Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Sir Apirana Ngata

It's just gone 70 years ago since the greatest Maori leader of the twentieth century, Sir Apirana Ngata, resigned from ministerial office. I recently discovered the missing second volume in my collection of his letters to Sir Peter Buck, one of his small group of peers. The two set high standards for Maori. In one vigorous exchange Ngata noted that "Whilst the Pakeha regards us from the higher altitude of his culture and stresses how far we are behind, we on our side must scan the heights to realise how far we have to struggle upwards". Their letters talk of the "prosaic" standards settled for by too many Maori. It was partly Ngata's unwillingness to accept anything but the highest standards that led him to resign as Native Minister on 1 November 1934. In a country where ministers are notoriously reluctant to accept responsibility, his action brought him great credit. A Royal Commission inquiring into his land settlement schemes had found him un-businesslike with state resources. In fact, he'd been let down by family and supporters who couldn't be bothered with his message about high standards.

Ngata spent another nine years in Parliament. But his was increasingly a voice in the wilderness. One writer called him "the Moses of his people", but Ngata watched too many Maori preferring the bulrushes of welfare and state paternalism to his challenge to cross to the promised land. Both leaders kept mourning that Maori themselves were reluctant to exercise the necessary discipline to achieve equality. From afar in Hawaii, Buck hoped (forlornly) that tribal structures might act as a buffer against the debilitating aspects of the Labour Government's socialism. Ngata became pessimistic, even despondent, as he saw Maori settle for the glamour of higher wages and "easily got pensions" instead of working hard for the best jobs that Pakeha still monopolised. This way, he said, Maori would only achieve a form of racial equality that was "spasmodic and casual".

What gives special edge to the correspondence between these Maori giants is that both had been ministers (briefly in Buck's case) who tracked where state expenditure produced the best results for Maori. Education, education and more education they had concluded were the secrets to Maori making best use of their resources. Choosing unemployment benefits and preferential assistance based on race was a double-edged weapon. They helped right now, but ensured a second-class life longer term. As he neared death, Ngata kept encouraging young Maori into the professions - his own son into accounting, Maharaia Winiata into Maori Adult Education, Peter Tapsell into medicine. Buck and Ngata encountered each other for the last time when Buck, his health also failing, was home in 1949. The two frail rangatira toured the country preaching the need for hard work and its rewards.

But the future was bleak. The next fifty years produced no politicians of the stature of Ngata, Buck or their famous political contemporaries, Sir James Carroll and Sir Maui Pomare. A handful of Maori got to university. One of Pomare's grandsons, Eru, became a distinguished gastro-enterologist; there were quality lawyers, bishops and businessmen. Maori have shone in the arts and sport, and have accepted the discipline required to do so. But political leadership they have not had. The mountains that Ngata wanted them to climb await their Hillary. At base camp second-raters farm Maori grievances. Some even seek to make a virtue out of the corruption and sloppy thinking that pervades so many state-funded Maori schemes. They debase their ancestors by talking of "the Maori way". There are even some with their noses in today's trough who would label Ngata a "Maori basher" or an "Uncle Tom". As I read the correspondence, I can hear Ngata's voice, excoriating them. There is a timeless quality to the Buck-Ngata message. Today's Maori ignore it at their peril.

This is why I keep watching John Tamihere and Shane Jones, and hoping. Educated Maori, who have struggled and succeeded in a Pakeha world. In Tamihere's case, he, and particularly his supporters, have cut corners. But Tamihere and Jones understand that Tariana Turia, Ken Mair, Annete Sykes, Margaret Mutu and Titewhai Harawira are false prophets. Welfare minister Steve Maharey, too. Maori will triumph when they take on Pakeha at their own game. Ngata did. So did Buck. Both cut the mustard internationally. Can Tamihere and Jones? Let's hope so. Never has the need for quality Maori leadership been greater.