Who are the 'kōhanga reo generation' and how could they change Māori and mainstream politics?
A new generation of Māori politicians is rising. Young and self-assured, they are the children of a movement that began 40 years ago.

The 2023 election saw a changing of the guard in Māori political representation.

Several parliamentary stalwarts lost their seats to members of the “kōhanga reo generation” – Māori under the age of 45 whose school years coincided with the revitalisation of the te reo Māori through full immersion education.

In the Te Tai Tonga electorate, te Pāti Māori’s Takuta Ferris (44) beat Labour’s Rino Tirikātene, who had held the seat since 2011 and was part of a political dynasty. Labour’s Cushla Tangaere-Manuel (44) won the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti electorate – gaining almost 3,000 more votes than te Pāti Māori’s Meka Whaitiri.

Whaitiri had held the seat for Labour since 2013 before switching to te Pāti Māori in early 2023. The Green Party’s Tamatha Paul (26) won the Labour Party’s stronghold in Wellington Central.

Most notably, te Pāti Māori’s Hana Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke beat Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta for the Hauraki-Waikato electorate. Mahuta was first elected in 1996, before 21-year-old Maipi-Clarke was born, and is one of New Zealand’s longest serving wāhine Māori MPs.

This incoming cohort of Māori politicians was raised in a different cultural environment than their elders.

Over the past four decades, the role of Māori language and culture in New Zealand has changed. Māori language is more visible, and issues affecting Māori – such as self-determination – have become part of the mainstream political discourse.

So what makes these incoming Māori leaders different from those who came before them?

Children of the revolution

Both Maipi-Clarke and Paul have been vocal on issues faced by rangatahi Māori and young people in general. Both have openly supported takatāpui (LGBTQ+) communities and climate justice movements. They have also advocated for better housing options across Aotearoa, particularly for Māori and rangatahi.

While supporting similar goals, the two have different backgrounds and experiences with their whakapapa Māori (Māori ancestory).

Maipi-Clarke is proudly part of the kōhanga reo generation – something she talked about during the election campaign:

Don’t be scared, because the kōhanga reo generation are here, and we have a huge movement and a huge wave of us coming through.

The kōhanga reo movement was established in the 1982 to stem the rapid loss of te reo Māori. In 1900, 95% of Māori children entering the school system were fluent. By 1960, this had dropped to 25%. And by 1979, there was a real concern te reo Māori would become an extinct language.

But while te reo Māori revitalisation has started to bring the language back from the brink, fears for its future remain. As of 2021, 7.1% of the general public spoke te reo Māori “fairly well”. And 23% of Māori said they spoke te reo Māori as one of their first languages.

Read more: From 'pebble in the shoe' to future power broker – the rise and rise of te Pāti Māori

The identity, worldview and political aspirations of Māori who have grown up in the kōhanga reo movement have been influenced by the language – and by extension cultural – revitalisation efforts.

According to the Ministry of Education, students from households that reported emphasising aspects of Māori identity, language and culture reported higher levels of whānau (family) wellbeing than Māori students in families where those elements were absent.

While Paul didn’t grow up enmeshed in her whakapapa Māori, she shares Maipi-Clarke’s commitment to decolonisation and tino rangatiratanga (Māori self-determination) – albeit from a different political party platform.

Paul and Maipi-Clarke (along with Ferris and Tangaere-Manuel) are not the first Māori politicians to commit to these ideas. But they are part of a generation where being Māori, and expressing the overarching goals of the Māori community, have become increasingly normalised.

One example of this shift is the way New Zealanders now view the Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi. In a 2014 survey of voters, 15% believed the Treaty should play a larger role in New Zealand law. This rose to 18% in 2017 and 27% in 2020.

Backlash and abuse

Despite a wider embrace of Māori language and culture in New Zealand, both Paul and Maipi-Clarke have spoken about the abuse and racism they faced on the campaign trail – and, in Paul’s case, as a Wellington City councillor.

Ahead of the election, the home of Maipi-Clarke was broken into and a threatening letter left behind. Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer described the threats as “political” and “anti-Māori”.

Read more: How children's picturebooks can disrupt existing language hierarchies

In 2022, a group of Māori councillors, including Paul, spoke out about the abuse they received when speaking te reo Māori or advocating for Māori interests.

Paul said she faced this abuse while campaigning for her seat on the city council:

There was definitely a really small but very hateful minority group of people who would follow candidates around and livestream them, and whenever the candidates would speak Māori they would yell at them […] while they were livestreaming and tell them to speak English.

Challenges ahead

So, while the rise of the kōhanga reo generation points to a shift in how Māori are viewed in New Zealand, there are still pockets resistant to change. Nothing can be taken for granted.

The possibility of a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi, among other issues, means this new generation of Māori political leaders will have to keep fighting to hold on to the social and political gains made over the past four decades.

At the same time, this kōhanga reo generation will need to keep pushing for progress in health, justice and social equity – areas where Māori still fall behind other groups in New Zealand.

With at least the next three years in opposition, it remains to be seen how the kōhanga reo generation handles those challenges – and whether the parliamentary mainstream is ready for a different style of Māori leadership.

The Conversation

Annie Te One does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.




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