Australia can learn from NZ on Indigenous recognition, says Maori development minister


New Zealand's Māori development minister Nanaia Mahuta visited Australia this week and said the two countries can exchange knowledge - particularly when it comes to language and recognition.

Australia has an opportunity to learn from New Zealand's Indigenous recognition efforts, the country's first female minister for Māori development has urged during a visit to Canberra.

Speaking to SBS News, Nanaia Mahuta said there were a lot of similarities between Australia’s current efforts towards greater Indigenous education outcomes and what New Zealand has experienced. 

“I know that every Indigenous people has their own historical context and while many of the learnings from each other’s country can’t be directly applicable, we can share our experience,” she said on Friday.

Nanaia Mahuta at the Māori Markings: Tā Moko exhibit.
Nanaia Mahuta at the Māori Markings: Tā Moko exhibit.
Amanda Copp/SBS News

“The issue of educational advancement and how we can better ensure that the education system is delivering to Māori, much of our experience is transferrable to the situation here in Australia and other countries.”

Ms Mahuta, who made headlines when she became the first minister to wear a moko kauae (a traditional facial tattoo worn by Māori women), travelled to Australia to exchange knowledge about Indigenous development and attend an exhibition showcasing the history of traditional Māori tattoos at the National Gallery of Australia.

“It’s a symbol of who I am, my identity and where I belong,” she said of her tattoo which she got in 2016, “and a place to stand in terms of my culture.”

Nanaia Mahuta.
Ms Mahuta is the first minister to wear a moko kauae, a traditional facial tattoo worn by Māori women.
SBS News

Aside from the exhibition, Ms Mahuta said the trip was “an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with my Australian counterparts, explore Indigenous relations between New Zealand and Australia and identify opportunities for collaboration in the future”.

Preserving Indigenous languages

Across the Tasman, the Labour MP is currently leading a push to introduce Māori language classes in all New Zealand primary schools by 2025.

"I know in the area of education, in particular, we have a lot to share with Australia," she said.

"We have one fairly homogeneous group and that’s not the case here [in Australia], but the way in which we have institutions that are established to strengthen Indigenous language might be a model that could be useful."

Currently, Māori, also known as te reo, is one of three officially recognised languages in New Zealand, alongside English and New Zealand sign language.

It's estimated more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, were spoken on the continent at the time of European colonisation in 1788.

Research by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies found only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are still acquired by children, but another 100 or so continue to be spoken by older generations.

Professor Jakelin Troy Australia
Professor Jakelin Troy says Australia should follow New Zealand's approach to Indigenous language.

Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research at the University of Sydney, Professor Jakelin Troy, agreed with Ms Mahuta that prioritising Indigenous language is one area where Australia should follow New Zealand’s lead.

“I think Australia is still copping out in a way that New Zealand isn't,” she told SBS News.

“Every Pākehā [a non-Māori New Zealander] in New Zealand knows a whole range of words that are specific to Māori thinking ... Most [non Indigenous] Australians couldn't tell you a single word in any Aboriginal language that meant anything really significant to us.”

Most Australians couldn't tell you a single word in any Aboriginal language.

- Professor Jakelin Troy

She said Australia should implement a body similar to the Māori Language Commission, which was established in 1987 to promote Maori as a “living language and as an ordinary means of communication”, adding that the vast number of Australian languages should not be a barrier to them being taught.

“It's not good enough to say there are too many languages. That's like saying ‘oh Europe, it's difficult, there are so many languages, let's just stick to English’,” she said.

“If we're in Australia, Australians should know Australian languages. It should be a given.”

Ms Mahuta looks at a photograph of Māori King Tawhiao, who she is a descendant of.
Ms Mahuta looks at a photograph of Māori King Tawhiao, who she is a descendant of.
Amanda Copp/SBS News

She also argues New Zealand has been better at accepting what happened during colonisation, particularily in terms of the language used around it. 

“There were wars in New Zealand and they're called wars … We still can't say there was an invasion, that Australia was invaded. It's 'colonisation' or 'settlement'.”

The federal government recently announced $2 million in funding to encourage more Australians to learn a language other than English, as well as on growing the number of Indigenous teachers teaching Indigenous languages.

"Our government is investing in Indigenous language because we understand the important role language plays for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and identity,” Minister for Education Dan Tehan said.

"We also need to encourage more students to study a second language. The development of a national strategy will include collecting data on the teaching of language in our schools and investigating the teaching materials being used.”

Push for a treaty

One of the key differences between Australia and New Zealand’s Indigenous policy is the existence, or lack, of a treaty with First Nations people.

In 1840, British representatives and more than 500 Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which established British sovereignty but allowed Māori chiefs to maintain possession of their land.

While Australia remains the only Commonwealth nation that has not signed a treaty with its Indigenous peoples, a number of states and territories have started the process towards one.

“People need to realise that the treaty in New Zealand was signed in 1840,” Ms Mahuta said. “We have a long history and relationship to our treaty context. It is the founding document of our nation.”

While there has since been “ups and downs” in the way the treaty has been observed, she said it was essential that the treaty remains relevant to modern New Zealand.

“Much of our work in New Zealand has been trying to educate New Zealanders about the relevance of the Treaty and why it’s such an important document,” she said. “But it’s more than a document because it underpins how good relationships can occur.”

A treaty is defined as a formal and binding agreement between states. If introduced in Australia, it would formally recognise Indigenous people’s sovereign rights.

In 2018, Victoria passed Australia’s first-ever treaty law, which set the groundwork for ongoing state treaty negotiations. Queensland and the Northern Territory have also begun early treaty negotiations.

But as states are unable to recognise Indigenous sovereignty, or amend the constitution, calls for a federal treaty continue.

“How Australia continues its conversation is a matter for Australia, and I hope that our experience and our context might be something that you could look to for an example,” Ms Mahuta said.

While Professor Troy acknowledged Australia and New Zealand are working within different contexts - namely that Māori's make up approximately 15 per cent of the population as compared to Indigenous Australians who account for three per cent - she said we should still look to our neighbours.

“We do need to follow New Zealand's lead in better legislative recognition, a modern treaty and a whole sort of suite of policies that would flow from such a choice,” she said.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has committed to holding a referendum on constitutional recognition within the next three years.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said he would not support a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament, as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

From one leader to another

As the first Māori woman appointed to the Māori development portfolio, Ms Mahuta also had some words of advice for Mr Wyatt, who this year became Australia's first-ever Indigenous minister to look after the Indigenous affairs portfolio.

“Expectations will be huge on him,” she said. “To manage that, it’s really important that his cabinet colleagues pick up the leadership in the areas that he believes are necessary to get change to happen.”

She said it was important for Indigenous communities and their leaders from around the world to come together and share their experience.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt during his swearing in at Government House.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt during his swearing in at Government House.

“I’m sure they [Indigenous Australians] will take hope and heart from having an Indigenous minister,” she said. “I’m looking forward to working with him.”

During her trip, Ms Mahuta also explored potential opportunities for trade and economic development between the neighbouring nations.

She met with Indigenous organisation Supply Nation, which administers Australia’s Indigenous procurement policy and is responsible for accrediting and keeping a register of Indigenous suppliers.

The Indigenous procurement policy sets a target for the number of domestic, government contracts that go to Indigenous businesses. In 2019-20, the target is three per cent.

“This is a remarkable step in making sure that Indigenous business has a real role in the Australian economy and empowering the Indigenous peoples of Australia,” Ms Mahuta said.

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