Haere ra, Sir Graham Latimer - you will be missed

7:49 am on 9 June 2016

FIRST PERSON: Sir Graham Latimer is lying in state at Te Paatu Marae, near Kaitaia. RNZ's Northland reporter, Lois Williams, remembers Sir Graham Latimer and looks back over his many achievements.

Sir Graham Latimer and his wife, Emily, in 1987

Sir Graham Latimer and his wife, Emily, in 1987 Photo: Florence Keene / Whangarei Libraries

There's a corner of the house bar at the Waitangi hotel that I'll always think of as Graham's corner.

It's the sunny spot next to the terrace - the best seat in the house.

Every year, on Waitangi Day he'd be there, often with his old friend Hek Busby, glass in hand, surveying the passing parade of the great and good - with the air of a man at ease in his own living room.

Which it was, in a sense. The Tai Tokerau Maori Trust Board, which he chaired, bought the place from the government for $600,000 back in 1989, when it was a run-down loss-making THC pub.

It was a deal that startled the Northland business community at the time, and there were dire predictions of failure.

The Trust Board did indeed run into debt trying to manage the hotel - and the vultures began to circle.

Sir Graham Latimer

Photo: Florence Keene / Whangarei Libraries

They were denied a feed. The board sold a 49 percent share in the business to CDL Hotel group, handed the management to the pros - and it's never looked back.

The Waitangi Copthorne is now a multi-million dollar resort that pays a handsome dividend to the Trust Board, and supports among other things, scholarships for young Maori.

It's one of the many gambles Graham Latimer pulled off, in his long life, that paid off.

And he had a way of quietly springing surprises - right from the start.

He ambushed his mother Lillian by arriving weeks early, when she was on her way to Kaitaia - well ahead of time, she thought, for a hospital birth.

Graham Stanley Latimer was born on a blanket beside a dirt road with the postman buggy-driver acting as midwife.

His father was Anglican Maori - his mother Catholic Pakeha, a doubly-rare marriage in those days and one frowned upon by society.

Graham Latimer senior was fluent in Te Reo. But he wouldn't teach it to his children: English was seen as the language of the future.

Graham junior left school at 14; worked on farms, joined the army and went to Japan with J-Force; came home and married the love of his life Emily Moore.

Their dream was to buy a farm. But first he took up a job as stationmaster at Kaiwaka, and became drawn in to Te Ao Māori for the first time, through another tribe - Ngāti Whātua.

Elders spotted his potential as Māori Council material: hard-working; dependable; at ease in the Pakeha world.

And once he had his farm, he was available to take time off for meetings - often leaving Emily to manage as best she could. They were tough years for the family; the council was under-funded and often broke, and the Latimers often had to subsidise the council's meagre funding.

Arguably the biggest surprise Graham Latimer ever sprang was the one that led to his greatest achievement for Māori, as chair of the NZ Māori Council.

Sir Graham Latimer, second from right, with Wairarapa and Wellington leaders at Parliament in 1977.

Sir Graham Latimer, second from right, with Wairarapa and Wellington leaders at Parliament in 1977. Photo: Dominion Post Collection / Alexander Turnbull Library

In 1987, the Latimers mortgaged their farm to pay for the historic court case that would put the Treaty of Waitangi up where the council had always believed it belonged: in the statutes.

The Labour government of the time was in asset-selling mode, and about to hand over thousands of hectares of Crown lands and forests to the newly created SOE's, as it set about corporatising government departments.

At the same time, it had given the Waitangi Tribunal authority to investigate grievances dating back to 1840 and Māori around the country were preparing to lodge claims over land taken from them in the previous century.

There was growing disquiet among kaumātua who realised that if land was transferred to the SOE's, it could be sold to private buyers and the Tribunal would be powerless to recommend its return.

Graham Latimer came up with the surprising idea of taking the government to court to stop that happening.

Nothing like it had ever been attempted. But he'd been poring over the text of the government's SOE Bill.

And there it was: Clause 9 - inserted by a well-intentioned Minister of Justice Geoffrey Palmer. It was intended to protect Māori interests, and it said that nothing in the Act could permit the Crown to act in a manner inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

If that were the case, Sir Graham reasoned, there had to be a way to protect the land under claim. Flogging it off before the Tribunal could inquire into how the Crown got hold of it in the first place, was in his view absolutely inconsistent with the Treaty.

He looked for legal advisers and he found two of the best: Sian Elias (now Dame and Chief Justice) and David Baragwanath (now QC).

And they asked the Appeal Court to stop any transfer of land to the SOE's before systems were in place to protect Māori claims over it.

To the consternation of the government, the full bench of five judges found unanimously that the principles of the Treaty over-rode everything else in the Act. And it said those principles required the Crown and Māori as Treaty partners to act toward each other reasonably, and in the utmost good faith.

It was a decision that changed the political landscape. Sir Geoffrey Palmer described it as a "seismic event" and one of the most important to ever come before a New Zealand court. From then on, the Treaty had to be taken seriously as a constitutional document.

Speaking to Morning Report in 1987 after the Appeal Court decision, Sir Graham was quietly jubilant.

For years he'd been criticised by Māori activists as too conservative, as ineffectual, as a lackey of the National Party.

"Most radicals have been saying the Treaty is a fraud," he said.

"We've proved beyond doubt that the Treaty is not a fraud; that it has dignity and mana in the legislative chambers of this country."

But he was mindful of the long struggle of the Māori Council since his father's day, to have the Treaty accorded that authority.

"One never achieves things by his own effort," he said.

"He only achieves those things by the effort of other people and most of those people have gone on. So to be able to follow on in their footsteps and reach the goal they set can only make one feel very humble."

The asset sales stopped. Then came the court challenges and negotiations that led to massive gains for Māori: the fisheries settlement; radio and TV stations, support for Te Reo, the return of long-lost land, and the creation of the Crown Forestry Rental Trust, to fund research for Waitangi Tribunal claimants.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer says Sir Graham was central in all of that.

"He was a very good person to deal with," he said.

"He was completely straight and absolutely trustworthy and he always kept his side of the bargain. For governments dealing with people that isn't always the case."

But Sir Graham's image came under attack in the 90's from rivals and political opponents, trading on public unease over Treaty claims and settlements.

In 1995 he was found guilty of negligence in filing tax returns in the busy years between 1988 and 1992. Eyebrows were raised when it emerged in court that he had $78,000 in his TAB account.

Though he explained that he and his wife used it as a bank account - and the court stressed no dishonesty was involved, there were strenuous calls for him to be stripped of the knighthood awarded to him in 1980 for services to Māori.

The prime minister of the time, Jim Bolger, dismissed such calls. Today his opinion of the man is unchanged.

"The majority of New Zealanders were unaware of the depth of unfairness of how Māori had been treated," he said.

"How their land, their property had been stolen by colonial governments and settlers. People had to be educated to the reality of their country's history, and Sir Graham was a great teacher."

On reflection...

Sir Graham was a quiet, understated sort of man, in person. I first met him in 1989, when I came to Northland as a journalist. He was not flamboyant, or charismatic like some Māori leaders, and it's easy to see how people might under-estimate him.

Some have called him an opportunist.

But I've come to think of him as a stealth bomber: a true radical - in that he went to the very roots of Māori grievance over the status of the Treaty and acted.

He had a very engaging way about him. Affable, as Eddie Durie says. He liked to talk.

He was curiously ego-free; always friendly, always courteous - even when we'd reported some outrageous criticism of him by one of his political rivals - and he had quite a few. Especially in those years after the 1987 decision, when he rose to prominence on the national stage and was working for the Fisheries Commission and heading the Crown Forestry Rental Trust.

I think people were jealous of the power and influence they perceived he had. In retrospect it was a bit of a media pile-on when it came to reporting the criticism. There seemed, at times, almost a desperation to show that a Māori leader who had achieved so much, must have feet of clay. He was battered but not destroyed by it.

There were things that perhaps weren't reported as assiduously: his years of involvement in the Anglican church, and his role in starting its Māori tikanga/bishopric; his self-funded trip to London to stop the auction of a Māori head and bring it home for burial. That pretty much stopped the sale of body parts by reputable auction houses overnight. And he did it because he was incensed at the idea of treating a human body in such a way.

He was no plaster saint - he had his flaws. But there was a decency to the man and a lively spirit and I will miss him. I've been missing him for a few years now. Parkinsons is a mean disease. It takes people piece by piece.

I used to call in and see him and Emily sometimes when I was working up north. He always seemed to light up for visitors, and he was still trying to talk when I saw him for the last time, at Waitangi this year.

He wasn't in his old corner at the Copthorne. He's been too frail to go there for some time. He was in the motel next to the RNZ team, and I spent a bit of time holding his hand, and rabbiting on - as you do when the other person can't talk.

Haere ra, Graham. Arohanui - and thank you.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs