How Koro Wetere survived David Lange and Winston Peters
By Richard Harman (author)
Koro Wetere who died age 83 on Saturday, was one of the few Ministers who genuinely enjoyed the company of journalists.
Often if Parliament was sitting late we would gravitate to the Beehive’s 3.2 bar and Wetere would often come up and hold court.
He was an intensely lively man, with knowledge and views on a wide range of subjects from the Pacific to the affairs of the day, particularly Maori affairs, particularly Kingitanga, the media and inevitably, golf.
He was patient and generous with young Pakeha reporters who did not understand the intricacies of Maori politics, particularly the Kingitanga movement .
In fact his generosity was legend within Parliament.
Shortly after the Labour Government was elected it was the turn of the Labour caucus to host the Press Gallery for a party.
But in all the excitement of the victory, Labour’s Chief Whip, by then a new Minister, Jonathan Hunt had forgotten to make any arrangements.
The journalists withdrew back to 3.2, thirsty and frustrated.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer came in and delivered a short speech outlining Hunt’s inadequacies as a party organiser.
Then Wetere came in.
“Oh don’t just talk, do something Geoffrey,” he said.
And Wetere pulled out his cheque book and wrote a cheque for $50 which bought quite a lot of liquor in 1984 and the party was up and running.
In fact no Parliamentary party was complete without a smoked trout provided by Wetere.
But for all that, he needs to be remembered as the Minister from the Lange Government who actually achieved the most fundamental and far-reaching reform that that high achieving Government made.
By extending the jurisdiction of the Waitangi Tribunal back from 1975 to 1840 he radically changed the shape of New Zealand society and Maori society in particular.
The flow of funds and the governance structures that were set up to manage them essentially created a Maori middle class who have gone to provide a new generation of leadership.
But more importantly, they finally restored the mana that many iwi had lost through the degrading and exploitative process of land acquisition by the crown post-1840.
The legitimacy and vibrancy of Maori society today is a direct consequence of Wetere's actions.
In a similar vein to his Waitangi legislation, he persuaded the Lange Government to proclaim Maori an official language of New Zealand.
Later, and more controversially, towards the end of Labour's term in office, he got the Runanga Iwi Act passed which in many ways was a precursor of Whanau Ora with its intention to restore rangatiratanga back to iwi.
That Act also led to the split of the Ministry of Maori Affairs but it was to be a short-lived piece of legislation; National's Maori Affairs Minister, Winston Peters presided over its repeal in 1991.
Of course, the 1984 – 90 Labour Government was deeply divided and perhaps surprisingly Wetere ended up on the same side as Roger Douglas.
That had a lot to do with the Maori loans affair which related to an attempt by some of Wetere’s staff in the Ministry of Maori Affairs to secure finance without Treasury approval from a Hawaiian source to finance Maori development.
The attack against this was led by none other than Peters who made extravagant claims in Parliament which, though consistently challenged to produce evidence to sustain them, had to admit he didn’t have that evidence.
But the mud stuck to Wetere and over the summer break in 1987 David Lange went and visited Dame Te Atairangikaahu, Sir Hepi te Heu Heu and Ratana leader, Maata Hura to see how they would react if he fired him.
Dame Te Atairangikaahu was the wrong person to ask that question. She and Wetere were exceptionally close.
The immediate response from all three leaders was that there was no way they would countenance him being sacked.
Though he offered to resign, Wetere was obviously (and understandably) angered by what Lange had done; he let that much slip.
From then on he voted in caucus with Douglas, eventually supporting the move to have Douglas reinstated in Cabinet which precipitated Lange’s resignation.
But Wetere was a natural Douglas ally in many ways; he believed that Maori could stand on their own feet economically.
His influence over Maori politics is enormous. It even extends to National whose leader, Simon Bridges, is a relative of Wetere.
Wetere's Waitangi legislation was designed to get Maori off the ground.
Many people stand tall today because of what he did.
He may well be regarded as one of our greatest politicians.