Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Craig Jepson, and I suspect that that is also true of most New Zealanders. He has suddenly become almost as well-known as Meng Foon, the Race Relations Commissioner. Both men are hugely admired by some; and viscerally disliked by others – though those who admire Meng Foon no doubt detest Craig Jepson and vice versa.
For those who haven’t been following the media lately, Craig Jepson is of course the recently-elected mayor of the Kaipara District. He had the effrontery to point out to a Maori member of his council that reciting a karakia, or any other kind of prayer, at the beginning of a council meeting was quite inappropriate, given that the council is a secular institution.
After what I presume was some discussion with other councillors, Mayor Jepson announced that councillors could take it in turn to say some introductory words prior to council meetings, but these introductory words would not be part of the formal proceedings.
This wasn’t good enough for some Maori who insisted that reciting a karakia at the commencement of council meetings was some kind of absolute right, presumably guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi. They turned up in numbers prior to the council meeting this week, and ten of them were allowed to speak in what councils call Public Forum. Speaker after speaker denounced the mayor, and accused him of arrogance and racism.
But the mayor was absolutely right, and I have long been mystified by the willingness of councils to tolerate the intrusion of Maori customs into formal council meetings.
I recently attended the first meeting of a district council following the recent local body elections. Male councillors were seated in the front row; female councillors in the row behind. The meeting began with a karakia and several rather lengthy speeches in the Maori language. No translation was provided. Very few, if any, of the councillors understood what was being said.
Yes, the Maori language is one of New Zealand’s official languages (with sign language being the other official language), but to speak in a language which none of your listeners understand is at least inconsiderate if not downright rude. It is certainly no way to encourage understanding, or the way to convey information.
If a Catholic councillor wanted to open a council meeting by reciting the Rosary, nobody would be surprised if the mayor advised the councillor that reciting the Rosary would be inappropriate given that the council is an entirely secular institution.
I hope lots of people send Mayor Jepson supportive messages because he may be treading a lonely path. He needs to know that lots of New Zealanders, including no doubt lots of Maori New Zealanders, support him. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org