6 Dec 2023

Te reo Māori bonuses acceptable for 'relevant' roles - Minister Nicola Willis

5:11 pm on 6 December 2023
The formal swearing-in of the new coalition government by Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro on 27 November, 2023.

Public Service and Finance Minister Nicola Willis is sworn into her ministerial roles at Government House, on 27 November. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Public Service Minister Nicola Willis is softening her comments to RNZ suggesting the government would prevent bonuses being negotiated for te reo Māori proficiency.

Unions promised to fight such moves and the Māori Language Commission Te Taura Whiri said it would be a "great shame" to curtail the allowances which had existed since the 1980s, after Willis told RNZ she was seeking advice on how to stop the bonuses being negotiated in future.

"While we would not have initiated the bonuses ourselves, and while we do not support them, we are left with little choice but to implement them given they are contained in binding collective agreements," she said.

But Willis told reporters later in the afternoon she should have included more context in that statement, saying she only opposed such bonuses "in circumstances where they're not relevant".

"And I think that's the phrase I should have included in that statement, and has led people to see something bigger than I intended. I accept there will be many circumstances where receiving a bonus for te reo Māori use could be relevant to the job at hand."

There were some circumstances such skills would be useful, she acknowledged.

"I think if you're in a government agency and you're engaging with iwi Māori, or you are working with Māori communities where te reo Māori is used as a primary language, then it would be really relevant to make your public service accessible for that community.

"There are many situations where for people working in our public sector and public agencies, te reo Māori will be a very relevant skill for which they should be remunerated."

She noted National had campaigned on the issue when in opposition, with MP Simeon Brown saying they supported public servants learning the language if they wanted to or it was required as part of their job, but taxpayers should not fund special bonuses for those who did.

He promised such bonuses would be removed if National won the election.

Willis on Wednesday was quick, however, to dampen suggestions the party could override any agreements that had already been negotiated.

"In opposition, we challenged whether bonuses being paid to people for their proficiency in te reo Māori were always relevant to the job that they were doing," she said.

"There are a number of collective agreements across government right now - and I understand that many of them already include these clauses ... we are a government that upholds contracts, and so we will uphold everything in existing collective agreements."

She said she was seeking more information about the contracts - and bonuses across the public sector more generally.

"For example, we have a policy of introducing performance pay for chief executives because we think it's a good way of saying 'if you deliver for people, if you meet the targets we're setting for you, you will be paid more," she said. "So I want to understand what is actually the precedent for bonuses across the public service."

She wanted to ensure people got the message, however, "that it's very important to me that New Zealanders understand ... that we do celebrate te reo Māori, the Māori language".

She said she had taken lessons herself, her children were becoming proficient, and many MPs in National's caucus had also begun learning the language.

Christopher Luxon

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was on the same page as Willis.

"I'm sure ... previous commitments will be upheld but at the moment what's important is we take stock of all the bonuses that are being paid across the public service and we make sure that's actually incentivising and delivering better outcomes for New Zealanders," he said.

"All we're saying is, look, the minister's quite right to actually take advice, undertake a review, look at all the bonuses and the variable pay that's at play, to make sure that we are delivering outcomes for New Zealanders.

"People are completely free to learn te reo themselves, that's what happens out there in the real world - in corporate life or any other community life - across New Zealand."

NZ First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters argued it was a question of finances.

"Reality is that a second language is good for anyone, but the point is this is an English-speaking country and comprehension and understanding is the key point of communications. So if 95 percent don't understand, then what would your point be?" he said.

Winston Peters

Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We've got all sorts of things like Māori radio, Māori TV, and all sorts of Māori programmes. There's only so much money.

"As someone who was there at the start of Kōhanga Reo and every other Māori language nest there's ever been in help on the way through, we're all for it - but not what you see now."

ACT leader David Seymour was also keen to keep costs down. He said if people needed te reo Māori to perform their job, that should continue.

David Seymour

ACT leader David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

However, he suggested it made little sense when people were being paid to learn the reo, or where there was a blanket payment when that proficiency was not being used in the role.

"Remember, these bonuses were expressly for people who weren't using te reo Māori in their job, they were getting money for learning it for other reasons.

"I don't think given the fiscal situation - given the challenges with public services, with pay rounds coming for nurses, shortages of GPs - that we can afford to be spending money on things like that."

He would not go so far as to override collective agreements.

"Obviously implementing any policy, you've got to be aware of contracts that the Crown has made in the past - ACT's said it's a bad look to break contracts that it's collectively made."

Labour leader Chris Hipkins argued it was important for the public sector to have proficiency in te reo Māori.

"Te reo Māori is an official language of New Zealand, so we ask government departments to have the capability to be able to work in te reo Māori, to be able to interact with members of the public in te reo Māori, and in order to do that they have to have a workforce that's capable of doing that."

Chris Hipkins

Labour leader Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He pointed to the collective agreements for primary and secondary school teachers.

"There are provisions for those who can speak te reo Māori to be paid an extra allowance for that. That recognises that actually those teachers are in very very hot demand because there are so many young people who want to learn te reo Māori, and if we don't provide those sorts of incentives we simply won't be able to teach it."

However, Seymour suggested such approaches should be more restricted.

"If they are a teacher who is going to be teaching te reo Māori, absolutely. If they're a teacher who wants their career to take them into the Māori medium, then absolutely.

"But if it's purely as a blanket thing when perhaps that teacher has no intention of ever ... teaching te reo or working in a Māori medium environment, then I question whether that's the best use of their time or anyone's resources.

"If people can show that spending more money on having te reo lessons for teachers is going to turn around reading, maths and science then I'm all ears.

"If it's going to be useful for the job, that's the question."

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the new government's approach was "just ugly, it's ugly to hear that korero".

"Sadly I think it just confirms the backward focus of this government, and I think anyone that has our taonga, our reo rangatira, should be remunerated and given gratitude for the strength and the tautoko that they have in that taonga."

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

But NZ First Minister Shane Jones, who is fluent in te reo, said it should be up to individuals rather than incentivised.

"We learnt by putting in a lot of effort, through our school, through my upbringing and my grandmother, and I'd leave that to the CEOs.

"But I will say, if you really want to save the language it's got to come from deep in your heart and you've got to teach your children and it's a struggle. You shouldn't just be incentivised at work to salvage the language.

"I agree with our minister of finance, we've got to have a comprehensive review, find every cent we've got because we've got big financial challenges."

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  • Government's move to discourage use of te reo Māori 'backwards', 'disappointing', Hipkins says
  • Prime Minister Christopher Luxon says Māori protests against government 'pretty unfair'