Page 1: Biography
Rata, Matiu Waitai
Politician, union leader
This biography, written by Tiopira McDowell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Matiu Rata was a greatly respected and influential Minister of Māori Affairs and of Lands in the third Labour government, and progenitor of the Waitangi Tribunal and the Mana Motuhake movement. He spent much of his life championing Māori rights, and many of his contemporaries regarded him as a visionary whose contributions to Māori were unequalled. Rata was a complex and contradictory man: socialist apostle, conservative radical, labourer turned cabinet minister, patient reformer prone to impulse. Beneath his affable persona lay a simmering radicalism that transformed Māori grievance into action and altered the course of New Zealand’s colonial trajectory.
Son of Te Hāpua
Matiu Waitai Rata was born in the Far North settlement of Te Hāpua on 26 March 1934, one of four children born to Āta (Arthur) Rata and his wife Mereana Holloway, with whakapapa connections to Ngāti Kurī, Te Aupōuri and Ngāti Whātua.
Rata described his childhood as happy but hard. He spent his early years at Te Hāpua, before the family moved to Dargaville when he was about five. His father died when he was 10, and his mother moved her four children to Auckland, where she worked as a Post Office cleaner. There the family shared a crowded inner-city house with 11 other families, until they moved into their own state house in Panmure. This state assistance, a Labour Party initiative, significantly improved his family’s circumstances and prospects and stirred his interest in politics. ‘Politics were not academic for us’, he recalled. ‘It was very real’, as it represented ‘the means of getting out and into a new opportunity, a new environment, a new home, a new start.’1
Rata’s schooling was interrupted by a polio outbreak when he was 12, and he never returned to formal education. Instead he worked as a farm labourer and became a merchant seaman in 1950, gaining his able seaman’s certificate and joining the Seamen’s Union. He was involved in the 1951 waterfront dispute and joined the Labour Party the same year.
Returning to New Zealand from merchant marine service in 1954, Rata worked in a variety of jobs, including as a spray painter at the Ōtāhuhu Railway Workshops from 1960 to 1963. There he served as a union organiser and as a member of the executive of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in Ōtāhuhu. He was elected chairperson of his local Labour Party branch, and Labour area organiser in Auckland for the Northern Māori member of parliament, Tapihana Paikea.
Rata married Nellie Eruera (of Ngāpuhi descent) in Auckland, probably in 1957, and was the father of two sons and a daughter. He was a committed member of the Rātana Church. His parents had lived for a time at Rātana Pā, and Rata went on to become an Āpotoro Rēhita (registered minister), chair of the Auckland branch of the Rātana Church, and vice-chair of the Rātana Youth Movement. His interests also included horse racing and rugby league.
Te ana o te raiona (entering the lion’s den)
Rata’s propitious combination of a Rātana upbringing, Labour affiliations, union support and close connections with the incumbent Northern Māori member ultimately led him to Parliament. When Paikea died in January 1963, Rata’s union colleagues nominated him to contest the seat, and he was selected from a strong field of candidates. This came as a shock to Rata; he was unsure whether to be ‘horrified, honoured or just totally bemused by it all’.2 He won the ensuing by-election, entering Parliament in March 1963 at the age of 28.
Rata spent more than three terms in opposition as a staunch critic of the incumbent National government and an outspoken voice on a range of issues. He led opposition to the infamous Māori Affairs Amendment Bill 1967, and promised to repeal it at the first opportunity. He actively campaigned for nationwide recognition of Waitangi Day, the retention and development of Māori land, improved housing and educational opportunities for Māori and Pacific people, and the rights of workers and unions. Rata took a tough stance on French nuclear testing in the Pacific, sailing in a peace flotilla to observe tests on Moruroa Atoll in 1972, and opposed New Zealand’s sporting ties with South Africa.
Labour’s 1972 election win saw Rata appointed Minister of Māori Affairs and Minister of Lands, a combination of portfolios which placed him in a strong position to reform Māori land laws. As promised, he repealed the offending sections of the 1967 Act. He implemented reforms that encouraged the retention and development of Māori land, increased Māori control of their lands, and, by his own tally, returned some 56,000 acres of land to Māori ownership. This amounted to a significant reversal of predatory government policies, though it satisfied neither Rata himself nor the Māori land rights movement that developed during his term in office. He set about developing ‘a means by which Māori people had a lawful right to seek redress’.3
The Waitangi Tribunal
The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 was to be Rata’s legacy. His initial vision was nothing less than the legal ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi, making its terms enforceable through the court system. Unable to secure Cabinet’s support for this, he proposed instead the establishment of a non-binding commission of inquiry to investigate Māori historical and contemporary claims over acts or omissions of central and local government that contravened the Treaty of Waitangi. This second proposal was also rejected by Cabinet and subsequently scaled down. The final Act established the Waitangi Tribunal as a permanent commission of inquiry to investigate, report on and make non-binding recommendations on Māori claims relating to central government actions or inactions. Rata had reservations about the tribunal’s inability to hear claims concerning events which occurred before it was founded, but saw the Act as ‘a move forward’ and considered that the question of retrospective jurisdiction could be reviewed if necessary.4 He viewed the bill as ‘a major document of social and political progress’ which would help ‘settle the deeply felt and long-standing grievances of the Māori people over the treaty, which they regard as the very foundation of their rights.’5
The Tribunal’s establishment was an important breakthrough, answering Māori calls for recognition of their treaty rights and for their grievances to be heard, if not settled. This extended beyond policy into the realm of prophecy: Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana had sent his followers to Parliament to pursue the ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi and to address Māori land grievances, and Rata had spent many hours debating and interpreting Rātana’s teachings. The church named Rata ‘Piri Wiri Tua’: the title had previously been bestowed on Rātana himself, who, his followers hoped, would turn and rotate like a screw (‘piri wiri’) and ‘stick fast and bore through to the other side’.6 In Parliament Rata lived up to this title by providing the breakthrough which began the process of addressing Māori grievances.
In 1973 Rata introduced a bill to make New Zealand Day (later renamed Waitangi Day) a national holiday commemorating the initial signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. His efforts increased spending on Māori and Pacific housing and education and brought some official recognition and support for Māori language, culture and marae. This short, sharp flurry of activity between 1973 and 1975 represents one of the high points of Māori political engagement and marked Rata as his generation’s most influential Māori politician.
Tai timu (the ebbing tide)
The sudden death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk in August 1974 brought a change of fortune for Rata. Kirk’s replacement, Bill Rowling, questioned his abilities, and, after the party’s electoral defeat in 1975, stripped him of his shadow Māori Affairs portfolio. Rata remained a Labour frontbencher, but without the status of party spokesperson on Māori matters.
The final straw came on 2 November 1979, when a party reshuffle demoted Rata to backbencher. Rata abruptly resigned from his seat, the ultimate expression of his frustration. Both National and Labour had sidelined Māori issues, and Rata’s demotion was a trampling of his mana. The week after his resignation he embarked on a series of hui in the North to explain his actions to his constituents, and activists urged him to launch a new Māori political movement. Rata agreed, touring the North to solicit support from voters, encouraging Labour Party electorate branches to defect, and gathering donations to establish the fledgling movement, named Mana Motuhake.
Rata fought a colourful campaign, but despite the movement’s efforts he failed to win the Northern Māori by-election in 1980; he gained 37.9 per cent of the vote to his Labour opponent Bruce Gregory’s 52.4 per cent. In 1981 Rata slipped to 23 per cent of the vote; in 1984 he gained just 18.5 per cent. After losing again in 1987, he indicated that he would not stand again.
Victory of a sort came with the election of three Mana Motuhake members to Parliament between 1993 and 1999 under the umbrella of the Alliance. Rata’s own efforts had proved insufficient to overcome 50 years of Māori loyalty to Labour, the entrenchment of the two-party system, the first-past-the-post electoral system, and Māori voting apathy. Rata’s wife Nellie was also active in Mana Motuhake, and after failing to be nominated by the party for the new Tai Tokerau seat she stood as an ACT Party candidate in 1999.
He kuaka mārangaranga (the godwit takes flight)
With his political career coming to an end, Rata moved into important leadership roles for Ngāti Kurī and the people of the Far North. He soon became one of the primary claimants to his creation, the Waitangi Tribunal, which, in 1985, was granted retrospective powers to hear grievances dating back to 1840. In 1986 Rata and others lodged the Muriwhenua claim, WAI 45, on behalf of Ngāti Kurī, Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa, Ngāi Takoto, Ngāti Kahu, and the various incorporations, trusts and tribal executives of the region.
The claim presented a concise and comprehensive overview of the myriad grievances of Muriwhenua, though the claimants opted to split fisheries issues from the wider claim in an effort to head off government plans for a quota management system that, if implemented, would effectively shut Māori out of the fishing industry. The tribunal’s Muriwhenua fishing report (1988) found that fisheries had provided the livelihood of local iwi, and had ‘developed on commercial lines’ with the arrival of Europeans. Overfishing, coupled with the transfer of fisheries to commercial operators, had meant ‘the loss of a viable industry’ for Muriwhenua Māori.7Māori fishing rights were protected under the treaty, the tribunal asserted, and the government was therefore beholden to reach a deal on the transfer of fishing quota with the claimants.
Rata was appointed to a Joint Working Group on Māori Fisheries to represent iwi, with a mandate to secure no less than 50 per cent of the fishing quota for Māori. An initial deal in 1989 provided for the transfer of 10 per cent of quota to a Māori Fisheries Commission, and an allocation of $10 million to establish Aotearoa Fishing, a commercial fishing venture to be owned by the commission. The deal was not well received by Māori. A more substantial agreement, negotiated in 1992, provided $150 million to enable Māori to purchase half of fishing company Sealord; 20% of all new species quota would be set aside for Māori as a full and final settlement of all Māori fishing claims. The settlement proved highly controversial and was opposed by a range of interest groups. Supporters regarded the settlement as a pragmatic response which allowed Māori to enter the fishing industry.
In 1997 the tribunal’s Muriwhenua land report found that Crown policies had left Muriwhenua iwi virtually landless, creating profound and ongoing social, economic and cultural problems. The tribunal recommended ‘a very large compensation’ and ‘the transfer of substantial assets, to be effected as soon as practicable’.8 Muriwhenua iwi subsequently divided to pursue their claims separately, and Ngāti Kurī finally signed a deed of settlement with the Crown in February 2014, 17 years after Rata’s death.
Toi tū te whenua (the land remains)
Rata would not live to enjoy the fruits of his lifelong labours. Driving home from a Muriwhenua claim meeting on 17 July 1997, he was involved in a head-on collision at Te Hana, north of Wellsford. The couple in the other car were killed instantly, and Rata sustained critical injuries. He was transported first to Whāngārei Hospital and then to Auckland Hospital, where he died on 25 July, aged 63, survived by his wife and children.
Memorial services were held in Auckland Hospital’s chapel and in Onehunga before he was taken to Pōtahi Marae in Te Kao for his tangihanga. He lay in state at his home marae of Te Reo Mihi in Te Hāpua, dressed in his Āpotoro Rēhita kākahu (registered apostle robes), his coffin cloaked in kahu huruhuru and tapa cloth. He was laid to rest on 29 July in Te Hāpua Cemetery, high on the hill above the shifting tides of Pārengarenga Harbour, facing an eternal sunrise.