William Arthur Moffatt (Mawhete) was born at Tiakitahuna (Jackeytown), south of Palmerston North, on 4 March 1880, the son of Emiri Mokena (Emily Morgan) and her husband, William Moffatt. His mother, also known as Arani or Arini, was the grand-daughter of Wiremu Kingi Te Aweawe. His main tribal affiliation was Ngati Hineaute of Rangitane, and he had connections to Muaupoko, Ngati Apa, Ngati Te Upokoiri, Hamua and the Whanganui tribes. His father, an engineer working in the King Country, was killed by Maori near Taumarunui in November 1880. When young William was baptised in April 1881, he was given the name Rangiputangatahi and it was as Rangi Mawhete that he was later best known.
Rangi grew up in the Maori settlements of the Karere district and attended Rangiotu school before going to Te Aute College in 1890. On 11 April 1903, at Feilding, he married Erana Ruta Durie of Ngati Rangitepaia, Rangitane and Ngati Kauwhata; she was the daughter of Robert Te Rama Durie and his wife, Hurihia (Heni), and the grand-daughter of Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotu. The marriage linked two great Rangitane families, but Erana died on 3 February 1904, at the age of 20. There were no children. At Westport, on 1 May 1906, Mawhete married Sydney-born Kathleen McGlone, daughter of a Denniston mining family. The couple were to have five children.
Mawhete worked in the Rangitikei–Manawatu district as an interpreter and as a land and commission agent – occupations that often brought him into conflict with Rangitane families. Initially he was based in Palmerston North; later he had a dairy farm at Awapuni. His kin were a dominant influence in his early years, and his maternal grandmother, Erini (sister to the Rangitane leader Te Peeti Te Aweawe), his mother and his aunt, Rewanui Apatari, drew him into family affairs involving land. In 1912 Mere Rikiriki, a local woman of mana, predicted the advent of an important new spiritual leader and for a time some identified Mawhete as the subject of this prophecy. Tall and good-looking, he carried mana and showed aspirations for a leadership role: he first stood for the Western Maori seat in the 1914 election, but was heavily defeated by the sitting member, Maui Pomare.
Although he did not contest the 1919 election, possibly because of family commitments, in 1922 Mawhete stood as an independent in Western Maori. Again he made little impression. Other political opportunities were to open up, however. The New Zealand Labour Party, keen to expand its support, began to court Maori voters and made contact with Mawhete. In 1924 he was chosen as the party’s candidate for the Western Maori seat. On 20 December he organised the first official gathering between Maori and Labour. Held at Parewanui, near Bulls, the meeting was attended by Harry Holland, Labour's parliamentary leader, and members of the national executive. The aim was to lay the basis of a Maori policy that would be presented at the party’s 1925 annual conference.
Mawhete prepared for the conference by seeking elected Maori representatives from throughout New Zealand to form a Labour Maori advisory committee. With the exception of Waikato and the King Country, where King movement support for Pomare was strong, he secured men from all areas. The group met at Bulls in March, with Mawhete as committee secretary, and on 13 April attended the conference in Wellington. Mawhete and two other representatives worked on a sub-committee to present a report, subsequently adopted as Labour's Maori policy. It covered rating problems and settlement of land claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, reform of Maori electoral processes, and the establishment of a Maori council to advise the government on issues affecting Maori: a voice in government that might meet Maori aspirations. The policy was soon attacked in Parliament by Pomare, and in late July Mawhete sponsored a three-day meeting at Parewanui where Labour leaders gave assurances of their commitment.
At the 1925 election Mawhete was the official Labour candidate in Western Maori and the main opposition to Pomare. On the hustings the two men campaigned together, but Mawhete took only 1,287 votes to Pomare's 4,010. The Ratana movement did not contest the seat and it appears that many abstained from voting. Mawhete no doubt took stock of Labour's failure to attract Maori voters: policy and promises were not sufficient to shift Maori allegiance, and the party’s land policy at the time – usehold tenure – raised fears of confiscation.
Before the 1928 election Labour reaffirmed its Maori policy and was prepared to endorse candidates, although it would not cover their expenses. Mawhete did not stand, but was thought to have had a hand in drafting the Ratana programme, which closely resembled Labour’s Maori policy. Ratana candidates polled second in each of the four Maori electorates while independent Labour candidates made a poor showing. When Pomare died in 1930 Mawhete was overseas and could not be contacted; Te Taite Te Tomo won the by-election.
However, it is possible that Mawhete had already decided to commit his energies to securing co-operation between Labour and Ratana – both were later to acknowledge the crucial liaison role that he now began to play. By 1930 Ratana was interested in Labour; looking to the bloc vote that Ratana could provide, Labour had begun to explore a possible agreement. Although Mawhete was well placed to act as a go-between, he shared the concern of other Maori who were supporters of Labour but not of Ratana, that broader Maori interests would not be adequately represented in a Labour–Ratana combination. Even as Mawhete brought the two groups closer to an agreement, this tension persisted.
As the 1931 election approached, a Labour offer to endorse Ratana candidates was declined, although Ratana admitted that a successful candidate might support Labour in Parliament. The first opportunity came in August 1932 when a by-election in Southern Maori was won by Eruera Tirikatene. Mawhete had previously drawn Labour's attention to the need for non-Ratana involvement in the selection process, and he now organised and chaired a four-day conference at the Wellington Trades Hall to discuss the party’s Maori policy. He knew that the tentative agreement between Labour and Ratana had to be consolidated, but at the same time he was concerned about the need to expand and represent the non-Ratana element of Labour support among Maori. As part of a deputation, he bore this message to the party’s leaders and discussed setting up a Maori advisory council to the national executive. Mawhete also hoped that the conference would be the basis for establishing a New Zealand-wide organisation of Maori Labour committees. Over the next three to four years, though activity was sporadic and uneven, a number of branches were established. Between 1934 and 1936 he was also involved in a proposal for a Maori Labour newspaper, but nothing came of it.
With Labour's new leader, Michael Joseph Savage, espousing humanitarian ideals and equality between races, Mawhete enthusiastically supported the party’s cause in the lead-up to the 1935 election. He was probably responsible for translating its Maori policy, now further developed. When Labour won the election he warned that an exclusive Labour–Ratana agreement was sure to divide Maori supporters and would alienate Te Puea Herangi and the King movement. Nevertheless, Labour took the two Ratana MPs, Tirikatene and H. T. Ratana (who had won the Western Maori seat), into its first caucus meeting in December; Mawhete was also present. In March 1936 his long-standing support was recognised by his appointment to the Legislative Council. He was a member of Labour's Maori Organising Committee and later president of its Maori Advisory Council, which toured the country to organise support beyond Ratana ranks. Mawhete later admitted that visiting numerous Maori settlements convinced him how ‘wretched’ their living conditions were.
Despite some continuing tension between Ratana and non-Ratana Labour supporters, Mawhete worked with the Ratana MPs to further Maori objectives. That these were not necessarily accepted by the government became apparent in the latter part of 1936, when it brought together mainly Pakeha experts to discuss Maori problems and embarked on an extension of programmes adopted by the previous government. The Maori Labour group organised a second conference to express Maori needs from their own viewpoint. After Ratana candidates secured the two remaining Maori seats in 1938 and 1943, Mawhete was the only non-Ratana Maori politician in Parliament.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he participated in discussions to dissuade the government from conscripting Maori. He was subsequently a member of the Maori parliamentary committee that helped establish the Maori War Effort Organisation – a concession by government to Maori requests for a degree of autonomy. The organisation successfully recruited for the forces and local manpower, as well as supporting the war effort through a network of tribal committees. Mawhete's three sons served in the war, two of them as pilots.
As a legislative councillor Rangi Mawhete was a member of the Native (later Maori) Affairs Committee for his entire term. The sole Maori in the council, he was a confident speaker with a command of detail, who committed himself to educating and informing Pakeha. He continued to support the Labour government, illustrating the beneficial effects of its special programmes in land, housing, health and education. As Labour implemented its broader welfare legislation, he drew attention to practices discriminatory to Maori, and to the need to make special provisions, such as the translation of forms, a suggestion he followed up with the Social Security Department.
Mawhete took some care to promote rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, most notably in the passage of the Petroleum Act 1937. He treated the council to a reading of the entire treaty, pointed out that Maori considered oil and minerals to be part of the land, and argued a case for royalties or compensation; lake and sea beds were also affected. His concern to secure treaty rights was expressed again in relation to the Whanganui River and the Waikato claim. Government failure to compile a Maori electoral roll was an ongoing irritation. Eager for Maori to gain equal treatment, Mawhete was nevertheless cautious. He warned that the end of prohibition in the King Country could increase liquor problems, and he promoted compulsory military training as one answer to increasing Maori crime. By 1949, however, he was obviously pleased at Maori advances under a Labour government.
Rangi Mawhete served on the Legislative Council until March 1950, shortly before its disestablishment. One of the first Maori to be made a justice of the peace, he was appointed an OBE in 1959. He spent his last years in Palmerston North and died there on 24 July 1961. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons; one son had been killed during the Second World War.
Fired by Labour's principle of equality between races, Mawhete worked for over 30 years to secure a role for Maori in national politics and to promote policies designed by Maori. The results under Labour were uneven. Within a year of his entry to Parliament, he saw the government diverge from the policy he had helped formulate. The more independent power sought through Mawhete's early political activity was allowed but brief expression.