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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.