Sir Graham Latimer dies

3:53 pm on 7 June 2016

Influential Māori leader Sir Graham Latimer has died at the age of 90.

Sir Graham Latimer

Sir Graham Latimer Photo: Florence Keene / Whangarei Libraries

Sir Graham, who died today, had suffered ill-health over the past decade.

He was born in 1926 at Waiharara in the Far North, into a poor family of six children. His father was of Ngāti Kahu, and his mother was Pākehā.

He was the president of the New Zealand Māori Council for more than 40 years, and was one of the most influential Māori leaders of the past century.

He led the court actions against the Crown in the 1980s that were pivotal in securing Māori rights, under the Treaty of Waitangi, to state-owned lands, forests and fisheries.

The Ngāti Kahu leader mortgaged his Northland farm to finance the legal battles, including the successful Privy Council action that led to the recognition of Māori rights to radio and TV frequencies to promote Te Reo.

A long-time Māori vice-president of the National Party, he wanted Māori and Pākehā to work together and believed the court cases had enabled the races to talk more freely to each other.

"That is the greatest gain that has come out of all the battles of the '70s and '80s," Sir Graham once told RNZ.

"All we argued about... was what's right and what's wrong and that's not going to do us any damn harm. There's an element of sincerity from Pākehā to Māori and we mustn't lose sight of that."

War, marriage and knighthood

Sir Graham left school aged 14 to look after the family's farm while his two older brothers served in World War II.

He later joined the army and, while he didn't serve in the war, he went to Japan with J Force in 1946, when he was 20 years old. On returning home, he married Emily Moore and worked for 13 years for the railways before he was able to move to a dairy farm in 1961.

Sir Graham Latimer and his wife, Emily, in 1987

Sir Graham and his wife, Lady Latimer Photo: Florence Keene / Whangarei Libraries

Sir Graham became a member of the Tai Tokerau District Māori Council in 1964, and moved on to the New Zealand Māori Council two years later. He became president in 1973. He was knighted for his services to the Māori people in 1980.

As well as his membership of the National Party, he held a number of other public positions. He had a strong religious faith, and was a member of the Anglican synod.

In recent years, he successfully fought a civil suit brought against him by Te Uri O Hau.

The High Court dismissed the suit, which was based on the tribe's settlement trust's claims that Sir Graham and his fellow trust director, Russell Kemp, accepted consultancy fees of $250,000 each, to which they were not entitled.

Lady Latimer died last September, aged 86, at the couple's Pamapuria home near Kaitaia. The couple are survived by five children.

Sir Graham Latimer, second from right, with Wairarapa and Wellington leaders at Parliament in 1977.

Sir Graham Latimer, second from right, with Wairarapa and Wellington leaders at Parliament in 1977. Photo: Dominion Post Collection / Alexander Turnbull Library

Sir Graham and other whanau at Lady Latimer's funeral.

Sir Graham and other whānau at Lady Latimer's funeral in 2015. Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams