Posted on June 12, 2023

New Zealand Political Battle Erupts Over Bilingual Road Signs

Tess McClure, The Guardian, June 6, 2023

Plans to introduce bilingual road signs throughout New Zealand have become a political battleground, as arguments over racial politics become increasingly prominent in the country’s election race.

Last week, New Zealand opened public consultation on plans to create bilingual road signs in English and te reo Māori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa. Transport agency Waka Kotahi said the signs were “an opportunity for te reo Māori to be seen in our communities and support language learning and revitalisation,” and that “making te reo Māori a part of our everyday lives promotes cultural understanding and social cohesion.”

Bilingual road signs are the norm in many countries, including Scotland, Wales and parts of Europe. The plans immediately came under fire, however, from the centre-right National party, with spokesperson Simeon Brown saying the signs would be confusing, and that “We all speak English, and they should be in English.” David Seymour, leader of the libertarian right Act party and prospective National coalition partner, said that “the point of road signs is to communicate information in a language drivers understand, not to virtue signal, not to socially engineer”.

Minister for justice Kiritapu Allan said the comments were an insult to New Zealanders’ intelligence.

“Seems like they think New Zealand isn’t smart enough,” she told New Zealand newspaper outlet Stuff. “The rest of the world has embraced bilingualism and multilingualism – which is reflected in their road signs. This is a real insult to New Zealanders and our IQ.”

Both she and prime minister Chris Hipkins called the statements a form of “dog whistle” posturing to win votes via reactionary race politics.

“I’m not entirely sure where they’re going with that unless it’s an outright dog whistle,” Hipkins said.

During colonisation, there were active efforts to wipe out indigenous language in New Zealand, with some children beaten for speaking it at school. More recently, the country has been in the midst of large scale efforts to reclaim and revitalise the language. The number of New Zealanders who can speak basic Māori words and phrases has been growing, from 24% in 2018 to 30% in 2021, according to Statistics New Zealand. At the 2018 census 4% of New Zealanders were fluent speakers of Māori, up from 3.7% in 2013.

Dr Awanui Te Huia, of Te Herenga Waka Victoria University, said steps like road signs were an important element of that. “The more that we see Māori language around the place, it gives us a sense of where we are – politically, and at a physical level, but it also indicates to Māori language speakers that this language, our language, has relevance in contemporary contexts,” she said.

She regarded the criticism of bilingualism as politically motivated – and distracting. “We’re close to the elections – those right parties know that they need to differentiate themselves,” she said.

“It focuses the energy away from where we need to be focused on – which is on revitalization, on using the language as a platform for intercultural engagement, as a way of nation building.”

While the National party later softened some of its positioning – with leader Christopher Luxon saying the party did not oppose bilingualism but did not think it should be a priority for transport – the issue sparked fierce political debate. The political stoush comes with New Zealand’s election a few months away – scheduled for 14 October – and in a political term that has seen racial politics repeatedly emerging as a line of attack.

With New Zealand’s two largest political parties – Labour and National – vying for the centre, successive National leaders have turned to disputes over “co-governance” with Māori as points of difference and contention. When the government proposed Māori governance bodies in health and water reforms, then-National party leader Judith Collins accused them of creating “two systems by stealth”.

Political commentator Shane Te Pou, who was previously a Labour party executive member, said he believed the criticisms of bilingualism were “trying to beat up a culture war that I don’t think exists in the New Zealand paradigm, but certainly has some traction among older pākehā [white] New Zealanders.” He said the comments were part of a broader positioning by New Zealand’s right wing, opposing co-governance with Māori – and could be an attempt by National to win back voters that had strayed right, to the Act party, which was polling strongly at 12.7% in May.

“They are trying to win back some of that vote – it’s as simple as that,” Te Pou said.

In a speech laying out the Act party’s campaign for the coming election, Seymour accused the Labour-led government of having “accelerated the drift towards separatism with their constant insertion of race-based policy into everything”, and vowed to do away with “treating people differently based on race”.

Te Pati Māori [Māori party] co-leader Debbie Ngarewa Packer told RNZ the statements were an “ignorant alarmist way to be politicking”.

“Twenty percent of our population is Māori. If we see a large party basically trying to ignore 20% of this population, then can we expect them to do that to the rest of our multiculture, diversity and languages that we see coming forward in Aotearoa?”