Parliament's culture and traditions

Page 6 – Parliament in te reo

Māori language in Parliament

Te reo (the Māori language) came into Parliament with the first Māori Members of Parliament (MPs), elected in 1868. Speaking in Māori has been a vexed issue both for those who spoke the language and those who could not. Early Maori MPs had little English. Some Maori MPs preferred to speak in Māori, and some wanted to make a point by doing so. One MP, Tapihana Paraire (Dobbie) Paikea, spoke in Māori as a way to send messages home to his wife who was listening on the radio.

Providing interpreters was one answer. There were three by the 1880s, and they were kept more than busy: translating the Māori members' speeches in the chamber, translating hundreds of petitions from Māori and all bills and parliamentary papers into Māori, attending the Native Affairs and other committees and acting as interpreters when Pākehā members dealt with Māori. The job was tough, especially when the MPs used colourful language and the interpreters had to try to soften the words in the English version. One Māori MP refused to have his words changed, so he repeated the offending words several times and then knocked the interpreter over the adjacent seat.

Things came to a head in 1913 when Apirana Ngata (initially as a joke) spoke in Māori, to obstruct business, without an interpreter present. Maui Pomare told him not to be silly, and Prime Minister Massey said that Māori who were fluent in English should be compelled to use it in the House. The Speaker ruled that Ngata had the right to ask for an interpreter but not to speak in Māori in the absence of an interpreter.

Te reo became more of an issue when Māori MPs associated with the Ratana movement were elected in the 1930s and wanted to speak in Māori. They were allowed to, provided what they said was brief and they gave an immediate translation.

Parliament made Māori an official language in 1985, and MPs could speak in English or Māori. In 1990 Koro Wetere caused an uproar by replying to questions in the House in Māori and refusing to supply an immediate translation. The greater use of Māori at formal occasions through the 1990s increased the need for a translation service, and from 1997, for the first time in many decades, an interpreter has been made available.

How to cite this page

'Parliament in te reo', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/the-work-of-government/history-of-parliament/parliament-in-te-reo, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-Jul-2014