18 Dec 2023

Christopher Luxon's reo Māori lessons paid for by taxpayer

3:31 pm on 18 December 2023
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is defending spending taxpayer money on his own te reo Māori lessons, after he criticised that specific use of public funds.

National this month was criticising bonuses for public servants who were proficient in the language, saying they should only apply to roles where it was relevant.

Such bonuses had been provided in some organisations since the 1980s, and were included in some collective agreements.

Luxon himself had also criticised spending on te reo Māori lessons for public servants, when asked on 6 December if those bonuses were a good way to incentivise learning.

"What I'd just say to you is people are completely free to learn te reo themselves, that's what happens out there in the real world - out there in corporate life, or in any other community life across New Zealand," he said.

"I've got a number of MPs for example that have made a big effort to learn te reo over the last five years and they've driven that learning themselves because they want to do it."

He was then asked if that was paid for by the MPs themselves or taxpayers.

"In the real world, outside of Wellington and outside the bubble of Parliament, people who want to learn te reo or want to learn any other education actually pay for it themselves. It's quite normal," Luxon said.

In a statement, the prime minister's office has since confirmed Luxon's own lessons had been paid for by the Leader of the Opposition's office budget, which is funded by taxpayers.

"Christopher Luxon's te reo lessons came out of the Leader of the Opposition's office budget," the statement said.

"This is a finite budget that can be used to support the Leader of the Opposition in their role, including training. As Leader of the Opposition and a potential Prime Minister at the time, developing better skills in te reo was highly relevant to his role."

Luxon on 6 December, just minutes before his other comments, had spoken about learning the language and how much he wanted to support it.

"Look, we want to encourage people to learn te reo, it's a fantastic language, I wish I had learnt as a young person myself, as you know I'm trying to learn, I've found it actually very hard and very difficult to learn, it hasn't been easy. I want to encourage as many New Zealanders to learn te reo as possible," he said.

"But you know, the minister quite rightly is taking advice and taking a review of all the bonuses that are paid across the public service so that we can make sure that the incentives are right to deliver outcomes, and improved outcomes, for New Zealanders.

"Previous commitments [like collective agreements] will be upheld but at the moment what's important is that we take stock of all the bonuses that are being paid across the public service."

The government also has a policy of introducing bonuses for public sector chief executives, linked to specific performance metrics. Luxon highlighted that policy the same day, after further questions about what other bonuses might be evaluated across the sector.

"We want to align bonuses of CEs and executive teams with actually deliverables and outcomes, and we think that's a really good thing because as we've said there's been a huge amount of money spent, a huge amount of people hired, and actually outcomes have got worse," he said.

'Absolute hypocrisy' - Labour

In a statement, Labour leader Chris Hipkins said it was hypocritical for Luxon to set about cancelling the taxpayer subsidies he had used, when that should be an opportunity extended to as many people as possible.

"Te reo Māori is more than an official language, it's a national treasure. I celebrate any Kiwis taking the opportunity to learn te reo," Hipkins said.

"As a government we worked hard to extend that opportunity to as many people as possible.

"Christopher Luxon should be commended for learning Māori, but it's absolute hypocrisy for his government to then set about cancelling the taxpayer subsidies he used to do so, thus denying others that same opportunity.

"Unfortunately, that's a pattern we've come to expect from Christopher Luxon. It's a lot like claiming a subsidy for his new Tesla then cancelling the scheme for others."

'Pay it back' - Taxpayers Union

Lobby group the Taxpayers Union (TPU)'s campaigns manager Connor Molloy said Luxon should be paying the cost of the lessons back.

He told RNZ Luxon had been correct to call out wasteful expenditure in the public service.

"Clearly he has backed himself into a corner and then been called out saying one thing but then doing another. He should be willing to practise what he preaches and now that he's been called out he should be doing the right thing and paying the money back.

"As it's been revealed, he too has been taking taxpayer-funded lessons and we think he should do the right thing and pay it back."

He said the TPU did not think the lessons were relevant to Luxon's role.

"The prime minister has a large number of staff around him who are able to do that kind of thing. The communications the prime minister does are primarily in English, but as far as it is relevant we've had a number of prime ministers in the past who haven't been fluent in te reo."

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