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| June 2022

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Photo of Guyon Espiner: I'd love a New Zealand where we all embrace te reo
Dale Husband: Given your “white-as” upbringing, I guess you might not have anticipated that you’d team up with a wāhine Māori as your life partner — and that you’d be putting so much effort into reo Māori.

Dale Husband: Given your “white-as” upbringing, I guess you might not have anticipated that you’d team up with a wāhine Māori as your life partner — and that you’d be putting so much effort into reo Māori.

Guyon Espiner: Nah. I probably would have been a bit surprised. We met at the Backbencher pub across the road from Parliament, back in 2009, when we were both working there.

And, really, our relationship has opened up the gateway to the Māori world for me.

Emma has a good grounding in te reo Māori from high school days. She’s dived back into the learning, too, to try and build on what she’s got — so we’re kind of starting from different ends. The thing with her is that she’s also in her fourth year at medical school — she was in the recruitment industry but decided to train as a doctor when we had Nico. And, with her writing and other media, she’s a little busy.

We use it at home quite a bit, and probably the biggest buzz for me has been Nico starting to use te reo. She’s understood it for maybe 18 months but has only just started to speak it.

A couple of weeks back I said: Kei hea te rau mamao? (Where’s the remote?) And she said: “Kaore au i te mōhio.” (I don’t know.)

I know that’s tiny, but, for me, it wasn’t. I was so stoked, really excited!

And I’m trying to use reo on the radio, on Morning Report, and share what I know, because I love the language and I think it’s really important that we embrace it. And I’d love a New Zealand where we all embrace it.

DH: I guess your detractors, like Don Brash, assume you’re using it so you can annoy them with it. And I know it hasn’t been universally well-received. But your daughter’s responses in te reo Māori are probably way more important — and perhaps provide a glimpse into tomorrow.

GE: Yeah, that’s right. And, man, I’m gonna need a head start on her, because you know what kids’ brains are like. I wouldn’t give it long before she flies past me and I’ll be learning from her. But that’s part of the beauty of life, isn’t it?

DH: Let’s turn now to Emma’s whānau who, I imagine, have been very pleased, as almost everyone is, that you’re making an effort. Because learning te reo Māori is a tough gig.

GE: They’re very proud, actually. They’re Ngāti Tukorehe from Ōtaki, and Martin Wehipeihana, Emma’s dad, is a fluent speaker. He went to university and studied Māori. He wasn’t a fluent speaker as a child, but he is now. And his dad, Martin Sr, who is in his early 90s, is also a speaker.

I got a pretty good reception from the whānau the last time I saw them. They were very proud of me for using it on the radio — and that meant a lot to me.

DH: What moves are you making to polish up your reo?

GE: I’m in the second year of a course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, so I go out to Māngere every Monday and do three hours there. Then I spend another hour a day outside of that. I do need to work at it because it’s hard as an adult to learn a language.

I see this as a lifelong journey and I think I’ll always be learning. I’m pretty serious about it. It sorta grips me. It’s got its claws into me. I’m just now realising how much I don’t know!

DH: Isn’t it neat to see more Pākehā weaving Māori kupu into their conversations. Some are learning te reo Māori like yourself. In fact, many are. But other non-Māori are picking up some reo and are throwing in mokopuna, or whānau, or whare into their everyday language. It’s way different from what it used to be in this country, eh?

GE: Oh, totally. And it’s quite nice to hear it woven into English in a unique sort of New Zealand way. It’s pretty special — and it seems to be happening more and more, which I like.

DH: Your predecessors on Morning Report, apparently, didn’t see the reo as being as important as you do. So your morning mihi and the greetings from your colleagues have been a bit of a departure. But it seems as though the negative reactions have subsided.

GE: Well, RNZ has done the greetings for some years. But, as I started learning the language, I just wondered what would happen if I did a bit more than a greeting. And what would happen if I used the proper names, the beautiful names, like Kirikiriroa rather than Hamilton. And maybe some of the weather, or the story intros, or even the traffic — translating as I go.

I’ve found that, if you hold your ground and just keep doing it, then the criticism will subside. And, you know, when I didn’t do it, people would ask: ”Where was the mihi today?” Which is quite fun.

I see this again as a longer-term project for me — and I’m going to be using more reo.

I did two interviews in the reo in the last month. I talked to Peeni Henare about the death of Kingi Taurua. And I also talked to Anton Matthews, a Christchurch restaurant owner whose free reo lessons were a hit in the city. We did those interviews in te reo — or as far as I could get, which was about six questions, translating as we went. Just basic, though, because I’m still a learner.

DH: Good on you, mate. Absolutely supporting what you’re doing. But some say you speak the reo too fast. That more listeners would cotton on if you were to ease back a bit.

GE: Yeah. I’ve heard that advice. Maybe I should slow down a bit.

DH: When I started learning, I was inclined to go too fast because I was anxious about it. And it’d come out as a barrage, rather than something easy to follow.

GE: There might be a bit of that in what I’m doing. I think you’re right, mate. That’s probably it.

DH: Anyway, it’s great to hear the reo on national radio. Congratulations for the work you’re doing. But what you’re doing raises the question of what responsibility our national broadcaster has in promoting te reo me ōna tikanga.

GE: I think it’s a considerable responsibility — and that there’s a good argument that we haven’t done nearly enough, and should do more. I know that’s the commitment from the top. But we have a lot more to do.

Some of the feedback I get, the whakahoki kōrero, is: “Go to a Māori station.” Or they’ll say: “Oh, they’ve got Māori spaces for that.” But there’s a role for mainstream radio and television with this kaupapa, too. Jack Tame is doing the same kind of work as me on TVNZ. But the people watching Jack, or listening to me, might not go and listen to Māori media. So I think we do need it.

Another point, though, is that there are many Māori broadcasters doing amazing stuff. So I’m not saying I’ve got this big role. I’m just trying to do what I can with the opportunities that I’ve been given.

DH: When you learn te reo Māori, you’re automatically exposed to Māori thinking and the Māori worldview. So I’m wondering whether any of that conflicts with how you were raised, and how you weaved them together somehow.

GE: I wasn’t raised in a religious family. Very much the opposite. We weren’t churchgoers or anything like that. But the karakia are really beautiful and, for me, they’re a window that keeps opening into this world. I’m not gonna pretend that I’ve got any deep knowledge of this stuff, but I’m fascinated by it.Some, like Mike Hosking or Don Brash, might say: “Why would you use a dead language? It’s got no relevance.” But, say you were to ask: “Whereabouts do you live, mate?” They may give you a street name and, most likely, it’s a Māori name. And you think, what does it mean? What does it tell us about our stories?

DH: That raises the question about what New Zealanders learn from te ao Māori. Perhaps the more we all understand about the injustices Māori suffered in the colonisation processes, the more we’ll all get along.

GE: I don’t think you can understand where anyone is coming from if you don’t know what their story is. It doesn’t make sense to be sharing a land with others, if you don’t make an effort to learn their stories or their language.

Kelvin Davis, the deputy Labour leader, sometimes uses a good analogy for this situation. He says there’s a bridge between te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā, but the traffic has mainly been one-way. Māori have gone across and operated in a Pākehā world. But very few from the Pākehā side have ever gone across the bridge to learn about the Māori world, their language, or their stories.

It seems amazing to me that there’s resistance from so many people to do even a little bit of that. It’d be a much richer country if they made the effort. It’s not about blaming. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about knowing the richness of the stories and understanding each other. And it’s also bloody interesting. So what’s not to like?

(This is an excerpt from Dale Husband's interview with Guyon Espiner)