Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett


The Life and Times of Sir Apirana Ngata (Viking Press)

By Ranginui Walker

Reviewed by Michael Bassett

Apirana Ngata(1874-1950) was the pre-eminent Maori figure of the first half of the Twentieth Century. He devoted his life to the revival of the Maori race by using the skills he acquired from his Pakeha education. He helped his people learn from, and adapt to settlers, while retaining their Maori customs. Ranginui Walker captures some fine moments in this intelligent man's life. There are good accounts of Ngata acting as a cultural go-between, and an excellent description of the scene at Ngata's home, "The Bungalow", at Waiomatatini on the East Cape.

Less clearly explained are Ngata's constantly changing views about how best to assist Maori. At first he supported individualisation of land title till he realised that too many Maori then sold. He then promoted leasehold tenure and consolidation; but many sold their leases. As the Maori population increased, Ngata urged – then introduced in 1929 - state funding for development schemes so they could benefit from what remained. Native Minister during the depression, He Tipua ("the superhuman one") was remarkably successful at collaring state resources for Maori projects. For a time, Ngata seemed to carry most of their hopes and aspirations on his back. His optimistic personality commanded the attention of all Pakeha politicians; Maori listened as he counselled them away from communalism towards a degree of individual responsibility, the better to meet the Pakeha challenge. Yet Maori continued to sell their land. As they shifted towards urban life, the old man grew pessimistic and fretted over their willingness to adapt to Labour's "new economy". By his own standards, Ngata probably failed in his life-long quest to develop Maori's full potential. Certainly during his lifetime only a handful followed his educational example.

In Ngata's failures, Ranginui Walker is inclined to see colonial conspiracy. Unlike Ngata, he can say little good about settlers, and nothing critical of Ngata's followers who failed to meet his challenges. In this overly-expensive book that bears all the hallmarks of haste - little historical reading, and no checking of proofs - Walker melds some secondary material with research of his own, but ignores some departmental files. The result is a wordy two-dimensional life. Most serious are the parts where the author is required to exercise judgement. Walker's Maori are always victims. He argues that as Native Minister, Ngata was too successful; a Pakeha clobbering machine had to be used to reduce Maori once more. Over-laden with judgemental language, the book employs terms such as "shyster lawyers", "landsharks", "fraud" and "deceitful practices" against Pakeha. Walker's bureaucrats are "faceless" and "heavy-handed", and inflicted "the revenge of red tape" on Ngata. No doubt some of this was correct, but it ignores the fact that a great many Pakeha had nothing but good will towards Ngata. Walker's analysis of David Smith's commission of inquiry in 1934 into Ngata's portfolio ignores this. Having cited evidence of the "mounting muddle" in Ngata's department, Walker then attacks the liberal-minded judge who, he claims, was skewed by his "cultural frame of reference as Pakeha". The inquiry was a "witch hunt", and "the last hurrah of colonialism". In reality, Smith criticised Ngata when confronted with the inescapability of sheeting home ministerial responsibility. One is left wondering whether in Walker's world there should always be a lesser threshold of judgement of Maori than of Pakeha – something that, if it existed, would certainly guarantee them second class status in the eyes of everyone else.

There is much useful information in this biography. But it's a long time since I came across a serious book so riddled with errors. Pages go by with no dates, and the reader loses the time sequence, especially towards the end. Dates that are cited are too often incorrect. James Carroll did not contest a seat called Poverty Bay in 1892, but Waiapu in 1893. Sir Joseph Ward did not immediately take over as Prime Minister on Seddon's death in 1906; Reform came to office in 1912, not 1913. Coates did not become Prime Minister on 10 May 1925; Ngata was never sworn as Attorney-General, a role filled 1928-31 by Sir Thomas Sidey, then by Downie Stewart and Prime Minister Forbes. MPs were paid £200 p.a. in 1912, not £80 as Walker claims, and as a Member of the Executive Council, Ngata received £400. For some strange reason, Walker deals with Ngata's legislation between 1929 and 1934 in a cursory way. Having waited 25 years for the opportunity to run Native Affairs, surely the thinking behind his bills deserves serious attention from a biographer?

Much of Ngata's message to Maori has a timeless relevance; the conspiratorial sub-plot underlying too much of this book can only diminish multi-cultural goodwill.