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Opinion: Actions have meanings

Dr Steven Elers from Massey University's School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing.

By Dr Steven Elers.

The forum on Māori wards at Massey University last week provided an opportunity for students and staff to hear from both sides. The speakers for the establishment of Māori wards were Wiremu Te Awe Awe and Teanau Tuiono, while Don Esslemont and Mike Butler spoke against it.

Prior to the commencement of the debate, Esslemont, the organiser of the campaign to overthrow the Palmerston North City Council's decision to establish Māori wards, walked out of the MUSA student lounge because he refused to listen to a mihi – a short welcome in te reo Māori that lasted for less than 30 seconds.

He stood on the other side of the glass doors until the mihi was finished and then returned to take his seat.

Esslemont didn't leave the room to take a phone call or for any other reason – he had told the staff member who welcomed everyone that he wasn't going to listen to a mihi or anything else in te reo Māori. This was relayed to the audience.

Esslemont confirmed his exit was an intentional act when he was challenged by Wiremu Te Awe Awe during the debate. Esslemont said the proposal for Māori wards was "evil". 

In response, Te Awe Awe said Esslemont's action of leaving the room to avoid listening to a mihi in te reo Māori was racist.

A colleague said to me, "Would he [Esslemont] do the same if he were in Japan and someone spoke Japanese?"

I doubt he would exit.

Yes, he had every right to walk out of the MUSA student lounge – everyone has freedom of movement. But what did his action signify?

Nonverbal actions communicate information to others, whether the message is intentional or not. Esslemont's action gave an insight into his thinking and prejudices. Esslemont doesn't want a Māori voice at the council table. He doesn't want to hear a Māori voice, period.

The same applies to his Hobson's Pledge mate, Don Brash, who dislikes journalists "spouting on" in te reo Māori. It's not surprising that Hobson's Pledge funded the bulk of Esslemont's campaign in Palmerston North, which was revealed at the forum to have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Esslemont is a former academic staff member at Massey University – he was a lecturer in a school that merged with mine. It makes me wonder how he treated his Māori students. Did he leave the room when they said "kia ora!"?

For the sake of Māori students and the one Māori academic (yours truly) out of approximately 50 academic staff in my school, I'm glad he is long-retired.

The Massey University Strategy (2018-2022) proudly states that the university is "Tiriti-led" and "it will demonstrate informed practices consistent with tikanga Māori and will embrace kaupapa Māori across our activities". Sorry, Don: the mihi is staying.

Māori cultural practices are embedded in our university and are an important part of who we are. This is Aotearoa New Zealand – the home of te reo Māori.

Esslemont said in the debate that he is an immigrant to this country. If Esslemont doesn't want to hear our beautiful Māori language, perhaps he should walk further than out the door and consider a one-way ticket back to his country of origin.

Mā te wā, Don.

Dr Steven Elers is a lecturer with Massey University's School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing. He is currently writing a book about Pākehā culture and communication.

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