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Ngata - A Career Of Practical Achievement

An address by Rt Hon Winston Peters for Ta Apirana Ngata Memorial Lectures at Ngata Memorial College, Ruatoria on Wednesday 24 September 2003 at 6.30pm.

Sir Apirana Ngata - A Political Career Of Practical Achievement

A study of the political life of Sir Apirana Ngata is soon confronted with the practical visionary genius of this remarkable man.

In 1940, already in Parliament for 35 years, Apirana Ngata writing to Peter Buck, mourned “the change that had come over one’s mood.”

“Briefly the change had come with the realization that the Labour policy of increased social benefits, higher wages for less work and equality of Pakeha and Maori was striking a severe blow at the things I had come to regard as fundamental to the maintenance of the individuality of the Maori people.”

The social system, the new Committees “cutting across old methods of consultations on the maraes” seemed to “challenge all we had come to associate with mana in Maori affairs.”

So wrote one of the greatest political figures and the most notable Maori of the last century.

Ngata quickly apprehended and predicted just how debilitating would be the effects of wide spread unfocused welfarism upon the Maori race.

When Ngata entered Parliament, in 1905, he had come from an immediate background of successful farm management. He had accentuated the work of his father and others, and by World War I, Ngata had demonstrated that with skilled leadership Maori could farm as successfully as the Europeans.

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By the time Sir Apirana Ngata came to office as Minister of Native Affairs in 1928, already 23 years a parliamentarian, his encouragement of Ngati Porou achievements had included support, where appropriate, for a switch over to dairying.

Tai Tokerau, the Wanganui river, the King Country and Waikato followed.

From 1928 on followed development programmes throughout the North Island. His letters speak proudly of the many developments.

With the depression came further opportunities, the hope that the Maori would “emerge from the present depression with definite results in the form of improved lands and small farm colonies, and above all a whetted taste for cultivation.”

How such a brilliant man without equal in Parliament came to spend so long in the Ministerial wilderness is difficult to comprehend but he was and remains the benchmark by which every later Maori politician is measured. Alongside Buck and Pomare, and following after Carroll, these were the halcyon years of Maori political representation.

His tenure in Parliament was 38 years, unparalleled in New Zealand political history.

A scholar, an intellectual, Ngata’s learned impetus included long term membership of the Polynesian Society, an unsurpassed knowledge of genealogy and oral traditions, songs and poetry, and promotion of Maori carving and sport.

The emergent politician of 1905 quickly became the dedicated politician, the practical politician, always searching for solutions to the problems facing Maori and their lands.

A loyal Liberal, he used his influence with Coates and Pomare, and Reform Ministers in the resolution of grievance claims.

His period in Ward’s second term as Prime Minister in 1928 was marked by immense energy and drive and when Peter Fraser became Minister of Education in the first Labour Government of 1935, Ngata worked hard to bring Fraser and Savage to an understanding of Maori needs.

As he explained it: “Hence the importance of keeping watch on the policy and practice of the men in the new Government.”

The World Wars were an imperial cause that Ngata had supported without question; Ngati Porou responded by filling their voluntary quota.

Completely supportive of the Maori Battalion, which included two sons in World War II, he wrote that the “very flower of the Maori youth of today is already overseas.”

Ngata, ever pan tribal in his approach, worked to ensure that the soldiers on the front knew that they had tribal support so their morale would remain high.

He organized for traditional foods to be packed and sent to the troops in time for Christmas.

During the 1940 Waitangi celebrations in the Bay of Islands men of the Maori Battalion were on the bottom Marae at Te Tii.

During the course of discussion on that Marae about the Treaty it was suggested by those in attendance that Ngata be called down from the top Marae for consultation.

He duly arrived, listened intently to the matter on the floor, then turned and said, succinctly, “let sleeping dogs lie.”

He opposed talk of ratifying the Treaty of Waitangi, foreseeing as he did that those who elevated the Treaty into law could just as quickly repeal such laws and by so doing the Treaty itself.

In 1943 he organized the national hui to honour Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu, the only Maori to be awarded the Victoria Cross, who had died in battle.

For Ngata this was an opportunity to honour all Maori who lost their lives in the name of the British Empire and to push home that now was the time for equality.

In a booklet he wrote for the hui entitled ‘The price of citizenship’ Ngata implied that Maori had paid for their citizenship in blood.

Earlier in the year he had challenged Parliament regretting, “For years we have heard about the equality of the Pakeha and Maori. It is nice to listen to that sort of thing, but side by side with that declaration we want, in this century, not only equality in the eyes of the law, but equality of opportunity. Unless there is equality of opportunity, there is no scope to carry out the policy of equality between races.”

Later to become known as the Father of the 28th Maori Battalion, Ngata worked tirelessly to develop Maori land and ensure that Maori land remained with Maori.

He initiated schemes throughout the country to help Maori develop their lands into farms, using his own tribe’s success as a model.

His land consolidation schemes were to exchange scattered pieces of land to form economic farms run as single units – therefore entitling them to help from the Government. His politico – legal genius was to address the problem of multiple land ownership through the Maori incorporation and other structures.

Alas, too little, after his retirement has been done to graft further developmental policies on to his initiatives on this vexed and stultifying issue.

Over the years many governments were unwilling to financially support Maori land development. As Minister of Native Affairs, Ngata ensured ongoing monetary support with the Native Land Claims Adjustment Act of 1929.

Under this Act Ngata was authorized to advance money for the “better settlement and more effective utilization of Native land… and the encouragement of Natives in the promotion of agricultural pursuits and of efforts of industry and self-help”

He worked hard to get tribes to work together for the greater good of Maori. Ngata described his schemes at great length in his annual department reports and his monthly letters to Sir Peter Buck.

He understood the importance of working through traditional chiefly organisations and turning old tribal jealousies into friendly rivalries in land development and education, arts and crafts and sports.

He saw this as a way of reviving tribal pride and culture.

His downfall as Minister of Native Affairs would be his own frugality. Although he reported his schemes in great detail he did not itemise costs, he shopped around and purchased materials at the cheapest rates and left it to the accountant to record details. This was to prove his achilles heal.

Education for Maori was critical to Ngata. He saw it as essential for Maori to succeed to be educated in the English way. From the time he left Te Aute College he worked to encourage scholarships and education for Maori.

He promoted Maori advancement through education. His most pressing problem was to rescue church boarding schools, the nursery of Maori leadership, from financial ruin.

The depression of 1921- 22 had made it so difficult for Maori parents to send their children to boarding schools that they were in danger of closing down.

Through different Native Acts, he enabled the creation of a Maori secondary schools aid fund. The fund, while ensuring Maori secondary schools stayed afloat, also provided 25 continuation scholarships of forty pounds per annum to encourage able pupils to attend Maori Secondary boarding schools.

Ngata had long advocated agricultural training for young Maori men which the Government ignored. The Maori purposes fund enabled him to establish his own training scheme whereby able students were sent to Hawkesbury Agricultural College in New South Wales, Australia.

He was instrumental in the establishment of a Maori School of Arts in Rotorua in 1927 and the construction of traditionally carved houses around the country.

These successes for Ngata, small separately but enormous collectively, helped bridge the gap between Maori and European and were a tribute to his doggedness in wringing concessions from different Governments.

It is an almost unique fact that the positive results of his long career in Parliament can still be seen around New Zealand today.

Perhaps one of the most unacknowledged facts of his long career was the esteem with which he was held by so many non-Maori, an achievement he shared with Buck and Pomare.

Ngata summed up his beliefs when he wrote:

“Grow up o tender youth.
With your hands grasp the tools of the Pakeha
to sustain your physical needs.
Your heart to the treasures of your ancestors
as a crown for your head.
Your spirit to god the creator of all things.”

Philosophically a progressive, responsible conservative who truly understood his peoples needs in an emerging modern society he remains a political icon to this day.

When will his like be seen again?


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