Obituary: Matiu Rata

Matiu Rata earned a lasting place in New Zealand history as the man more than any other responsible for making the country address historic injustices to the Maori people. What is more, he did it with such charm and good humour that even the pakeha (European) population respected and admired him, unlike some of the young Maori radicals who took up his cause.

He was, in the words of a former Labour Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the catalyst behind the modern Maori renaissance. Another Maori leader, Sir Graham Latimer, credited Rata with single-handedly being responsible for "70 per cent of Maori achievements" in recent years. He had, Latimer said, made an unequalled contribution to Maoridom.

As Minister of Maori Affairs in the Labour government of 1972-75, Rata created the Waitangi Tribunal, a body to assess Maori grievances against the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi under which Maori tribes conceded sovereignty to the British Crown in return for guaranteed continued possession of their traditional land and fisheries.

Maoris had long complained about historic injustices which ignored treaty principles but had no avenue for airing their grievances and seeking redress. The tribunal formally acknowledged the treaty as New Zealand's founding document and gave disaffected Maoris a channel for claims for the return of their land or compensation.

Although critics noted that the tribunal had no teeth and could only make recommendations to the government, Rata said: "I knew, though, that those grievances were sufficiently strongly based that no government worth its salt would be able to ignore them once they were properly investigated." On his initiative, 6 February - the day the treaty was signed - was declared New Zealand Day and an official public holiday.

While he was minister, the government also established Maori as an official language and the teaching of it was greatly increased. As Minister of Lands concurrently, he quietly returned more Crown land to Maori control in a single term than any minister previously, but deliberately sought no publicity for fear of a European backlash. He said later, however: "No New Zealand citizen should fear the advent of justice for Maoris."

After Labour lost office in 1975, he fell out with its leaders over policy differences and resigned from the party in November 1979. He stayed in parliament briefly as an independent before forming a new Maori party, Mana Motuhake. He put its goals of Maori self- determination within a bicultural society to the test at a by-election in June 1980, but was defeated by the Labour candidate and never succeeded in subsequent efforts to return to parliament.

He remained leader of the party until 1994, after its first MP had been elected when Mana Motuhake joined the NZ Alliance, a five-party opposition coalition. He said then: "Maori affairs no longer remain in the quiet backwater, but have become part of the main agenda."

Born and raised in Te Hapua, New Zealand's northernmost settlement, he worked until his death promoting land and fishing claims of the Muriwhenua tribes in the Far North. He did not talk tough enough for young radical Maoris and had become enmeshed in squabbles dividing the tribes about who had the right to negotiate with the Crown over the multimillion-dollar Muriwhenua claims.

Mat Rata died after an accident while still engaged in the Maori cause. As he was driving home on 17 July after a meeting on land claims, his car was involved in a head-on collision with a vehicle driven by a foreign tourist who reportedly fell asleep at the wheel. Rata died on Friday from his injuries.

David Barber

Matiu Rata, politician: born Te Hapua, New Zealand 26 March 1934; MP (Labour, Independent), Northern Maori 1963-80; Minister of Maori Affairs/Minister of Lands 1972-75; founder and leader, Mana Motuhake Party 1980-94; married 1956 Nellie Eruera (two sons, one daughter); died Auckland 25 July 1997.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's First World War footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during the war. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end