Ernest Bowyer Corbett was born on 7 May 1898 to William Corbett, a labourer, and his wife, Annie Bowyer, at Okato, Taranaki, where his parents later farmed. He attended Puniho Native School for four years and later Okato School. He joined the Post and Telegraph Department in 1911 but left in 1917 for home service in the First World War. After leaving the army he was granted a rehabilitation farm in Oxford Road in Okato, where he cleared the bush and developed a viable farm. He married Doris Eileen Sharp in New Plymouth on 7 February 1923; they were to have two sons.
Corbett was an active member of the Okato community, serving on the tennis club committee, in the local Anglican church and on the Okato School committee. He was active in the dairy industry as director and then chairman of the local Oxford Dairy Company. He was subsequently a director of the National Dairy Association of New Zealand for six years.
He was thus a local notable capable of playing a national role and the very sort of man that the emerging New Zealand National Party was looking for to unseat the Labour government. He was nominated as the National candidate for Egmont in 1943, won the seat and held it until his retirement. In 1949 the newly elected National government gave Corbett the portfolios of land, forests and Maori affairs. He was not in cabinet’s inner circle, but was among the group of MPs whose loyalty was rewarded by cabinet seats.
He held the portfolio of forestry from 1949 to 1954 and during that period was a strong advocate for the use of Pinus radiata for house building. He helped facilitate the establishment of the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company to process the maturing radiata plantations. He was also active in conservation, adding 1,200,000 acres to New Zealand national parks and creating the Urewera, Nelson Lakes, Tararua Forest and Mount Cook national parks. He also established 147 scenic reserves, totalling 44,000 acres. In retirement he noted it had given him particular pleasure ‘to lock up beautiful areas’. He helped establish the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and in 1958 was awarded the Loder Cup for his services to conservation. He was a life member of the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.
Corbett was concerned to promote further land settlement and was responsible for two major measures. One was the Marginal Lands Act 1950, which set up a board to provide assistance to farmers with such land. The second was the Land Settlement Promotion Act 1952, which had the object of promoting both higher production and the more efficient utilisation of farm land.
However, the portfolio he took greatest delight in was Maori affairs. In his first months in office he had two abrasive encounters with Apirana Ngata, in which he was chided for racial arrogance and urged to perform. Corbett came away with considerable respect for Ngata, and his entire term as minister was devoted to implementing ‘Ngata’s policies’. This meant an obsessive interest in land legislation and land administration with little understanding of the new social phenomenon of migration to the towns.
Corbett was minister at a time when the government’s aim was to assimilate Maori into mainstream New Zealand life. He personally aimed to bring equality to Maori and help them to achieve the same level in housing, employment and education as other New Zealanders. Although well-meaning, he was also paternalistic and stated that Maori should be given not what they wanted but what was good for them. A somewhat impassive and withdrawn man, he responded to the warmth of hui and was popular with Maori, visiting many marae and making friends with leaders of the Maori Women’s Welfare League, which was set up during his term of office.
Corbett was well served by his departmental head, Tipi Ropiha, who was an efficient administrator and thoroughly understood the long-term problems of Maori affairs. However, Ropiha, with his surveying background, shared the same interests and did not correct the minister’s bias towards land development and integration. In any such relationship it is hard to disentangle who is responsible for what. There are two areas, however, where a minister plays a decisive role: getting resources from cabinet and gaining a place on the legislative calendar for bills. Corbett was more successful than any following minister of Maori affairs in both of these areas. He maintained the department’s budget at around one per cent of the government’s expenditure, and put in place a new legislative basis for the department, beginning in 1952 with the Maori Land Amendment Act, which abolished the Maori land boards.
The Maori Affairs Act and the Maori Trustee Act of 1953 changed the structure of the department, giving it a statutory existence and combining the Maori Trust Office and the Department of Maori Affairs. In the original department the Maori Land Court judges had been given an important administrative role and the consent of the minister had been required to initiate a wide variety of administrative action. The role of the judges was eliminated and that of the minister much reduced. Other important pieces of legislation were the Maori Vested Lands Administration Act 1954, the Maori Trust Boards Act and Maori Reserved Land Act (both 1955). Over his period as minister, Corbett initiated a series of major measures, starting with the 1950 Maori Purposes Act, which aimed at the more efficient use of Maori land. In 1952 a new tax regime set the tax rates on Maori authorities at 25 per cent, compared to the company tax rate of 43 per cent.
There was a downside to this drive for efficient utilisation. The legislation granted the department considerable power of intervention over Maori land. As part of the attempt to halt the fragmentation of title, the Maori trustee was authorised to buy ‘uneconomic interests’ (defined as interests under £25 in value) from the estates of deceased beneficiaries and sell them to Maori incorporations or individual Maori. From the owners’ point of view they were being deprived of their share in ancestral land, a measure that struck at their identity as Maori. However, Corbett was also concerned to hand back land from the department and the trustee to its Maori owners. The East Coast Maori Trust of 121,788 acres was handed back to its owners in 1954 and a further 46 stations comprising 164,026 acres had been handed back by 1958.
Corbett fell ill and retired in September 1957, before the end of the session. He had been a very active minister of Maori affairs and had played an important role in the development of a Maori farming industry, although his legislation left a troubled legacy for his successors. In retirement he and his wife lived at Okato. He died in New Plymouth on 15 June 1968, survived by his wife and sons.