"If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ ... "

As I told Laura Walters at stuff.co.nz, Clayton Mitchell's bill to deem English an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand is a piece of legally meaningless virtue signalling. Here's why.

A (probably apocryphal) story recounts how former Texas Governor Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson objected to the teaching of Spanish in Texas schools as follows: "If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the children of Texas!" The NZ First back bencher, Clayton Mitchell appears to be of a somewhat similar mindset.

He's introduced the "English as an Official Language of New Zealand Bill" into the ballot (where it now has to sit and wait to see if its number gets drawn and so debated by the House). This piece of proposed legislation may run Tutehounuku (Nuk) Korako's infamous "No Luggage Left Behind" member's bill close for the title of "most pointless suggested law change." Indeed, Mitchell's probably overtakes the earlier contender because his bill won't even change the law as it stands today.

Here's what the Bill says it will do: 

The ‘English an Official Language of New Zealand Bill’ provides official recognition of English, the most widely spoken language in New Zealand. English language is an important part of New Zealand culture, heritage and everyday communication. In recognition of its widespread use it must be accorded the same legal status as Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language. 

Well, I guess that sounds fair enough ... shouldn't English have the same legal status as these other forms of communication? Well, yes it should. However, if anything English currently enjoys a greater legal status than these legislatively recognised "official languages".

At present, English may be used in any and all public or official contexts. No specific legislative provision says so, for none is needed. It is instead simply a general, background cultural presumption in our particular society that English is the language of our government. There's as much need to declare this "fact" in legislation than there is to declare that a signature is an "official" means of conveying agreement, or that Rugby is our "official" national sport.

We all *know* that this is the case, because we all share a common history and general set of societal understandings that emerge out of our colonial past. English is the primary language of government and official practice because settlers from that place came here, established their forms of collective living over the top of the existing Māori society already in place and then built contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand using the tongue which "naturally" belongs to them (and so, now, us).

In fact, English is so much an "official language" of Aotearoa New Zealand that our law actually specifies in various places that it must be used instead of any other. See, for instance, keeping tax records, or labelling hazardous materials, or food labelling. Or, consider the Evidence Act 2006, which is entirely premised on the assumption that court proceedings will always be held in English and that those who cannot speak English may gain "communication assistance" in order to participate. Why give this right only to non-English speakers unless English is what always is going to be used in trials (because that's simply how our processes work)?

We have then positively legislated that Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language also are to be regarded as being "official languages", in order to affirmatively grant the right to use these languages in particular, specified situations where they otherwise could not be used. So their designation in legislation as being an "official language" in and of itself carries no consequences ... rather, it is the particular, specified legal rights to use the language, etc that actually have effect. If the legislation doesn't confer the right to use one of theses languages in a particular public/official context, then you still can't use it irrespective of its having "official" status.

English doesn't work that way. You can always use English in any public/official context - because it simply is the language of power. Nothing is needed to affirmatively confer this right - it simply exists.

Mitchell's Bill doesn't then have anything like the effect of the legislation conferring "official" status on Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language. It creates or confers no rights to use English in a situation where it otherwise could not be used. That is because, to reiterate, English already can be (and in some cases must be) used in all public/official contexts. Instead, Mitchell's Bill gives the English language a legally meaningless "official" status without saying anything about what this status requires or confers in practice.

That fact then makes the bill a piece of legal nonsense ... it deems English to be an "official language" without saying anything about what this means. Instead, the Bill is a form of virtue signalling - it's sending a message to some particular audience that the author is in some way "standing up for English" as a language.

However, it does so in a manner that has no actual legal effect and so will not change the existing law in any way, shape or form. It is thus a valid question for the author as to why he believes it is necessary to virtue signal in this way at this time - who is he sending this particular message to, and why?