Should NZ change it's name to Aotearoa... Officially?

Peter Williams 15/09/2020

This is an op-ed written by Magic Talk Mornings host Peter Williams

OPINION: Into the middle of all the decisions you’re making when you’re not really making decisions comes the call from the Maori Party on the first day of Maori language week saying that if they are in government they will demand that this country officially changes its name to Aotearoa within six years.

And was well as that, a raft of place names with colonial history would be renamed to their original Maori names. Places like Wellington and Auckland and Napier and Hastings and Hamilton, and so the list goes on. Now I have a strong suspicion that many of you will not hear a bar of this, you will not even consider this legalised, statutory change a remote possibility. But have you noticed what is going on around you? It is happening by stealth. How many times in a day do you read or hear the country referred to as Aotearoa? The other day when  I was watching the Waikato- Wellington rugby game, the commentator referred to the city it was being played in as Kirikiriroa-Hamilton.

The point is that as the baby boomer generation ages and dies off, and the younger people of this country who because of their education and their media influencers are more amenable to name changes, move into positions of influence in politics and business and the media the use of the name Aotearoa will become more and more prominent, more and more part of everyday language. But it will have been done by stealth. And I don’t think that is the way to go. Why can’t we do it properly, have everybody talking about it, have the reason for the possible change explained? Or conversely have some serious historical research presented which says we should not change the name of the country to Aotearoa.


Name changes for countries are very, very normal. Even in our Pacific neighbourhood I grew up hearing about the New Hebrides, the Gilbert and the Ellice Islands. Now they’re Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Nobody seemed too concerned about that. Then there was Rhodesia, Tangyanika, Zanzibar, Ceylon, Siam, Burma - and so the list goes on. Now there is Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar. Changing a country’s name to reflect its previous history is not new. Even Israel, which was around 3000 years ago, replaced Palestine only in 1948. Up until the mid 1850s what is now Australia was apparently referred to often as New Holland. So it has happened, it can happen and I suspect in New Zealand it will happen. After all, the world did not end when Mt Egmont became Mt Taranaki did it?   But the big question is how and why we’d become Aotearoa and is Aotearoa actually the best name for us to change to? 

I spent a bit of time last night reading the late Michael King’s best selling Penguin History of New Zealand. Now this is regarded as the best history of New Zealand from its geological and physical formation through its first human settlement by the seafarers from Polynesia in about 1200 AD and then the arrival and eventual domination of European settlers from the early 1800s. King’s findings are seldom challenged and this is what he writes.

In fact in the pre-European era, Maori had no name for the country as a whole.Polynesian ancestors came from motu or islands and it was to islands that they gave names.

So we had Te Ika a Maui, Te Wahi Pounamu and Rakiura. There was some use of Aotearoa for the North Island only. But it was a school journal, an educational resource, written by a man named Stephenson Percy Smith which outlined the story of Kupe and his discovery of the land of the long white cloud which started the common use of the term Aotearoa. So it’s a relatively new term in common usage which actually appears to have no long term historical  provenance at all. In fact in 1835, when the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand and then the Treaty of Waitangi was signed there was no mention of Aotearoa at all in any text. Instead the country was known as Nu Tirani.

So the concept of Aotearoa did not exist in common usage till just over a hundred years ago, and it was based on some pretty shonky historical interpretation which, according to Michael King, was written mainly to make the British settlers feel better about the country they had taken over, but is that any reason to not continue with its increasingly common usage?  In the interests of race relations is it a worthwhile exercise to start the process to change the name of the country?  After all we have Aotearoa in our passports and on our money yet there was no discussion at all that I remember about that. It happened almost by stealth, or by order of some faceless public servant and it’s time that sort of action stopped and we became far more open, transparent and open minded about it. After all your name is the key to your identity, it is who you are. 

Yet many people change their name - and more than once. It’s very common in Maoridom. The one time Maori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell was Jim Flavell. Hone Harawira was once John Hadfield. Tipene O'Regan was Stephen O’Regan. Many women change their name when they get married. Many change it back when they get divorced. So changing the names of people and places is not uncommon. But is now a relevant time,  180 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, for us to be seriously considering changing the name of the country?

This is an op-ed written by Magic Talk Mornings host Peter Williams