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?

Comments (18)

by Gareth on February 17, 2018
Gareth

I can't believe you missed the obvious Mutton Birds link: so I'll do it for you. One of their best, IMHO. 

by Andrew Geddis on February 17, 2018
Andrew Geddis

@Gareth,

You're right! I am ashame. Very ashame.

by Lee Churchman on February 17, 2018
Lee Churchman

A right is not the same as a power. 

by Andrew Geddis on February 17, 2018
Andrew Geddis

@Lee,

I know. I've read Hohfeld. I said that as English is the language of (political) power, no-one requires a legislatively sourced (legal) right to use it in any public/official proceedings. That is all. 

by Ross on February 18, 2018
Ross

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)

Firstly, it may never be drawn. Second, as there is nothing to debate, every sensible MP will no doubt vote against it. Any "debate" will surely be over in a matter of seconds. Third, English is the primary language in Canada yet it's use has been made official. So, let's celebrate the fact we're in illustrious company!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Canada

by Lee Churchman on February 19, 2018
Lee Churchman

OK. Point taken. 

by Lee Churchman on February 19, 2018
Lee Churchman

Just a thought: if civil unions gave homosexuals all the same legal powers as marriage did to heterosexuals, wouldn’t a gay marriage bill be in the same boat as this language bill?

by Andrew Geddis on February 20, 2018
Andrew Geddis

@Lee,

(1) Civil unions didn't give homosexuals all the same legal powers as marriage did to heterosexuals. For instance, civil union couples could not jointly adopt a child (this was a deliberate decision by Parliament).

(2) The symbolic aspect of "marriage equality" was a societal statement that relationships between members of a previously discriminated against minority group should be viewed as morally no different to those of the dominant/majority group in society, thereby representing a collective recognition of same-sex relationships as being normal and desirable. The symbolism of Mitchell's Bill is that the dominant/majority language already used in every single official/public context in this country is "official". What is the point and purpose of making such a societal statement?

(3) "Separate but equal" is a pretty heavily discredited moral position to take.

by Simon Connell on February 20, 2018
Simon Connell

Second, as there is nothing to debate, every sensible MP will no doubt vote against it. Any "debate" will surely be over in a matter of seconds.

I don't think that's likely. I agree that the purpose of the Bill seems to be about sending a message rather than changing the law, and if that's the case then voting against (or for) it also sends a message. This brings us back to Andrew's question:

The symbolism of Mitchell's Bill is that the dominant/majority language already used in every single official/public context in this country is "official". What is the point and purpose of making such a societal statement?

I think the statement that the Bill sends is something like:

  1. that English has ended up being the dominant language in official contexts should be seen as a good thing, rather than an accident of history (and this view is probably located within a broader view of English culture/influence being good for New Zealand); and
  2. given 1., there is a need to safeguard the status of English in case of future changes, in particular demographic ones.

Personally, I agree that the Bill is a waste of the precious resource that is a slot in the private members bill ballott. I'm not opposed to the idea of English being made an official language at some point, but this seems a bad way to do it.

by James Green on February 20, 2018
James Green

@Ross — Countries legistlate for their dominant language, only when there is another substantive player(s) in the market; and ~20% of Canadians speak French as their main language. There is no such other substantive player in New Zealand.

 

The only official language in the UK is Welsh (and only in Wales). 

Australia has no official language.

South Africa, having multiple substantively used languages, has 11 official languages (including English).

by Lee Churchman on February 20, 2018
Lee Churchman

OK Andrew. I think your argument is weak on (2). If people want English declared an official language, all they are looking for is an explicit statemeant in the law that it is. Trivial I guess, but why object when it costs nothing? I’ve always found it amusing that English wasn’t explicitly an official language, but recognising it doesn’t seem a big deal to me, and it obviously matters to some people, so why not do it?

Notice that my civil union argument was a hypothetical. Even if the powers were the same, I would say there is still a good symbolic reason for having gay marriage. I can’t deny people the same argument in this case. 

by James Green on February 20, 2018
James Green

@Lee — It does cost something. Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States also don't have English as an "official" language. In places where it is blindingly obvious (which includes New Zealand), the only reason to make it official is to court a certain type of voter. And that has cost, as it makes everyone else feel a bit less welcome.

by Ross on February 20, 2018
Ross

Countries legistlate for their dominant language, only when there is another substantive player(s) in the market; and ~20% of Canadians speak French as their main language. There is no such other substantive player in New Zealand.

I can't say you've convinced me. The vast majority of Canadians speak English, as is the case here. And not many Canadians speak French only (those that do tend to live in Quebec).

...the majority of Canadians speak English, a small minority speak both English and French, another small minority speak English and some other language, and the smallest minority of all speak only French.

http://www.thecanadaguide.com/basics/language/

I'm not opposed to the idea of English being made an official language at some point, but this seems a bad way to do it.

That begs the question: what would be a good way to do it?

by Ross on February 20, 2018
Ross

And that has cost, as it makes everyone else feel a bit less welcome.

Really, James?

Let's look at Canada again. You'll remember that English has been officially legislated for in Canada. Has it deterred immigrants from landing there? Well, according to statistics, more than 200 languages are spoken across Canada. Some 20 languages - apart from French and English - are spoken by more than 100,000 Canadians. Seems to me to be a fairly diverse country. 

http://www.silota.com/data/canada-language-diversity-census-map/

 

by Ross on February 20, 2018
Ross

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States also don't have English as an "official" language.

I'm not sure Australia and the US are good comparisons. Neither has a single official language - NZ has two. By the way, most US states have legislated for English as an official language.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/18/when-and-w...

by Andrew Geddis on February 20, 2018
Andrew Geddis

@Lee,

The onus is on anyone wanting to spend legislative time and effort on recognising English as an official language to say why it is necessary and desirable to do so. Same sex couples spent a lot of time making just such arguments - they justified why the symbolic move (which, note, actually had additional legal consequences) was merited in terms of validating the intrinsic value of their relationships. The argument "because Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language are so recognised" simply is not a good argument, for reasons I have spent an entire post explaining. If there is a better one, let's see it.

@Ross,

You fundamentally misunderstand Canada's Official Languages Act - both what it does and why it was passed. It wasn't adopted for the purpose of recognising English as an official language, but rather to require that French and English be used jointly in federal government processes/practices. If there were a proposal to do the same thing for Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language - to say that they must be used jointly with English in all our governmental processes/practices - then there'd be a point to designating all three "official" languages and spelling out how they must be used congruently.

But there isn't such a proposal. What we'll have if Mitchell's Bill were passed is English as an "official" language but no legislation saying when/how it can be used (because this will all continue to be done by custom and an assumed "we all speak English so we write our laws in it/argue our cases in it/print Hansard in it/etc"), while Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language also are "official" languages but with limited legislative rights to be used in some official/public processes. All will be official, but some will be more official than others. Why is this in any way a good idea?

Also, when you say:

By the way, most US states have legislated for English as an official language.

you reveal more than you perhaps realise. Such legislation primarily has been driven by anti-immigrant rhetoric (especially against latino migrants) and a fear that Spanish speakers will come to displace the current Anglo speaking majority. So I reiterate my closing sentance:

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?

by James Green on February 22, 2018
James Green

Ross: The vast majority of Canadians speak English, as is the case here. And not many Canadians speak French only (those that do tend to live in Quebec).


Errr, no. 15% of Canadians don't speak English. That's massively bigger than here, especially because there is a big overlap with the group that consider French to be their first language (20%). French is defined as an official language, to protect this substantive minority. However, French speakers are also a big enough group that it makes sense to define English an official language, especially for English speakers in Quebec.

by Lee Churchman on February 22, 2018
Lee Churchman

OK. One argument is that it’s silly to have official languages at all if the most spoken language is not among them. I see this at about the same level as Graeme Edgeler’s proposal to scrap those racist laws that forbid Māori from drinking and dancing. No one enforces those laws, but they are dumb and make us look stupid.

Another argument is that, in future, we might want to adopt Canadian-like policies about bilingual signage and packaging, so we’d probably need English to be an official language for that.

Thirdly, I would rather have parliament spend time on this than some of the more maleviolent and misguided stuff they would otherwise do. ;-)

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