Page 1: Biography
Race relations campaigner and polemicist
This biography, written by Tim Shoebridge, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Hilda Phillips was one of the best-known and most persistent critics of the Māori land, resource rights and autonomy campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. She attacked the foundations of Māori grievances against the Crown, and government policies which, in her view, privileged Māori over other ethnic groups. Her interpretations of historical events and policies, based on problematic source material, were heavily criticised by scholars, but found an audience among conservative Pākehā fearful of Māori radicalism.
Early years and emigration to New Zealand
Hilda Rosenbaum was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 10 April 1922, the daughter of Esther Davis and her husband, cabinetmaker Louis Rosenbaum, both of whom were born in England. Esther raised Hilda and her sister Beth alone after Louis’s death in 1936. Hilda married railway engineer Morris Phillips in Cape Town on 4 April 1943, and they had two children together. Hilda worked as a personal secretary and controller of staff in the local office of the International Press Agency.
Both Hilda and Morris came from Jewish families, and grew up in an era of Afrikaner hostility to Jews and government restrictions on Jewish immigration and naturalisation. The anti-Semitic National Party came to power in 1948 and began introducing the apartheid system which enforced racial segregation between white, ‘coloured’ and black South Africans. In 1952 the family emigrated to New Zealand to escape the racial divisions of the apartheid system; Hilda viewed the country as a ‘20th-century Eden’, ‘free from crime, violence, fear, and discrimination’.1
The Phillips family settled in Auckland and were naturalised as New Zealand citizens in 1961. Morris was employed as an engineer, while Hilda worked in various clerical and retail jobs alongside freelance journalism. She wrote mostly on domestic subjects and served as cookery consultant for The Mirror magazine. She also appeared on radio cooking shows and compiled several commercial cookbooks, including Anchor milk recipes (1956).
Race relations campaigning, 1970s
Hilda Phillips’s vision of New Zealand as a racial utopia began to collapse in the early 1970s, as Māori protests against 130 years of social and economic marginalisation, and the loss of communally-held land, became more visible. Legislation had historically undermined Māori efforts to exercise tribal or collective self-government, and from the late 1960s young Māori, inspired in part by indigenous rights movements overseas, grew increasingly strident in asserting Māori self-determination and demanding resolution of long-simmering grievances.
In November 1973 Hilda Phillips read about a government proposal which, in her opinion, threatened the cherished equality of New Zealand society. Minister of Māori Affairs Matiu Rata had proposed legislation aimed at preserving Māori land in Māori ownership and providing official recognition for te reo Māori. Among many other things, it proposed a change to the official definition of ‘Māori’ from a person with at least half ‘Māori blood’ to a person with any Māori ancestry. This would permit them to vote in Māori electorates and give them access to certain targeted funds unavailable to non-Māori.
Phillips was outraged at the proposal, believing that any law which conferred ‘special privilege’2 on one group of citizens on a racial basis contained ‘the seeds of apartheid’.3 She was so inflamed by the issue that she took a year off work to study for a certificate of proficiency in Māori land law at the University of Auckland, and became increasingly convinced that government efforts to redress societal imbalances or past wrongs through remedial legislation threatened the foundations of New Zealand society.
Phillips took her case to the nation in a series of articles published in major daily newspapers, the scholarly journal New Zealand Recent Law, current affairs magazines like Monthly Review and Comment, and popular magazines with huge readership bases such as New Zealand Listener and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. By her own count, she had around 60 articles published between 1974 and 1981, making her one of the most widely published commentators in the race relations debate. Māori grievances were highly topical at the time, and Phillips found editors willing to publish her articles as counterpoints to articles by Māori commentators like Ranginui Walker. She also appealed directly to those in power, lobbying select committees, ministers, members of Parliament and officials.
The central themes of Phillips’s articles were an insistence that a democratic society should be a meritocracy based on freedom of opportunity, and that Māori intermarriage with other ethnic groups had made legal distinctions based on race irrelevant. She rejected claims of catastrophic land loss by asserting that legal definitions of ‘Māori land’ made it impossible to calculate what remained. In her view the impact and extent of raupatu (land confiscation) had been overstated. Moreover, because – as she saw it – no system of land ownership had existed in the pre-contact period, Māori had unjustly benefited from colonialism by being granted ownership of unoccupied land by the Māori Land Court.
Phillips’s understanding was based upon a highly selective reading of statutes, government reports and out-of-date books, with any points which contradicted her main thesis ignored. She disregarded Māori ambitions for collective self-determination and took no interest in efforts to promote Māori culture and preserve the few assets which remained in Māori hands. Her arguments ran counter to a growing body of modern revisionist scholarship, led by writers such as Walker, Alan Ward and Dick Scott, which substantiated long-held Māori grievances about systemic discrimination and rapacious Crown actions. Phillips rejected such work as biased, irrelevant or inaccurate; she was so enraged by the arguments presented in Keith Sinclair’s A history of New Zealand (1960, revised 1975), and I. H. Kawharu’s Maori land tenure (1977), that she lobbied the publishers to recall unsold copies.
Historians W. H. Oliver and Keith Sorrenson and archaeologist Janet Davidson refuted the reliability and representativeness of her evidence and interpretations in lengthy letters to the editor. Politician Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan rejected the claim of Māori privilege as ridiculous, speculating, ‘Perhaps it is really the very existence of a separate Maori culture that she objects to.’4 Oliver Sutherland and Tom Newnham, Pākehā active in the anti-racism movement, attacked the Eurocentrism and false assumptions of her arguments and her blindness to systemic discrimination. Phillips felt ‘abused, reviled, ridiculed’ by her critics, but altered nothing in her arguments.5
Phillips’ public statements became more strident in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as she grew convinced that New Zealand had ‘sacrificed liberty on the altar of licence, factionalism and minority-group pressure’.6 She regarded the Bastion Point and Raglan Golf Course occupations as breakdowns of public order, and believed the restoration of land to Auckland hapū Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei was ‘a very dangerous precedent’ which could destabilise private property rights.7 She regarded the 1979 haka party incident as an organised ‘gang attack’ which mirrored the politicisation and militarisation of gangs that had occurred in Nazi Germany and Communist China.8 She viewed anti-racism protestors picketing the 1981 Springbok tour as hypocrites, given what she perceived as New Zealand’s own apartheid laws, and saw the various government agencies focused on Māori needs as a sinister cabal intent on entrenching racial inequality.
Anti-Waitangi Tribunal activism and Let the truth be known
Phillips found it increasingly difficult to place articles in mainstream publications after 1981, as editors tired of what one called her ‘obsessive personal crusade’.9She faded from the public eye until a series of Waitangi Tribunal findings and legal judgments in the late 1980s prompted her to launch a new phase of public activism.
The Waitangi Tribunal had been created in 1975 to investigate Māori claims that the Crown was breaching the Treaty of Waitangi. It exerted relatively little influence until 1985, when it was given retrospective powers to hear claims dating back to 1840. Over the following five years the number of claims multiplied, and a landmark Court of Appeal case forced the Crown to engage with Māori grievances. It made provisional arrangements to allocate a portion of commercial fishing rights to Māori, and to consider redress for proven Treaty breaches, including the transfer of unused Crown land to claimant groups.
Phillips was outraged by these developments. She argued that Māori had ceded sovereignty and gained in return the rights of British citizenship when they signed the Treaty. In her estimation they were subjects rather than partners, making any allocation of public money or assets on racial grounds discriminatory towards non-Māori. She viewed the growing number of Tribunal claims as ‘people of mixed-race descent capitalising on their Maori ancestry’.10
In 1988 she launched an aggressive public speaking campaign aimed at Rotary clubs and other organisations. Her book proposals had been turned down by multiple publishers, so she self-published a broadsheet entitled Let the truth be known to distribute at talks, to the media and to other influential people. She circulated 2000 copies in eight months, and the New Zealand Fishing Industry Association sent her select committee submission based on it to all members of Parliament.
Phillips soon found common cause with other Pākehā who shared her anxieties. In mid-1988 she joined forces with the One New Zealand Foundation, an organisation claiming 10,000 members which was staunchly committed to overturning any policies it considered to favour Māori. It published an abridged version of Let the truth be known as Racial discrimination violates the Treaty of Waitangi in early 1989, and she distributed its petitions at her talks.
In 1989 the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board published a comprehensive rebuttal of Phillips’ work by Harry Evison, an historian involved in the Treaty settlement process. He attacked her arguments and evidence concerning the legal and historical foundations of Treaty claims, the basis of Māori land ownership and administration, and the gravity of Māori land losses. He described Let the truth be known as an ‘extraordinary web of misinformation’, ‘tedious, repetitive, confused, obsessive, and in places irresponsible and scurrilous’. He opined that its ‘distortion or misrepresentation of legal and historical documents’ would further polarise public opinion and breed more intolerance if left unanswered.11 Phillips dismissed Evison’s views as ‘garbage.’12
Morris Phillips died in April 1990, and Hilda, now in her late sixties, felt compelled to reduce her campaigning. She had grown disillusioned with the One New Zealand Foundation, which, she considered, had failed to deliver on its early promise. She was also uneasy about its hostility to Māori culture; she viewed her own campaign as focused on legal discrimination rather than on Māori per se. Though plagued by health problems and failing eyesight, she lobbied occasionally through the 1990s, repackaging her arguments in a self-published booklet, Ill-founded ethnic/iwi/tribal claims: repeatedly settled by successive governments (1997).
Fearing that her campaign would die with her, she deposited her extensive personal archive in the Alexander Turnbull Library. In 1996 she published Yardstick, which drew together poems previously published in small poetry journals, newspapers and anthologies in New Zealand and overseas. Some, such as ‘Kotahi iwi tatou’, were pleas for racial unity, insisting ‘we are all / corpuscles in the universal / bloodstream of Io the Supreme.’13 She died in Auckland on 15 January 2006, aged 83.
Hilda Phillips’s work, with its conspiracy-driven anxiety about looming societal collapse, pioneered a tradition which historian Richard Hill describes as ‘anti-Treatyist’.14 Writers in this tradition, such as Geoff McDonald and Stuart C. Scott, drew on a narrow body of evidence in an attempt to discredit Māori grievances. Their writings reflected discomfort with a changing society and an eagerness to evade a reckoning with an uncomfortable colonial past.