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Govt seeks to halt extra pay for public servants fluent in te reo Māori

Publish Date
Wed, 6 Dec 2023, 7:19am
 Minister Nicola Willis. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Minister Nicola Willis. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Govt seeks to halt extra pay for public servants fluent in te reo Māori

Publish Date
Wed, 6 Dec 2023, 7:19am

The government is trying to figure out how to stop any more public servants getting extra pay for being proficient in te reo Māori. 

But it concedes it cannot dump existing allowances. 

“I will ... ask for advice on how we could stop these bonuses being negotiated into future collective agreements,” the Public Service Minister Nicola Willis told RNZ. 

“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.” 

Unions are promising a fight. 

“We’ll be resisting that heavily and strongly,” the Public Service Association (PSA) said. 

The primary teachers union NZEI said its thousands of members would oppose the government. 

More than a dozen state agencies pay te reo allowances, starting tat $500 a year. Photo / NZMEMore than a dozen state agencies pay te reo allowances, starting tat $500 a year. Photo / NZME 

The Māori Language Commission Te Taura Whiri said it would be “a great shame” to curtail the allowances that had expanded under governments of every stripe since the 1980s.   

It was something that had flourished under Labour, National and various coalitions without a problem, it said. 

Te Taura Whiri had just gone online to meet growing demand, and had recently doubled the recommended top rate, to $7500 a year. 

More than a dozen state agencies pay te reo allowances starting at $500 and topping out at $3500 a year. 

The top rate recommended by the commission, of $3500, had stayed that way since 2003, till a recent inflation adjustment. 

14 Departments negotiated te reo allowances 

A list of 21 departments and ministries from the PSA showed 14, or two-thirds, had allowances negotiated within their collective pay deals, including Corrections, and the Ministries of Justice, Education and Environment; three other agencies pay staff to learn the language. 

National’s Simeon Brown, now a Cabinet minister, was quoted by the Herald in July saying if National won it would “remove” the payments.   

The party’s coalition agreement with NZ First does not mention the allowances. However, it requires all public service departments to have their primary name in English, and for them and all Crown entities to “communicate primarily in English”, except for agencies specifically related to Māori. 

The government this week issued a naming directive for the use from now on of “New Zealand Transport Agency Waka Kotahi”. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade last month adjusted a template for making submissions to ministers, to use more English, but said at the time that its application of te reo “remains unchanged”. 

NZEI Te Riu Roa told RNZ it was already picking up signs of government pressure over a new cultural allowance - not to stop it, but to dilute it by opening it to a specialist in any culture, not just Māori and Pasifika - but officials denied this. 

Willis said the government had yet to issue any new policies or directives on the use of te reo across the public service. 

“I have asked the Public Service Commission to provide me with advice on the current guidance given to government agencies on the use of te reo, and its consistency with our coalition agreements,” she said. 

“The changes to how the public service navigates the use of the Māori language contained in the coalition agreements will be progressed throughout the course of our term.” 

‘Provide more resource’, says Māori Language Commission 

But the Public Service Commission told RNZ it did not provide the sector with any guidelines about the use of te reo, adding “we support the policies of the government of the day”. 

As for te reo bonuses, it said: “This particular issue is a matter for individual agency chief executives.” 

Asked if Willis was going to the wrong place for advice, the Māori Language Commission said: “That’s right, and really she should come and talk to us.” 

It was the established taxpayer-funded adviser and promoter of te reo, chief executive Ngahiwi Apanui said. 

“After years and years of work to get it online, we would advise the minister to not take the action of stopping the spread ... because it’s been here for a long time,” he said. 

“We’re not going to jump up and down and do a haka or threaten them in any way. 

“We want the best for te reo Māori, and we want to give them the best advice we can. And the best advice we can give them is to add and provide more resource.” 

The proficiency payments were not a bonus but an allowance that made up for a gap in public sector pay bands to cover language proficiency, Apanui said. 

The Public Service Commission, asked if it had received any communications about changing public reports which have increasingly been using te reo, said: “not yet”. 

It referred RNZ’s questions to Te Puni Kōkiri (TPK), the Ministry of Māori Development. 

TPK said it was well aware that potential changes had been publicised, however, “no advice has been received or prepared by Te Puni Kōkiri on this specific issue”. 

It was committed to increasing the use of te reo, adding the allowances were common within an “aspirational framework” that encouraged this. 

PSA union disturbed by government’s attitude 

The public service as a whole had a Māori capability strategy - Whāinga Amorangi - and all agencies had to submit work plans to back it up, TPK said. 

Willis said the government’s priority and her focus was on better performing, high-quality public service. 

Some te reo bonuses are years old, others are new such as the Department of Conservation’s plan to to begin a $1800-$3500 allowance from next July. 

“DOC has not received direction from the new government” about the payments, DOC chief people officer Karyn Thompson said in a statement. 

“Any changes to this agreement would need to be renegotiated with the PSA, which is not planned at this time.” 

They were negotiated to help fulfil Te Tiriti o Waitangi obligations, DOC said. 

The PSA union said it was “very disturbed” by the government’s attitude. 

The te reo clause “cannot be removed by the new government regardless of what National has said in the past”, it said. 

The primary teachers union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, on Tuesday said teachers would “absolutely” oppose any government attempt to stop te reo allowances in future. 

It said since the election, the Education Ministry had been talking as if a new cultural allowance for Māori and Pasifika experts should apply to “any cultures”, union national secretary Stephanie Mills said. 

“We have no idea why the ministry would want to do it because the language in the clause ... it’s very clear,” Mills said. 

The ministry said there had been no change in its position. The cultural leadership allowance was specifically to retain and cultivate Māori and Pacific expertise, knowledge and leadership in schools, kura and kindergartens, it said. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it adjusted a template during the caretaker government period and would consult with the incoming Minister “for their preferences on receiving advice”. This was in a statement, first released last month to Stuff. 

MFAT did not respond to RNZ’s query on whether it had consulted yet with Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters. 

Peters, when asked last week about reducing use of te reo in the public sector, replied: “Well, we’ll see the speed with which TVNZ and RNZ, which are taxpayer-owned, understand this new message.” 

PSA acting te kaihautū or Māori leader Marcia Puru said the spread of te reo bonuses was “a good thing” for iwi-Crown relations and Te Tiriti obligations. 

“We will resist any backtracking on the progress we have made.” 

The minister appeared not to understand that in pay bargaining, employers had to consider issues raised by members, such as te reo allowances, Puru said. 

-Phil Pennington, RNZ 

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