The alliance between the Rātana Church and the Labour Party was cemented at an historic meeting between Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana and Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage.
In 1928, 10 years after his first religious visions, T.W. Rātana announced his intention to enter politics, referring to the four Māori seats as the ‘four quarters’ of his body. He aimed to win these seats by harnessing the voting power of his followers, which by 1934 were said to number 40,000. (Te Haahi Rātana has a similar number of adherents today.)
In 1932 Eruera Tirikātene became the first Rātana MP when he won a by-election for Southern Maori. He was instructed to support the Labour opposition. Rātana favoured the Labour Party because it had consulted his supporters when devising its Māori policy. When Labour won a landslide election victory in 1935 the Rātana movement took a second seat, Western Maori.
At the 1936 meeting Rātana presented Savage with four symbolic gifts. Three huia feathers, representing Māori, protruded from a potato, which symbolised the land taken from Māori, leaving them unable to grow the staple crop. A pounamu (jade) hei tiki represented Māori mana (prestige), which had also been lost. A broken gold watch handed down to Rātana by his grandfather represented the Crown’s broken promises. A pin with a star and crescent moon was the symbol of the Rātana Church, Tohu o te Māramatanga. It is said that these items had such a profound impact on Savage that when he died in 1940 they were buried with him.
In 1943 the Rātana–Labour alliance succeeded in capturing all ‘four quarters’ when Tiaki Omana defeated Sir Āpirana Ngata for the Eastern Maori seat. Labour was to hold all the Māori seats for the next 50 years.
The annual celebration of Rātana’s birth that is held at Rātana Pā, near Whanganui, in late January effectively begins each political year after the Christmas/New Year break. These days politicians of all stripes, not just Labour ones, come to pay their respects and seek support.
Image: T.W. Rātana (See full image on the Alexander Turnbull Library's website)