Earning the huia feather: Labour and the Ratana challenge

Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The New Zealand Labour Party is 108 years old. By a wide margin, that makes it this country’s longest-lived political party.

In all those 108 years, however, Labour has never given itself anything other than Pakeha leadership.

In spite of its claim to be the historical custodians of New Zealand’s progressive traditions, on the question of race Labour has allowed itself to be outstripped by all the other political parties now represented in Parliament.

National elected Simon Bridges; the Greens chose Metiria Turei and Marama Davidson.

Act New Zealand’s leader, David Seymour, has been acquainting himself with his Māori roots for several years now.

Te Pati Māori speaks for itself. And then there’s Winston.

But the list of Labour’s leaders is like a flour sack — white from top to bottom.

On the face of it, this is strange. Back in the 1920s, the Labour Party published a popular newspaper called The Maoriland Worker — ‘‘Maoriland’’ being in common usage, as an alternative to ‘‘New Zealand’’, on both sides of the Tasman.

It is interesting, however, that as Labour edged ever closer to power in the 1930s, the Maoriland Worker became (much less colourfully) The Standard.

Keen to pick up the votes of those who eked a living off land that had once belonged to Māori, ‘‘Maoriland’’ had simply become too contentious a word for Labour to retain.

Labour’s association with the Ratana Church, which ultimately delivered all the Māori seats into Labour’s hands, might also be supposed to have significantly improved the prospects of a Māori politician becoming Labour’s leader.

Especially when one considers the fact that it was only Labour’s hold on the four Māori seats that allowed it to go on governing between 1946 and 1949. Had the Māori seats not existed, National would have assumed office a whole three years earlier than it did.

When the Ratana leader and prophet, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, first met the Labour leader, Michael Joseph Savage, in 1936, he is said to have given him four objects: a potato, a broken gold watch, a pounamu hei-tiki and a huia feather.

The potato symbolised the loss of Māori land, along with the sustenance it provided; the broken promises of the Treaty of Waitangi were represented by the broken watch; and the precious greenstone carving stood for the mana of the Māori people.

Restore these three, prophesied Ratana, and Labour will have earned the right to wear the huia feather — the sign of chiefly status.

So precious were these taonga to the Australian-born Savage that, when he died in 1940, they were buried with him.

If T.W. Ratana really did possess the foresight attributed to him by his many thousands of followers, it is to be wondered who it was that he saw, looking far into the future, wearing the sacred huia feather: a Pakeha, or a Māori?

Last night, in England, the leader of Labour’s Māori caucus, Willie Jackson, was accorded the same honour as the New Zealand prime minister, David Lange, when he addressed the members of the Oxford Union.

Curiously enough, debating at Oxford University is not the only thing the Labour list MP has in common with Lange. Jackson’s home in Mangere formerly belonged to the charismatic Labour leader.

It was on Lange’s watch that the changes which transformed New Zealand economically and socially, ‘‘Rogernomics’’, were introduced. 

At the end of that process, however, the three transformational challenges embodied in T.W. Rātana’s three symbolic gifts to Mickey Savage remained unmet.

They still are.Māori land remains in the hands of non-Māori.

The broken promises of the Treaty remain broken.

The mana of the tangata whenua languishes under racist neglect. 

The right to wear the huia feather remains as elusive as ever.

Perhaps these three transformations are beyond the power of a Pākehā Labour leader to accomplish?

And they cannot be carried out behind the scenes, quietly and bureaucratically. Willie Jackson and his Māori colleagues tried that route — and it cost Labour the Treasury benches.

If the three transformations of T.W. Rātana are to be accomplished, then perhaps it will only happen in the full light of day, with the backing of all New Zealanders — Pākehā as well as Māori.

Labour will not shake off its political lassitude until it gives a Māori MP the chance to fulfil Rātana’s expectations — and earn the huia feather.

■Chris Trotter is an Auckland writer and commentator.