Manuera Benjamin Riwai Couch (or Riwai-Couch) was known throughout his life, and by his own preference, as Ben Couch. He was born at Lyttelton on 27 June 1925, the first of eight children of a farmer, George Manning Moke Couch, who had an English father and Ngai Tahu mother, and his wife, Hinerua Riwai of Rapaki, who had a Ngai Tahu father and Ngati Mutunga mother. Until the age of eight he lived in Christchurch with his maternal grandmother, Mere Ngautanga Riwai, a redoubtable widow who reared many children of the whanau, supporting them by work as a shearers’ cook. Mere’s simple Christian faith and strong, self-sufficient work ethic were lifelong influences on Ben.
In 1933, after some minor misbehaviour, he was sent to live with an uncle, Tahana Jack Riwai (Mere’s son) and his wife, Heke Temaari, in Kohunui, a rural pa near Pirinoa in south Wairarapa. He attended Pirinoa School and Otaki Maori College, but was unhappy at the latter and returned to Mere to attend the Christchurch Technical College from 1940 to 1942. He served an apprenticeship as a carpenter in Christchurch until August 1943, when he volunteered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. However, he was transferred to the army before he completed his training as a fighter pilot.
In 1945 Ben Couch returned to Pirinoa and worked as a builder. He was reunited with his primary school sweetheart, Peti (Bessie) Tangihaere Carter of Ngati Kahungunu and Ngati Raukawa. They married at Masterton on 15 July 1947 and had seven children. A handsome man, Ben seems to have loved only Bessie from their earliest years; this strong attachment to wife and family was the first of several commitments, or guiding principles, which directed the course of his life and his political decision-making. Converted to Bessie’s religious faith, Ben was baptised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1949. He later became an elder, a local branch president, and president of the Wairarapa District. He was committed to self-discipline and the rule of law, self-advancement through hard work, community service, and practical help in reforming criminals and assisting people in need, both Maori and Pakeha. He advocated programmes that would encourage Maori both to value their own cultural heritage and to become self-sufficient in a Pakeha-dominated society.
Throughout his life Couch loved rugby, first as a game, but secondly as a pursuit that emphasised team effort and that brought all kinds of people together as equals. A player himself, he was a gifted first five-eighth. He toured Australia with the 1947 All Blacks, playing one test. In 1948 he toured Fiji and Australia with the New Zealand Maori team and in 1949 he played two tests with the All Blacks in the losing home series against Australia. That year he and other Maori were ruled ineligible for selection for the 1949 All Black tour of South Africa because of its apartheid policies. In 1950 he played for Wairarapa when the provincial team defeated Canterbury in a Ranfurly Shield match. He later served as a committee member, then president, of the Wairapapa Bush Rugby Football Union, as a Wairarapa rugby selector, as a manager of the 1973 New Zealand Maori tour of the Pacific, and as Maori representative on the New Zealand Rugby Football Union council.
Couch lived throughout the 1950s and 1960s in Pirinoa, working as a builder and, from the late 1950s, as a shearing contractor. Throughout this time his labour force contained many probationers referred to his custody by the courts. Couch attempted, often successfully, to rehabilitate these people through contact with his own lifestyle of country living, hard work, sport and family. He became a probation officer, a Maori warden and a justice of the peace. Locally, he and his workers were known affectionately as ‘Ali Baba and the 40 thieves’.
He also committed a great deal of time to the local community and Maori organisations such as the Pirinoa and Wairarapa Maori committees. For a time he was on the New Zealand Maori Council. In 1973 he moved to Masterton, but retained strong links with Kohunui.
Couch’s involvement with national politics began in the early 1960s. As an employer and businessman, and as a person who, in his own view, exemplified the ability of any New Zealander to rise by effort from the humblest beginnings to independence, he was attracted to the New Zealand National Party. After chairing the Southern Maori electorate and the Pirinoa and Masterton branches of the party, he stood unsuccessfully for Southern Maori in 1963 and for Wairarapa in 1972. He was elected as member for Wairapapa in 1975 – one of the first two Maori ever to win a general seat. In 1978 he was appointed minister of Maori affairs and postmaster general; in 1980 he became minister of police, dropping the post office portfolio but retaining Maori affairs. He lost his seat in 1984, and although he stood for West Auckland in 1987, he never returned to Parliament.
Judgements of Ben Couch as a politician vary widely. In the national press he was often criticised, and occasionally lampooned, as a person notorious for making blunt and politically embarrassing comments. In his electorate he was widely admired for his integrity, honesty and enormous dedication to the interests of the people he represented. His press secretary, Gordon Wills Johnson, contended that Couch, unlike many of his colleagues, ‘never learned to lie, to quibble, or to evade an issue’. He was a man of clear beliefs, which he attempted to live by at all times.
When speaking informally Couch used colloquial language and humour, often directed at himself, appealing to a wide range of people. He presented direct views without pretension in a manner that left even hostile audiences convinced of his sincerity. On one occasion, touring a prison farm as minister of police, he stripped to the waist and shore several sheep, to the surprise of the inmates. He was less comfortable with prepared speeches, rehearsing them diligently but not always enjoying the delivery. He spoke only a little Maori, but as minister of Maori affairs learned his speeches in Maori by heart.
An admirer of his prime minister, Couch declared that Robert Muldoon had taught him ‘never to seek popularity. We are here to serve the nation, not to be popular. I follow him without question’. As minister of Maori affairs his often-quoted statement ‘I consider myself a New Zealander first and a Maori second’ reflected his conviction that efforts to improve the lot of Maori should not be seen as conferring special privileges, but should rather empower Maori while allowing them to retain their cultural integrity and make their way in a unified New Zealand society. The Maori language nests, kohanga reo, were a successful development that he helped to initiate, and he strongly advocated moves to encourage tribal loyalty as a means of providing a sense of identity, pride and belonging. As minister of police, Couch viewed the erosion of family values and the breakdown of the traditional family as the prime cause of crime. He advocated stronger penalties in the courts.
In spite of earlier having his own rugby career affected by apartheid policies, he believed strongly in rugby ties with South Africa, and visited the country twice in later years. His attitude to apartheid was that it was a political policy of South Africa and not a matter for direct political influence by New Zealand; that sports teams of both nations should be free to decide whether or not contact should be made; and that rugby contact with New Zealand could promote change for the better in South African attitudes and policy. He said in 1980 that ‘the 1970 All Blacks were the thin end of the wedge of what is happening now in South Africa’ because of their inclusion of Maori team members.
During the Springbok tour of 1981, which went ahead to considerable protest, he saw the role of the police, and his own as minister, as simply to uphold the law by maintaining order. He believed that tour matches had both a legal and a moral right to proceed, and that consequently the police were obliged to ensure that they were allowed to do so. He backed the police in using all lawful means to remove the protesters, whom he considered had chosen violent confrontation. This view reflected his belief in obedience to authority and respect for the rights of others; even so, his saddest political moment was when, as minister of police, he was instructed not to attend the test matches. His stance on the tour and other issues, though criticised by many New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, was respected and supported by others, especially in rural districts.
Ben Couch and his wife served as Mormon missionaries to the Cook Islands throughout 1985 and 1986. On his return to Masterton, and for the rest of his life, he devoted much of his time to refurbishing Tuhirangi, the Kohunui marae. Using any sources of funds and labour that his wide contacts and single-minded determination could discover, he led the committee as the marae was provided with new buildings, poupou (posts) and tukutuku (woven panels). In a rare honour for a living Maori, a poupou bearing the Maori version of his name, Pene Kaute, carved by inmates of Wi Tako (now Rimutaka) Prison, was erected outside the main house. He was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal and the Queen’s Service Order in 1991 for public services.
In the early 1990s he was acting manager of the Iwi Transition Agency in Masterton, and from 1993 until his death he served as a commissioner of the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission (Te Ohu Kai Moana), attending meetings in a wheelchair after a stroke in 1993 and the loss of his legs through diabetes. He died at his home on 3 June 1996, survived by his wife and six children.