In 1902 the first Commonwealth Franchise Act was passed in Australia, which allowed Māori living in that country to vote if they were already on the electoral role – a right not extended to all Australian Aborigines until 1962. As British subjects, Māori had easy access to Australia, but few took up the opportunity to go there. The 1933 Australian census records just 197 Māori.
Migration increased during the 1960s – the Māori population in Australia almost doubled from 449 in 1961 to 862 in 1966. These census figures may have under-represented the number of people with Māori ancestry by as much as four times, as Māori who were more than half European were identified as European. It is likely that in 1966 there were about 4,000 people of Māori descent in Australia.
Many early Māori were sojourners rather than settlers. In the early 1950s most Australians had never seen a Māori. This fact wasn’t lost on the entertainer Tui Teka, who toured Australia as a teenager with a circus. Billed as Prince Tui La Tui of the Royal Polynesians, he danced, sang, and played the part of the ‘noble savage’. He had other less glamorous daytime chores, among them driving a truck and shovelling elephant dung. Other entertainers such as Dalvanius Prime, Robbie Rātana, Rim D. Paul and Ricky May soon followed in Tui Teka’s footsteps, working the pub and club circuit.
Dalvanius – an Italian connection
In 1969 the young Māui Prime and his siblings formed a band, Dalvanius and the Fascinations. For 10 years they performed in cabarets in Australia and Asia. One story attributes Māui’s stage name of Dalvanius to a fallen comrade of his father Jack, who fought in the Maori Battalion during the Second World War. He is said to have died in the Italian city of Barletta, a name given to one of Māui’s sisters. Many Māori returned soldiers named children after wartime experiences.
In his later years Dalvanius Prime became a driving force in the campaign for the return of mokamokai (preserved Māori heads) held in overseas museums and private collections.
Searching for work
By 1986 the Australian Māori population had surged to 26,000. Many migrants were young men and women who had arrived in search of work following a downturn in the New Zealand economy. Māori were particularly hard hit by the closure of freezing works and other factories during the 1970s and 1980s.
Going to Australia was partly an extension of urban drift. After Auckland as the most popular destination many went to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. Some Māori crossed the Tasman to work as shearers or miners in the outback. Partly because Kiwi shearers used wider combs than their Australian counterparts, they could shear sheep faster. This meant they were valued as workers, although during the ‘wide comb’ shearers’ dispute in the 1980s some Māori faced threats and intimidation. But for the most part, Māori were well received and developed a reputation as hard workers. As well as being especially prominent as shearers in the wool industry, they were noteworthy as stable hands or trainers in the Australian horse-racing industry.