Obituary: Sir Charles Bennett

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CHARLES BENNETT once said: "I am a Maori because I feel like a Maori. I am also glad to be known as a New Zealander. Like most Maori of my generation, my ancestral heritage is very precious to me." He was not only one of the most outstanding New Zealanders of his generation but was a trailblazer for his people, succeeding in many areas at a time when Maoris rarely made it to the top.

The second Maori to go to Oxford, he was the first of his race to head a diplomatic mission overseas, serving as High Commissioner to the Federation of Malaya 1959-63, and the first to head a major political party, being president of the Labour Party in the 1970s.

One of New Zealand's most distinguished soldiers, he rose through the ranks to command the 28th Maori Battalion with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the North African campaign, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in Tunisia in 1943.

He then had an equally distinguished career in the New Zealand civil service, specialising in developing welfare and education policies for his people as Assistant Secretary of the Maori Affairs Department.

Like many Maoris of his generation, he did not have an easy start to life. He was born in 1913, the second eldest of 18 children of the Right Rev Frederick Bennett, the first Maori Anglican bishop. He was brought up by his maternal grandparents in what he later described as a typically poor, rural, Maori environment of the time. He started school in the tiny Bay of Plenty village of Maketu, and claimed that he hardly spoke a word of English until he was sent to the elite Te Aute College for Maori boys at the age of 13.

Three years later, he won a government scholarship to Christ-church Teachers' Training College, going on to Canterbury University where he graduated with a BA and Diploma in Education in 1938. He taught briefly and also worked as a radio announcer before enlisting when the Second World War broke out. He rose rapidly from private to lieutenant-colonel, becoming the youngest battalion commander in the 2nd NZEF when he took over the Maori Battalion at the age of 29.

His spell in command was brief; he was seriously wounded when he stepped on a mine at the Battle of Takrouna, Tunisia, in April 1943. He was repatriated and spent three years in and out of hospital before joining the Maori Affairs Department in charge of Maori welfare. He was active in public life, serving on the State Literary Fund Board, the Prisons Parole Board and the Adult Education National Board.

Bennett also resumed his studies, graduating from Victoria University of Wellington in 1955 with an MA in history and a diploma in social sciences and two years later won a fellowship to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied race relations.

In 1959, the Labour Prime Minister Walter Nash asked him to become New Zealand's High Commissioner to the new Federation of Malaya, the first Maori to head a diplomatic mission and an appointment described at the time as "imaginative". When Labour lost the 1960 general election, the incoming conservative National Party asked Bennett to stay on and he remained in Kuala Lumpur until 1963, becoming a personal friend of the Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and laying a foundation for close bilateral relations between two countries that had only a British colonial background in common. Tunku was instrumental in 1964 in making Bennett the first non-Malay to be awarded a Malayan knighthood.

Back home again, he rejoined the Maori Affairs Department as assistant secretary where he remained until his retirement in 1971.

He joined the Labour Party - later explaining that "Maori communalism, for lack of a better word, orientates people towards socialism" - and stood for Parliament in the 1969 election. He was the first Maori of more than half blood to take up the newly legislated right to contest a general constituency seat rather than those reserved for Maori candidates and voters.

He did not succeed in winning the seat of his birthplace, Rotorua, but was elected vice-president of the party in 1970. He went on to became its first Maori president after being urged to put his name forward by the Labour Prime Minister of the day, Norman Kirk.

Knighted in 1975 for services to the public, especially the Maori people, he remained active in Maori affairs into his eighties, retaining what one observer described as "immense dignity, courtesy and care". Three years ago he criticised the government for its proposal to put a NZ$1bn cap on compensation for Maoris whose land was taken away by successive administrations. Speaking at a ceremony to honour Maoris who had fought in two world wars, he asked: "If the events of today had been transferred to 1939, would we have volunteered?"

He was buried with full military honours and left a lasting impact on the army he served. Earlier this year, he gave a blessing to a new haka (originally a war dance, now used for ceremonial purposes) adopted by the army. And the New Zealand Defence Force has decided to change its and the army's official badge, which features two crossed swords, in his honour. At Bennett's funeral, Lt-Gen Tony Birks, Chief of the Defence Force, announced that one of the swords will be replaced by a taiaha (a traditional Maori spear) to reflect the partnership between Maoris and pakeha (Europeans) in the forces.

Charles Moihi Te Arawaka Bennett, soldier, diplomat, civil servant; born Rotorua, New Zealand 27 July 1913; DSO 1943; NZ High Commissioner to the Federation of Malaya 1959-63; Vice-President, NZ Labour Party 1970- 73, President 1973-76; Kt 1975; married 1947 Elizabeth Stewart (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Tauranga, New Zealand 26 November 1998.