Politics | Te Reo Māori

Ministry leak: Te Reo Māori scrubbed from official use ahead of new government

Former NZ Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Fiji PM Sitiveni Rabuka in March 2023.

“Kia ora koutou e te whānau,” begins the message sent to all staff at a major government ministry from their chief executive.

“Ngā manaakitanga,” is how it ends, an expression of kindness and respect.

It’s what’s sandwiched in between the greeting and sign-off that hints at why harsh criticism was directed at bosses at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade by some staff, after Te Reo Māori was erased from some official use in anticipation of the new National-led government.

The message from chief executive and secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade Chris Seed, which was leaked to Stuff discusses: “my decision to remove Te Reo headings from the submission templates during the caretaker period”.

“It is very clear from the extensive correspondence SLT [Senior Leadership Team] has received that this has had a significant impact.”

Former state services commissioner Iain Rennie told the Tova podcast it’s important the public sector doesn’t fall into a culture wars approach: “If there was a good reason for using te reo yesterday in communication [and] engagement, there’s no reason to change that today or tomorrow.”

To protect the sector’s neutrality, he says it’s important that public servants don’t look like they’re responding to the political colour of the day.

“That leads to people then saying, well you’re pretty much politically aligned whether you’re wearing a blue tie or a red tie or whatever, and I don’t think the public sector wants to be in that position.”

Outgoing Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said MFAT “is happy to leverage Te Reo Māori and Māori culture in the pursuit of trade deals and diplomacy but internally fails to advocate for its use in internal briefings to its incoming Minister”.

It’s not yet clear what the new government’s position will be on the use of te reo Māori by government departments because it’s not yet been formed.

The three prospective parties - National, ACT and NZ First - have different views on the issue. National’s Chris Luxon has said he wants an “English first” approach for government departments with dual-language names, whereas NZ First’s Winston Peters has promised to erase all Māori names from government departments.

Stuff understands that the previous Labour foreign affairs minister, Nanaia Mahuta, had instructed staff at MFAT to use more te reo in official correspondence.

In response, a submission template was introduced for all formal messages sent to government ministers, which included Māori terminology for terms like summary, report, recommendations and conclusions.

Around the time special votes were returned, confirming the likely makeup of the new government would be National, ACT and NZ First, MFAT changed the template, reverting to English in parts.

What followed was a backlash from some staff members. Stuff understands at least 300 of MFAT’s 1800 staff signed a petition objecting to the change.

MFAT declined Stuff’s request for an interview. In response to half a dozen questions, MFAT sent the following short statement:

“The application of te reo Māori within the Ministry and across communication channels remains unchanged.

“We have made an adjustment to one template during the caretaker period. The ministry will consult with the incoming Minister for their preferences on receiving advice.”

A follow-up request asking MFAT to address the questions, including the rationale for the change before any direction had been given by the government, went unanswered.

Because Mahuta lost her seat and didn’t make it back into parliament on Labour’s list, she is not part of the caretaker government but Jackson told Stuff he’s “gravely concerned”:m“I am very disappointed to hear that MFAT are making changes effectively removing the use of Te Reo Maori from its briefings to the incoming minister without any directive at all from the current and incoming government”.

National said it was not in a position to comment.

On Monday, Stuff revealed the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment was also considering its own changes and cuts in advance of the incoming government.

A leaked email sent to all staff from chief executive Carolyn Tremain said “we are preparing for change” and “this is inevitable as we get ready to support a new government and new Ministers”.

MBIE said in a statement that the cuts were in response to the savings targets imposed by the outgoing Labour government and being mindful of the cost of living crisis.

But further changes being considered appeared to be in anticipation of the new government making good on its “cut the waste” campaign rhetoric, including preparations for redundancies.

“We are also exploring the development of a voluntary redundancy process. If this is needed, this will be targeted,” Tremain wrote.

The Public Service Association, which represents 90,000 public servants, said MBIE’s move was alarming: “The fact that agencies like MBIE are already preparing for the directives that will come from the new government, even before it’s formed, is alarming for all public service workers. Many are feeling anxious given the sweeping statements made during the election campaign.”

A source told Stuff in response to the outgoing government’s savings targets, MFAT is planning to cut business class travel and instead fly qualifying staff premium economy.

MFAT denied the changes have been made but wouldn’t comment on whether they are being considered.

“No changes have been made, and, in any case, it is not our practice to advise internal organisational matters through the media,” a spokesperson said.