Mr Lester and his bunch of culture warriors

PHOTO: Twitter

Wellington residents (at least those still buying a hardcopy newspaper) woke on Thursday to find that the shrunken?Dominion Post?newspaper had given itself a temporary Maori masthead and an, apparently, permanent change of name, to something that looks as though it might be the longest newspaper name anywhere in the world.

I guess private businesses can do whatever they want to try to boost sales ?? or, in the case of newspapers, temporarily stem the decline. Given that pundits offer odds on how much longer daily hardcopy newspapers will survive, I don?t suppose this particular marketing effort will be with us for long. In today?s paper they claim to have been flooded with messages of support but, in the letters to the editor, the only letter in favour was an over-long (and thus abridged) effort from the head of the Maori language commission.

What was perhaps considerably more questionable is the way the newspaper and its proprietors launched their new name to coincide with, and explicitly to celebrate, Wellington City Council?s own new Maori language policy. ? Since one role of newspapers used to be to provide scrutiny and criticism of those in power, I guess we can?t expect any such scrutiny of this particular act of culture war and virtue signalling.

Wellington City Council is a beacon of awfulness, pursuing political visions and cultural agendas that:

(a) aren?t really any business of local councils and

(b) seem to be a substitute for doing the basics well.

As I?ve noted here before, there are smallish things like the Island Bay cycleway: millions and millions of dollars on something ugly, and largely useless, which the residents (a clear majority) have indicated strongly that they don?t want.

There are staggering sums wasted on convention centres, film museums, and saving an old town hall, and rather smaller sums (so far) devoted to plans to tip tens of millions into helping to pay to extend Wellington airport runway.

Then there is a scandal of house and urban land prices. Perhaps Wellington City Council are no worse than most other councils on this score (all are reprehensible). In a city with abundant land, the council are determined that it won?t be used, and instead, want to compel future generations to live on top of each other (often literally), while delivering house and land prices that are simply unaffordable to most. It is like some San Francisco model (on a smaller and poorer scale), pricing out ordinary people, and in a city with some big captive businesses (central government). Life might be sweet for the middle-aged liberal elite; shame about anyone else.

The council?s latest initiative (approved unanimously) on Thursday was the new Maori language policy, aiming to make Wellington ?a te reo Maori city? by 2040. Which is puzzling (except for the culture-war/virtue-signalling angle) given how scarce people of Maori descent/identity actually are in Wellington city (and likely to remain so, given the housing/land use policies that increasingly crowd out lower-income people ? a group Maori are overrepresented in).

If one ranks all the territorial local authorities by the percentage of the population identifying as Maori in the 2013 census, the top 10 territorial local authorities (mostly central North Island, plus Far North and the Chatham Islands) averaged 46.3 per cent Maori. The bottom 10 territorial local authorities in 2013? (all in the South Island) averaged 6.6 per cent Maori. Wellington City was 7.6 per cent Maori?? just a touch ahead of Dunedin.

What compounds the oddity is that Wellington is one of only two territorial local authorities in the entire country with a far larger Asian population (?Asian?, of course, encompassing a whole range of quite different ethnicities) than the Maori population.

It seems likely that the relative share of the different Asian ethnicities will have increased further in this year?s census.

The council claim that their goal is that the city should become a ?bilingual capital?, with the aim of ?making te reo a core part of Wellington?s identity by ensuring it is widely seen, heard, and spoken in the capital.?

All of which, frankly, seems highly unlikely, given the demographics, aided and abetted by the council?s own housing and land use policies. It isn?t like, say, Wales, where efforts to save the language actually involve a language that was the heritage of most of the current residents.

Not that it stops Justin Lester and his crew of councillors. In future, new streets will preferentially be given Maori names and (whatever this means) they plan on ?incorporating te reo in its decision making processes and functions? (when roughly one in 14 residents identifies as Maori).

Some place names in the council precinct are being given Maori names now. There was talk of the heart of the city being renamed, but the stark windswept Civic Square is barely used most of the year. Already the annual civic fireworks display has been shifted from Guy Fawkes to Matariki: a ‘festival’ barely anyone had heard of even 20 years ago.

Fortunately, councils don?t get to decide public holidays, but Mr Lester is also calling for Queen?s Birthday to be scrapped as a public holiday in favour of the same pseudo-festival Matariki (an occasion that appears to be observed mostly by taxpayer and ratepayer-funded entities. My inbox is awash with newsletters from schools proposing that I attend such events).

These people seem to be embarrassed by their heritage (almost all the councillors appear to be of predominantly Anglo or Celtic descent). I?m pretty sure that even in secular Wellington the churchgoing share of the population is roughly equal to the Maori share (with some overlap, of course), but I can?t recall the last time the council was championing Easter celebrations to anything like the extent they champion Matariki (and nor would I want them to). It simply isn?t the role of a council, which is roads and drains and rubbish (oh, and land use). While the Mayor is no doubt embarrassed that New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, it is and with clear public support at present.

Even civic heritage is for the chop: the lagoon down on the waterfront was named for decades for an eminent former mayor (not one of my particular political sympathies) but now the councillors (but probably no one much else) want to call it Whairepo Lagoon. No doubt Mr Lester and his team will feel better for it, having (as he puts it) provided a lead for New Zealand, including most of the rest of New Zealand where Maori actually largely live.

I?ve another idea for Mr Lester and his bunch of culture warriors. Guess who Wellington is named for? The dreadful old Tory, the Duke of Wellington: former soldier and prime minister of Britain and its empire of which we are now apparently supposed to be ashamed. He might have beaten Napoleon, but what?s that to anyone now, here? The Wellington City Council?s buildings are on Victoria Street (yes, she the Queen-Emperor) and Wakefield St (Edward Gibbon, master colonial expansionist, who spent time in prison for abducting an heiress). Lambton Quay is named for the chairman of the New Zealand Company, Cuba and Tory streets for two of the first ships carrying settlers and bacillus of western culture to Wellington, and so on.

I hesitate to mention it lest I give someone an idea, but this particular virus is already afoot elsewhere, with a?story?recently about people calling for name changes in Levin, Hamilton and Gisborne (although, to be honest, and notwithstanding the history, I have some sympathy in respect of Poverty Bay). But, why stop there? Surely the culture-warrior left must be embarrassed to live in a country with places named for:

  • Lord Auckland
  • Lord Nelson (with streets named for Hardy, Victory and Trafalgar)
  • Sir Charles Napier (?The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed.?) and
  • Lord Palmerston (twice over).

And, when our third largest city is named for an Oxford college, itself named (with such uncomfortable particularity) for the Messiah, when a southern city?s name celebrates Scotland and its leading role in the empire, and when Hastings surely evokes memories of militarism and conquest, then surely it is past time for reform. Let’s just junk our heritage: the roots that built one of the best societies on Earth (amid all its flaws) for some expensive feel-good campaign.

Or perhaps the council could refocus and actually make Wellington an affordable city, for Europeans, Maori, Pacific people, Asians and whoever else chooses to live here. It really isn?t so hard except, of course, that it runs head-on into the planners? mentality that pervades our local government.? They know best? and we?ll suffer it.


By Michael Reddell

Croaking Cassandra