16 Feb 2024

Emails reveal concerns within Waka Kotahi about name change

11:11 am on 16 February 2024
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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The head of the Transport Agency (NZTA) ordered the only line about a partnership with Māori removed from a short press release she issued about relegating the name 'Waka Kotahi' to second place.

NZTA chief executive Nicole Rosie's instruction has been revealed in more than 100 pages of emails released under the Official Information Act.

Nicole Rosie as the new NZTA New Zealand Transport Agency chief executive

NZTA chief executive Nicole Rosie Photo: NZTA

It came shortly after Rosie stressed to staff and the board that partnering with Māori was vital and would "expand"; and days after Transport Minister Simeon Brown told Waka Kotahi to change its "branding and communication in media" as soon as possible.

Brown first ordered the name change to make English in late November, although this was was verbal only.

The emails show that NZTA had expected a follow-up in writing, but the Public Service Commission told RNZ this week that it had given no directives because "we have not received any direction from the government regarding the use of te reo".

A media query in December asked for the agency's response to Māori complaints and a media manager sent a draft to Rosie to approve. In the last of four paragraphs it said:

"We will continue to build our cultural capability as an organisation, and to work with Māori as partners to build strong, meaningful and enduring relationships to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes."

The media person described it as a line "about partnership building", and said they had made sure "BLANK has that".

A few minutes later Rosie emailed back a single line:

"No we wsnt [sic] that removed."

Three days before the 'partnership' line was dropped, Rosie emailed a staffer upset at the name change:

"I want to assure you that the organisation remains absolutely committed to continuing to build our cultural competency and our partnership with Maori.

"Our work in this space will continue and be expanded."

She had told the board that staff were worried, so she would "reinforce" the commitment to a Māori partnership strategy.

The media query had sought comment on the charge that Māori mana was being trampled on.

Waka Kotahi said on Wednesday that the media query asked for a specific response about concerns raised by Ngāi Te Rangi Settlements Trust about NZTA's response to the English-first policy.

"The advice from the CE was simply intended to ensure that the response was specifically addressed to the question raised in the media query - which was about the process followed in amending our naming convention," it told RNZ.

It had separately responded to Ngāi Te Rangi Settlements Trust, it said.

It is common for RNZ to receive statements from public agencies that both specifically address a question and also emphasise where the agency stands and what it values - for instance, when the query is about an accident or breach, to state they take safety or security very seriously.

Waka Kotahi has never been the agency's legal name. While the Cabinet in 2022 approved that name, it was never put through in law, and its legal name remains the 'New Zealand Transport Agency'.

Waka Kotahi was gifted by iwi to it in 2008, but given much greater prominence from 2019 on.

The emails show Rosie told the board in a 30 November memo: "The government's direction is limited to our name and logo change."

But she also said: "This is far deeper than a name and will have significance for many well beyond a discussion of whether the Māori name should come first.

"Staff have raised questions and concerns about this name change and what it means for our ongoing partnership, therefore we will reinforce our ongoing commitment to our Māori strategy, Te Ara Kotahi."

However, the strategy - which repeatedly refers to partnership with Māori - would be refreshed this year "in line with the incoming government's objectives".

The emails show mixed messages about how fast the name change should go.

Brown announced it publicly on 4 December and three days before that Rosie said: "He has ... asked us to provide him with PPE that is branded NZTA" and change messaging.

By contrast, the bulk of emails talk about a gradual change to PPE, car signage and stationery - as things carrying the Waka Kotahi name first wear out and are replaced, to keep costs down.

The directions from the Minister had all been verbal.

Any agencies waiting for written directives have still not had them, the PSC response suggests.

The upset staffer had emailed Rosie in November that she was ''deeply saddened by government's decision".

"You and most of the staff have embraced this initiative to bring the language into everyone's daily life, and I love it!

"I am insulted that the names gifted to us by Iwi now have no relevance, and I think it's a slap in the face for them, too."

Rosie had circulated this to her senior leadership, saying the email summarised how many of its people would feel.

"Waka Kotahi and moving together also forms the bases of our strategy, values and guiding stars - so have meaning and application well beyond the name."

Other emails from managers discussed how "it's possible that we may be saying that it's fine to use Waka Kotahi for internal use"; and that "You can use Aotearoa New Zealand if you'd like to. Use Aotearoa New Zealand in full the first time you mention it, then use Aotearoa alone every other time you mention it."

At one stage, a fleet administrator asks if the old name that puts Māori first, will need to be removed from five new Mitsubishis being kitted out.

The Public Service Commission told RNZ on Wednesday it had not issued any direction on te reo, to any agencies.

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