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Political Pilgrimages | Dr. Simone Bull

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By the time you read this, several major events in New Zealand’s political calendar will have taken place. Waitangi Day (6th February) always gets a lot of media coverage. It’s when we commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, a solemn agreement between Māori and the British Crown, which lies at the heart of our constitutional arrangements here in New Zealand. This year, Waitangi Day has received more media coverage because a newly elected coalition Government wants to pass a law that would re-define Treaty principles first articulated in the 1980s. The new principles, if enacted, could break promises made in the Treaty. The Spinoff has published excellent summaries of the Treaty, the principles, and the Waitangi Tribunal for those who want to learn more. 

I want to focus on a less well-known event; the pilgrimage to Rātana Pā (near Whanganui) every January by MPs from across the political spectrum. In the early 1900s, Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana established a reputation for himself as a faith healer and visionary destined to unite Māori under his own brand of Christianity. He founded the Rātana Church, the largest Māori religious movement in New Zealand. In 1928, he announced his intention to harness the power of his tens of thousands of followers to win the (then) four Māori seats in Parliament. By 1932, the Rātana Church had their first MP, Eruera Tirikātene.

Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana

The strong showing of the Rātana candidates in the 1935 election prompted the Labour Party to invite the Rātana movement into their camp. At an historic meeting between Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage and T W Rātana on 22 April 1936, a pact was created. The Māngai (or mouthpiece, as Rātana was known) laid four objects in front of Savage. A potato, a broken gold watch, a greenstone tiki and a huia feather. The potato was a symbol of the ordinary Māori needing their lands. The broken watch represented broken promises relating to Māori land. Only the machinery of the law could repair the law. The tiki represented the spirit, mana and traditions of the Māori people. And the huia feather was the sign of a paramount chief, something Savage would be entitled to wear if he protected Māori. From this time onwards, the Rātana Church endorsed the Labour Party. Labour lost almost every election until the mid-1970s but Rātana-backed candidates won almost every Māori seat.

Rātana Church

Throughout this meeting, a man named Paraire Paikea acted as interpreter. Paraire was ordained as a Methodist Minister but converted to the Rātana faith and moved his family to Rātana pā. He contested and won the Northern Māori seat in Parliament. At the outbreak of war, he and Āpirana Ngata set up informal organisations to assist the war effort. It soon became clear that a formal organisation was needed. So Paraire toured the country convincing Iwi leaders of the need for a Māori War Effort Organisation, which set up over 300 tribal committees and mobilised 15,000 Māori into essential industries in 3 years as well as recruiting for the armed forces.

By 1949 a Rātana candidate became the first Māori woman to win one of the four Māori seats. Her name was Iriaka Matiu Rātana. The Labour Party initially put forward a non-Rātana candidate but decided to back Iriaka instead when she threatened to run as an independent.  Just as well they did too because, on 29th November 1949, she won by nearly 6,000 votes. She polled the largest number of votes of any candidate.

Two years before Iriaka Rātana retired in 1969, another Rātana woman entered Parliament. Her name was Whetū Tirikātene Sullivan. She succeeded her father as MP for Southern Māori, becoming the youngest ever woman MP at the time. Whetū’s fight to have issues concerning Māori in front of Parliament began with the 1967 Māori Affairs Amendment Act, introduced by Ralph Hanan the Minister of Māori Affairs in the National Government. Māori opposed the law because it allowed land to be bought from Māori owners if it was not judged by a Government “improvement officer” to be in productive use. As Whetu pointed out:

“There can be no doubt that it would be of benefit to New Zealand as a whole if the 285,000 acres of idle Māori land were utilised…It would be of equal benefit if the 1,715,000 acres of idle European land were also better utilised”.

On 8 December 1972 she became the first Māori woman Cabinet Minister. Like so many other women politicians, the media focussed on how she dressed. So she used this to advocate for Māori art and design by wearing contemporary Māori fashion that blended modern design with traditional Māori motifs. By the time she was defeated in the 1996 election she was NZ’s longest-serving female MP.

The Tirikatene family’s political legacy came to an end in January 2024, when Whetū’s nephew Rino Tirikātene resigned from the Parliament.


By Dr. Simone Bull

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