Story: Tōrangapū – Māori and political parties

Page 3. Rātana, Labour and Mana Motuhake

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The 20th century saw the emergence of several new Māori political parties. However, it was not until 1967 that the National government changed the law to allow Māori to stand in European electorates, and only in 1975 did Māori gain the choice to enrol either on the Māori or the general electoral roll.


Rātana began as a pan-Māori religious movement led by the charismatic prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. The movement soon became deeply involved in politics, and a fundamental kaupapa (foundational principle or idea) was ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi. Driven by the increasing poverty and landlessness of Māori, it became the first political group to transcend tribal loyalties and mobilise Māori on a national basis. Rātana members held the Southern Māori seat from 1932, Western Māori from 1935 and Northern Māori from 1938.

The Rātana–Labour alliance

In 1936 Rātana formed an alliance with the Labour Party, and Rātana members began to stand for Parliament under the Labour banner.

The first Labour government provided social welfare benefits to Māori on the same basis as non- Māori. The Rātana movement took credit for this and secured the Māori vote for Labour until 1996. During this time important Māori MPs included Eruera Tirikātene, Iriaka Rātana and Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan (the first two Māori women MPs), and Matiu Rata.

The 1993 election in Northern Māori of Tau Hēnare for New Zealand First was a sign of change in the Māori electorates.

Iriaka Rātana

Iriaka Rātana (Te Āti Haunui-ā-Pāpārangi) became the first Māori woman MP in 1949. She won the Western Māori seat following the death of her husband Matiu Rātana, who had succeeded his older brother Haami Tokouru Rātana in 1945. Iriaka Rātana held her seat for 20 years and focused on social welfare issues.

Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan

Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan (Ngāi Tahu), a member of the Labour Party, succeeded her father, Eruera Tirikātene, in the Southern Māori electorate. By the time of her retirement in 1996, she was New Zealand’s longest-serving female MP. During her tenure she held the cabinet portfolios of minister of tourism, associate minister of social welfare and minister for the environment. In 2011 Rino Tirikātene – grandson of Eruera Tirikātene and nephew of Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan – was elected the Labour MP for Te Tai Tonga, formerly the Southern Māori electorate that his grandfather and aunt had held for 64 years (1932–96).

Matiu Rata

Matiu Rata (Ngāti Kurī), a member of the Rātana church, a former seaman and a trade-union official, represented Northern Māori from 1963 until 1980. As minister of Māori affairs and of lands in the 1972–75 Labour government he was instrumental in establishing the Waitangi Tribunal. He said Māori grievances over land ‘were sufficiently strongly based that no government worth its salt would be able to ignore them once they were properly investigated.’1

He also played a key role in having 6 February (the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed) declared a public holiday. Rata resigned from the Labour Party in 1979 and from Parliament in 1980, saying that Labour paid insufficient attention to Māori matters.

As the leader of the newly formed Mana Motuhake party, he contested a by-election in his Northern Māori electorate, but lost to Labour candidate Bruce Gregory and did not succeed in returning to Parliament. He went on to negotiate land and fishing claims on behalf of the Muriwhenua tribes of the Far North, working in this area until his death in 1997.

Mana Motuhake

Mana Motuhake’s name refers to Māori self-determination, and its fundamental purpose was to retain and regain Māori land. At the 1981 general election Mana Motuhake captured over 15% of the Māori vote. It allied with New Labour in 1990 and became part of the Alliance Party in 1993. Eva Rickard then led a breakaway group to form a new Māori political party – the Mana Māori Movement – which contested the 2002 general election.

Sandra Lee-Vercoe

In 1993 Sandra Lee (later Sandra Lee-Vercoe), the deputy leader of Mana Motuhake and a member of the Alliance coalition, won the Auckland Central electorate. Lee was the first Māori woman to win a general electorate. In 1996 and 1999 she returned to Parliament as the Mana Motuhake list member of the Alliance. In 1999 she was appointed minister of local government and oversaw a number of local government reforms. Lee also served as minister of conservation and associate minister of Māori affairs.

  1. Quoted in ‘Obituary: Matiu Rata’, Independent, 28 July 1997.. Back
How to cite this page:

Ann Sullivan, 'Tōrangapū – Māori and political parties - Rātana, Labour and Mana Motuhake', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 March 2024)

Story by Ann Sullivan, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 18 Jul 2016