Story: Biculturalism

Page 2. Biculturalism in the state sector

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The Māori protests of the 1970s and 1980s brought about important changes in how New Zealand saw itself, and how the state delivered services to New Zealanders. The public sector began to talk about bicultural New Zealand and acknowledge te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) as the country’s founding document. Government departments began to adopt the idea that the languages, cultures and traditions of both Pākehā and Māori should be officially recognised by the state. In 1987, te reo Māori became an official language of New Zealand under the Māori Language Act. This gave everyone the right to use te reo Māori in official settings such as Parliament and the courts.

Becoming bicultural

Writer and academic Ranginui Walker (Whakatōhea) wrote, ‘To survive in the political economy, Māori are impelled to learn and to function in two cultures. Therefore Māori are, by definition, bicultural.’1In his 1992 book Becoming bicultural, educational psychologist James Ritchie described biculturalism as ‘a fact of contemporary social life so profound that everything we do, everything we are, must be considered and reconsidered in terms of it. My world is divided not just into Māori and Pākehā but into those who think biculturally and those who do not’.2

1987 royal commission report

In the late 1980s, reports emerged from the public sector that broke away from the assimilation policies of the past and reflected a new, more bicultural New Zealand. Many of these reports proposed changes to government departments to make them more appropriate and effective for Māori.

Perhaps the most significant example of the bicultural vision adopted by the public sector was the report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy in 1987. The report stated that ‘the Maori dimension is basic to New Zealand society and this must have profound implications for all social policy.’3 It included an extensive discussion of the Treaty of Waitangi and its implications and objectives for social policy. Most significantly, some chapters in the report were translated into te reo Māori, reflecting the fact that te reo Māori had been made an official language of New Zealand in 1987.

Other policy reports

In 1986 Puao-te-ata-tu: daybreak provided a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. As with the other reports, its bilingual title reflected a desire to consider Māori–government relations in a new, bicultural, way.  A 1988 government policy paper on Māori affairs, He tirohanga rangapu: partnership perspectives, called for major changes to the delivery of Māori-affairs services to give a meaningful role to Māori. The Labour government’s response, Te urupare rangapu: partnership response, instead proposed a more modest restructuring of the Department of Māori Affairs. The 1990 National government continued the idea of biculturalism to some extent. Ka awatea: a new day set out the government’s blueprint for Māori development, which focused on education as the key to Māori achievement.

Reforming the state sector

One effect of the state-sector reforms of the 1980s was to reorient the outward appearance of the sector, and the way it responded to Māori, in a more bicultural direction. By the 2000s, most New Zealand government departments had a Māori name. Māori karakia and waiata were familiar at official functions, and tangihanga leave was provided. Māori words, symbols and concepts are now commonplace inside and outside the government and public sector. The Public Service Act 2020 requires senior leaders in the public service to recognise the aims and aspirations of Māori, and foster greater involvement of Māori in the public service.

Reforming other institutions

Although bicultural policy developed within the public sector in particular, other sections of New Zealand society also grappled with the ideas associated with biculturalism. In 1986 the bicultural commission of the Anglican Church released the report Te kaupapa tikanga rua: bi-cultural development. This recommended changing the constitution of the church to reflect and entrench partnership and biculturalism. The church adopted almost all of the commission’s recommendations, and today its structure still reflects the changes made in the 1980s.

Human rights lawyer Moana Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Porou) argued for a more substantial form of biculturalism through the establishment of a Māori justice system. Professor Whatarangi Winiata (Ngāti Raukawa) argued for New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy to better reflect the nature of the treaty partnership.

Many incremental but important changes which reflect the bicultural journey have occurred in other aspects of New Zealand society. Until the 1990s, it was most common for only the English version of the national anthem to be sung. When Hinewehi Mohi (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe) sang only the te reo Māori version of the anthem at a rugby international at Twickenham in the United Kingdom, it caused a national debate. It then became more common for the te reo Māori version of the national anthem to be sung first, followed by the English version. Today, this is how the national anthem is always sung. From 2022, a new public holiday in June celebrated Matariki, the Māori New Year.

Te reo Māori revival

Revival of te reo Māori has been a vital part of biculturalism in recent years. The number of New Zealanders who can speak more than a few words and phrases in te reo is growing. It is now not unusual to hear towns and cities being referred to by both their Māori and English names, and many people refer to New Zealand as Aotearoa.

  1. Ranginui Walker, Ka whawhai tonu mātou: struggle without end. Rev. ed. Auckland: Penguin, 2004, p. 389. Back
  2. James Ritchie, Becoming bicultural. Wellington: Huia; Daphne Brasell Associates, 1992, p. 6. Back
  3. The April report: report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy: Te Komihana a te Karauna mo nga Ahuatanga-A-Iwi. Vol 2. Wellington: Royal Commission on Social Policy, 1988, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Janine Hayward, 'Biculturalism - Biculturalism in the state sector', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Janine Hayward, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 10 Jan 2023 with assistance from Janine Hayward