament for Waiariki, Te Paati Māori.
Rawiri Waititi, the MP for Waiariki, Te Paati Māori. Image: Johnny Blades/VNP

RNZ’s The House — parliamentary legislation, issues and insights — is made with funding from Parliament.

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