Thou whoreson H! Thou unnecessary letter!

To "H" or not to "H", that is the question. Or ... a town by any other name ... .

I happened to be in Brisbane, safely ensconced in air-conditioned comfort, when the NZ Geographic Board/Nga Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa issued its decision that the official name for the town-formerly-known-as-Wanganui should be Whanganui. Yet I swear I could hear Michael Laws' pop his top even from that distance.

A "racist" decision, he fulminated. One that he has "a constitutional responsibility to fight ... until there is no fight left in his body."  I'm not exactly sure which bit of the nation's constitution he believes requires such intense individual commitment on his part; perhaps "constitutional" just sounds grander and a bit more important than "personal" or "dogmatic".

Not having even visited W(h)anganui, I suppose I'm not ideally placed to comment on the passions aroused on each side of this debate. I've tried imagining how I would feel about any decision to rename Dunedin "Otepoti", and to be honest my biggest concern is how confusing it would be for those future listeners of The Great Unwashed's What You Should Be Now. That is to say, it isn't a matter that moves me greatly one way or the other.

However, I did start wondering about the legal basis for the Board's decision, as well as its legal effect. I mean, is there a "place names police" that arrests those who refuse to follow the official version of a town's spelling? Is it a criminal offence to use other than an official place name on an envelope? On a store sign? On the Council chambers?

Turns out that the NZ Geographic Board/Nga Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa has its very own Act of Parliament, passed in 2008 (although the Board existed prior to that enactment, operating under a quite similar piece of legislation dating back to 1946). The Board consists of 10 members, 3 of whom specifically represent Maori interests, with the rest appointed by groups like Federated Mountain Clubs, the New Zealand Geographical Society, Local Government New Zealand, as well as various Ministers of the Crown. Its principal function is to assign, approve or alter official geographic names for "geographic features" and "Crown protected areas" within New Zealand.

So how does it go about doing this? Well, when it receives a proposal to name or rename a geographical feature (like the town of W(h)anganui), it asks for submissions or objections on the proposal and considers those submissions or objections (as well as any other information it thinks necessary). If no submissions or objections are received, or if the Board agrees with objections to the proposal, then it must decide on the official name itself. But if (as is the case with W(h)anganui) there are objections to the proposal that the Board does not agree with, then the Board's decision passes on to the Minister for a final determination. Meaning that the particular hot-potato of W(h)anganui's future name now lies in the tender hands of the Hon. Maurice Williamson.

So much for the process. But on what basis does the Board make its decisions about official names? Here the legislation is surprisingly vague. It sets out a range of activities that the Board "may" undertake in deciding a place name, without specifying that it "must" do any one of them. Which means it is pretty much left up to the Board itself to determine how it will respond to proposals. And so over the years the Board has set out a number of policies, standards and protocols to guide this task, including one on the preference for adopting original Maori place names as official names. There's nothing new in the Board's approach to this latter issue – indeed, it dates back to the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998.

Consequently, Michael Laws is simply wrong to claim that "the board's 2008 legislation [contains] a politically correct imperative that gives status to Maori issues over any other ethnicity." If the Board appears to be taking that approach, it's because it has been strongly encouraged (albeit not expressly required) to do so by successive governments led by both major parties. It also means that, applying the Board's existing protocols and in light of the historical evidence, the Board's decision to revert to the name "Whanganui" isn't really much of a surprise. It may not be a popular one in W(h)anganui – it may not even be the "right" one in the eyes of the majority of the country – but it is entirely predictable.

So let's assume Maurice Williamson affirms the Board's decision to reintroduce the "H" into Wanganui (admittedly, a by no means certain proposition). What will this mean in practice for the people of W(h)anganui? Surprisingly little. The only legal effect of an "official name" being designated for a geographical feature is that it "must be used in all official documents."Official documents" then mean "a published document created by a public office or by a local authority in the course of business", or privately published "geographic and scientific publications and manuscripts" and "publications intended for travellers or tourists".

Simply put, the Wanganui District Council will have a legal duty to refer to the town of "Whanganui" in all its letters, pamphlets and the like. Map makers and geography academics will have a legal duty to use the name "Whanganui" in their published work. Tourism businesses will have a legal duty to speak of the myriad charms of "Whanganui" in their promotional material. And that's it.

The Wanganui District Council can keep that name up on its Council Chambers. It can even erect a giant "Welcome to Wanganui" sign on the road in to town (if it doesn't have one already). The Wanganui Chronicle can (if it wants to) keep calling itself that. Ordinary citizens can keep spelling the town's name howsoever they wish.

So what does this mean for Michael Law's constitutional determination to fight the Board's decision until he is spent? How can one be a convincing martyr in the face of such soft oppression? Well, the legislation does contain a bit of a sting in its tail. If anyone who is under a duty to use an official name in its publications fails to do so, the Board may apply to the High Court for a injunction to stop the publication. And ignoring an injunction constitutes a contempt of court, which can get you put in jail.

So here is what Michael Laws should do, if Maurice Williamson does uphold the Board's decision. He should, as Mayor, simply keep referring to "Wanganui" in all his official correspondence, then sit back and see what happens. Because he might then get the opportunity to suffer on his cross.