Climate change is scary enough – but in the capital it looks like the danger will come from a sea god

Oh, the lengths local government councillors will go to in their efforts to avoid causing cultural offence.

When a spat broke out among Wellington City Councillors over the appropriateness of mentioning a Māori god in a document on the city’s climate change plan, some ducked for cover.

Perhaps they recall the  row that erupted – and the accusations of racism that flew – when scientist Bob Brockie questioned the role of the Treaty of Waitangi and the incorporation of Maori spiritual beliefs in this country’s scientific endeavours.

Wellington’s mayor is relaxed about the merging of the scientific with the mythical and defended the notion that his city’s central business district might be reclaimed not by a rising ocean (something which scientists can measure) but by Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea (good luck to the scientists and anyone else keen to spot him or her in whatever transpires as temperatures rise).

If he has been correctly reported on Stuff, Mayor Justin Lester was willing to pay a heavy price to have Tangaroa’s name preserved in the council document which addresses the very real issue of climate change.

He said he would counter with a proposal to prevent Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny from ever popping up in a council document, a measure which most notably would impact on the the happiness of children.

Mind you, it is unclear whether the myth-hugging mayor was referring to all council documents or just those that are supposed to be scientific reports.

The latter – in the normal course of events – should have no need to mention Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or any other creature from the domains of mythology, the supernatural, fairy tales or superstition.

Whether Tangaroa should be accorded an exemption is what the council debate was all about.

It started – apparently – when the council’s City Strategy Committee meeting received a report that talked about Tangaroa reclaiming the city’s CBD through sea level rise.

According to the Stuff account, this reference to Tangaroa irked several councillors as religious and inappropriate.

Cr Nicola Young attempted to attach an amendment aimed at removing references to “deities of any denomination“.

“This document is all about science, research and data, but there’s one achilles heel: it talks about Tangaroa, the Māori god of the sea, reclaiming the CBD and I don’t think that’s right in a scientific document to have a belief like that. The same would be if it was talking about Genesis or angels or anything like that,” she said.

“We’re talking in here about how we can either reduce carbon levels or ameliorate them, but if the answer is ‘Tangaroa is in charge’ then actually we should be up Mt Victoria singing and dancing and praying to Tangaroa.”

Oh, dear.  This was a pitch for for the application of secularism and reason.

The reaction is a measure of the extent to which superstition, myths, fables and what-have-you are supplanting science in 21st century New Zealand.

Lester said the reference was about storytelling (here’s where he churlishly threatened to do Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny a mischief if the committee passed an amendment eliminating the Maori god from the council document).

Fleur Fitzsimons said the use of Tangaroa in the text was meant to capture the imagination of the public [we can liken this to including the Adam and Eve story in a discussion  document on evolution to make the complexities easier for people to understand].  She said:

“Councillor Young’s position that we shouldn’t have metaphors in a scientific document is exactly the wrong position. It’s more important than ever to have metaphors in a scientific document because, otherwise, we can’t engage and capture the very people who are going to be affected by it. “

Deputy Mayor Jill Day  – a driving force behind the push to make Wellington the country’s te reo capital – said objections to Tangaroa showed a lack of cultural understanding as it was not just a term for “god of the sea” but the ocean itself.

“Rather than removing this reference I think maybe we should add more references to it.”

Andy Foster said “the sea doesn’t give a damn what we call it” but the document should be about fact.


Then we come to the councillors who seemed reluctant to opt either for superstition or science.

 Malcolm Sparrow see-sawed between the “very good” arguments on Tangaroa’s side and a need to achieve “consistency across the board” on religious references before finally concluding: “Yeah, I really don’t know”.

Chris Calvi-Freeman appeared to share similar sentiments, saying he was tempted to “do a former councillor [Helene] Ritchie and pull a call of nature” to avoid voting on the issue. 

His toilet break was avoided altogether when Young withdrew the amendment and agreed to informally discuss an acceptable alternative with Day.

In the upshot, this suggests Young buckled.

“I’ve got no problem with telling stories I just think we either tell a decent story or we don’t,” she said.

“But we’ve just put in one word, that’s no story.”

Perhaps she was among the councillors who were “spooked” by the issue (as the Stuff reporter put it).

Perhaps she simply chose to keep her powder dry for now.


One thought on “Climate change is scary enough – but in the capital it looks like the danger will come from a sea god

  1. It’s quite comforting to be able to blame a deity when things don’t quite work out, like sea level rise. What’s the point of carbon reductions when a couple of waiata and a generous koha might be the more appropriate response?


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