26 Jan 2021

Rātana leader urges followers to break away from Labour

5:31 pm on 26 January 2021

The chairman of the Rātana Church executive has called for the return of its own political party, rather than continuing to align with Labour.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Rātana

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Rātana. File photo Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The annual celebration of the church's late founder, Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, is closed to political parties and manuhiri this year, as the church grapples with internal arguments.

It's only the second time the Labour Party won't be at Rātana in the 84-year history of their alliance - however, some Labour MPs with ties to the church will attend.

While the Rātana Church was established in 1925, it began as a political movement.

Church leader Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana sought redress for land confiscations and breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, founding his own political party in 1919.

The Rātana Party won its first seat in 1932 when Eruera Tirikatene became MP for Southern Māori.

However, the next term he ran under Labour - and won - after Rātana and the-then Labour Party leader Harry Holland formed a strong relationship.

"I believe that he found that Harry Holland and later Michael Joseph Savage of their times seemed to be more open and empathetic to the demise of our people ... the both of them were devout Christians," the chairman of the Rātana Church national executive, Hareruia Aperahama, said.

"Rātana saw in Holland a humble heart and someone who was willing to go beyond his call and to go against the prejudice and the racism that was prevalent in his time."

In 1936 under the leadership of Savage, Labour cemented its relationship with Rātana at a ceremony at the pā.

A number of tāonga representing land loss and broken promises were bestowed on the prime minister, including a broken watch that Aperahama said was buried with Savage.

However, the Rātana-Labour alliance has been tested.

In the 1960s, the Labour MP for the Western Māori seat, Iriaka Rātana, crossed the floor saying the government was a failure to her people.

Her niece, Dame Tariana Turia, followed in her footsteps in 2004 over the foreshore and seabed legislation.

"Those are the only two times that I know that the Rātana leadership, particularly the women I might add, who had spoken out and said that Labour was not honouring their obligations and the relationship," Aperahama said.

"Other than that, the heads of the church and the movement have remained loyal to Labour only out of tradition, not out of policy, and not out of the advancement or the effectiveness of the relationship."

He said it was time for Rātana to reinstate its political independence again.

"We have lost our grip and our way and our own political legacy, that being the Rātana Independent Party, [and] the time should come again that the Rātana Independent Party be reinstated so it is no longer suffocated under the history of Labour and the tendency to silence the Māori voice for the sake of the mainstream."

Labour MP defends party

Te Tai Hauāuru MP and great-grandson of the Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, Adrian Rurawhe, doubts there is any support from Rātana followers for breaking away from Labour.

"I don't believe Hareruia Aperahama has a mandate to express that, I think that's a conversation for Rātana and the followers of the Rātana faith and the Rātana movement to decide on that."

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Adrian Rurawhe with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Rurawhe is one of four Māori MPs in Labour who have ties with Rātana and said the historic relationship between his political party, whānau and church is a good one.

"We've definitely come a long way and if I go back over the 84-year relationship of Labour and the Rātana movement, there've been milestones along the way that are worth pointing out that's upholding that relationship and the expectations," Rurawhe said.

"Has it moved quick enough - no, certainly not - but there've certainly been some key changes that have happened like in 1975 with the act establishing the Waitangi Tribunal."

Morehu (followers of the Rātana faith) will take part in a series of wānanga over the next few days, which will include examining the role of the Treaty in their constitution and separation between church and state.

A final church service and hakari marking the birthday of Tāhupōtiki Wiremu Rātana will be held on Monday.

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