Friday, August 6, 2021

Karl du Fresne: A referendum? You mean, like, allowing people to have their say? We can't have that

It’s fascinating to observe the force with which the government and its protectors in the media have jumped on the National Party’s suggestion that official use of the name “Aotearoa” should be the subject of a referendum.

If this is the most pressing issue Judith Collins can come up with, they scoff, then she’s gone off the road (Ben Thomas’s phrase on Stuff). In any case, they remind us, “Aotearoa” has been around for years. It’s on our passports and banknotes. And guess who was in power when it was put there, as Newshub reminded us last night: why, the National Party! Game, set and match, then. Hell, hasn’t even Judith Collins been heard using the name once or twice?

(As an aside, you almost have to admire the zeal with which Labour’s cheerleaders at Newshub trawl through their old files and video clips looking for anything that might embarrass National. I sometimes wonder whether they get a bit of discreet assistance from the Labour Party research unit. In another example last night, Jenna Lynch, Tova O’Brien’s understudy as chief tormentor of the opposition, portrayed Collins as a hypocrite for criticising a government grant to a Mongrel Mob drug rehab scheme. National had given money to the very same programme in 2017, Lynch sneered. But hang on: National gave $30,000, whereas Labour is giving the gang $2.75 million. Admittedly it’s an infinitesimal difference – like, a mere $2.72 million – but, you know, apples with apples and all that.)

But back to that suggested Aotearoa referendum. Even David Seymour disses the idea, saying he would have thought New Zealand had more important things to grapple with. (After all, we’re merely talking about the name by which the rest of the world has known us since we first existed as a country. Nothing to see here, folks.) But of course that may just be Seymour seeking to score points over his main rival for the support of the swinging voters whom Jacinda Ardern and her government are doing their best to alienate. I mean, he’s a politician, after all.

What’s interesting here is the sheer weight of the attacks on the referendum idea. This tells us the government and its de facto PR operatives in the media are keen to snuff it out before it gets any traction.

The argument that “Aotearoa” has been around for years is utterly and wilfully disingenuous. Yes, it’s on our passports and banknotes, as an acknowledgment of this country’s bicultural roots. But it has always been secondary to our official name and for that reason, no one could reasonably have objected (and to my knowledge, no one ever has).

But what has happened in recent months is vastly different. With striking suddenness, Aotearoa – which we need to remind ourselves is a name of dubious authenticity – has become the term of choice for politicians, government departments and agencies, academics, teachers, virtue-signalling corporates and the mainstream media. Its use has become routine in government advertising and public statements. In other words, it has officially been adopted as a substitute for New Zealand. And all this has happened without so much as a skerrick of public endorsement.

The absence of a mandate is the issue here, and I suspect National, which otherwise appears bereft of ideas, is correct to latch onto it. Like low-energy light bulbs and cats in dairies, it has the potential to become a focal point for public unease about a barrage of radical government initiatives. That would explain why opponents of a referendum are so eager to kick the ball into the long grass.

They sneer at National’s claim that “Aotearoa” is being promoted by stealth and technically they’re right, since there’s nothing remotely surreptitious about it. “Aotearoa” has been brazenly imposed by a political elite in the hope that we will all adopt it as if by osmosis.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that we have nothing to fear from a debate about the country’s name. “New Zealand” has no intrinsic historical or cultural relevance and is almost comically inappropriate, considering our geographical contrast with the flat, low-lying Dutch province that inspired the name. But while it was acquired by historical accident, the name has come to stand for something in the world, as we’ve been reminded during the Olympic Games. It has acquired its own powerful resonance in all manner of spheres: sport, warfare, diplomacy, trade, tourism and the arts, to mention a few. That has to be weighed against the appeal of an alternative that is more distinctively our own.

Other countries (Sri Lanka, Iran, Thailand, Madagascar) have changed their names, but the ramifications are enormous. The only democratic way to determine the issue is by popular vote preceded by a thorough, transparent and informed public discussion of the pros and cons. But the left distrusts democracy, which may explain why the government would prefer that we compliantly adopted Aotearoa “organically” – to use a term favoured by the prime minister – rather than go through the inconvenient business of letting the people have their say.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


DeeM said...

In politics you can't have it both ways. National put Aotearoa on our banknotes and passports - two fundamental things that define a country. They're on shaky ground criticising Labour for the widespread use of it and the media were always going to take them to task.
As I understand it, from previous articles I have read by esteemed authors on this website, Aotearoa was never used by Maori and only came into existence in the public sphere in the 1890's in a book.
Like Karl, I have no great attachment to the name New Zealand, but I wasn't born here so I generally don't get involved much in name change debates.
But, as I see it, we have one name which was given to us by the Dutch and relates to a place which bears no physical resemblance to our land, and another name which is made up and was never used by Maori.
I'm amazed the British didn't rename the country when they got here - New Georgia perhaps!

Ray S said...

It's not he name that matters, it's the way the name Aotearoa has been applied in everyday discussion.
The government is becoming more adept at stealth. As DeeM said, they have no desire to let the people think about and or discuss anything remotely intelligent.
Continual use by the media, govt. departments, compliant business and more importantly. schools, will soon have the name firmly embedded in our psyche, more so than now.

New Zealanders or Aotearoans, if it aint broke, don't fix it.