Matt McCarten on politics
Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: The political pilgrimage our leaders fear to miss

Labour's Shane Jones (left) and leader David Shearer at Ratana Pa this week. Photo / SNPA
Labour's Shane Jones (left) and leader David Shearer at Ratana Pa this week. Photo / SNPA

There's something surreal in the fact that the first political event of note every year for all party leaders is to grab their lieutenants, and the media throng, and traipse to the middle of nowhere to celebrate the birthday of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, the founder of the Ratana Church.

The township, Ratana Pa, has fewer than 500 residents and only comes alive twice a year. Thousands of the Ratana faithful turn up on November 8, their church's formation date, and on January 25, to celebrate its founder's birthday.

The reason the town exists in such an isolated place, somewhere between Whanganui and nowhere, is because that's where Ratana had his farm. His early supporters came to visit and never left.

The annual pilgrimage has become such a political event because the Ratana Church is recognised in our history as a political movement.

But that wasn't Ratana's original intention, and these days it largely abstains from secular matters. Ratana's purpose in calling himself a prophet and establishing a church around himself was because he claimed that he had received a "divine revelation from the Holy Spirit" commanding him to unite Maori in worship of the "One True God, Jehovah".

There was some loose parallel to the Kingitanga movement, which played a dominant role in uniting Maori.

Its leader was nominated as a Maori prophet, too, and it took on a spiritual culture. But it was firstly a political movement formed to unite Maori, not for religious reasons but to stop their land being sold or stolen.

Its leader was named a king to recognise an equal status with the Pakeha Queen Victoria. Both movements survive to this day.

I find the idea of an individual naming a church after himself with the purpose of getting indigenous people to forsake their gods for their coloniser's one a move that is not particularly enlightening.

Ten years after his church's foundation, Ratana decided to go political, announcing that his followers were to support his nominees in the four Maori seats. From the start, Labour strategically made a point of consulting him on policy affecting Maori.

When Ratana got his first MP in the southern seat, he reciprocated by ordering his successful candidate to caucus with the Labour MPs.

When Labour swept to power in the 1935 landslide, Ratana picked up a second seat and, a year later, they sealed an electoral alliance that lasted for more than 70 years.

It is folklore now that at this historical pact, Ratana presented Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage with four gifts: a Ratana pin; a kumara with three huia feathers sticking out to represent Maori inability to grow food because their land was stolen; a greenstone, representing mana that Maori had lost; and Ratana's own watch that he'd cracked to symbolise the broken promises of the Crown.

Savage insisted these gifts be entombed in his grave, and for generations this act etched in people's minds that partnership between the Labour Party and Maori.

That relationship lasted until 1996 when, after a decade of Labour's successive betrayals, the Maori seats de-selected all their ally's MPs. And when Tariana Turia resigned from Labour over the seabed and foreshore battle, she trounced Labour, winning three-quarters of the Ratana Pa's votes.

Of course, we live in a different world now. We have MMP and Maori voters who, like Pakeha, support various parties for their own reasons - as they should (although I'm not sure what Ratana would have thought about the Maori Party MPs who claim his heritage and still represent his region, yet snuggle up to his former enemies against his former partners).

I know though he would enjoy the fact that, while his movement no longer has the political punch he wielded, every political leader would not miss making the journey to his old home on his birthday to sit in the hot sun and be lectured in his language, not theirs. When they speak, they honour him as a prophet of their God.

Jehovah does indeed work in mysterious ways.

- Herald on Sunday

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