Remembering 1978...and 1943
But the battle to regain Takaparawha was only one aspect of a drawn-out conflict between Ngati Whatua and the Crown. Long before the famous occupation began, Ngati Whatua's energies were consumed by the struggle to retain a toehold in the city they had once dominated. In this struggle for survival, Ngati Whatua made many allies. One of their most important allies was the trade union movement. Although they had mostly Pakeha memberships, Auckland's trade unions played an active role in championing the Ngati Whatua cause and defending the iwi from attacks by the state.
The decline of class-based politics over the past twenty years and the diminished role of the unions and the Pakeha left in Maori protest movements have both contributed to a forgetfulness about the role that workers' organisations played in Ngati Whatua's struggle to hold on to its land. The history of the alliance between Ngati Whatua and the workers' movement should not be forgotten, though, because it shows that, contrary to the rhetoric of right-wing politicians and redneck talkback radio hosts, Maori campaigns for land and justice can attract the active support of ordinary Pakeha. By the 1940s Ngati Whatua possessed only thirteen of the two hundred and eighty hectares which tribal elders had set aside for future generations when Auckland was being established in the middle of the nineteenth century. There were three hectares of low-lying land at Okahu Bay, and another ten hectares on the hills behind the bay. The land on Bastion Point had been alienated for sixty years, on the grounds that it was needed by the state for military purposes.
A village named Orakei had been maintained at Okahu Bay, in the shadow of Bastion Point, as a focal point for Ngati Whatua, but a lack of electricity, the low-lying nature of the land, and the effects of a nearby sewage line meant that the site was often a quagmire. By 1943, both local and central government were threatening to clear the settlement at Okahu Bay by force, and relocate the Ngati Whatua people in state housing. Preoccupied by the war raging in Eurpe and Pacific, few Kiwis seemed aware of the plight of the tangata whenua of Auckland.
After Ngati Whatua appealed for her help, Princess Te Puea of the Tainui people became involved in efforts to protect the people of Orakei. Te Puea had a history of collaboration with the Pakeha left and the labour movement, and she used her contacts with the trade unions to build support for Ngati Whatua. In April 1943 she paid a visit to Okahu Bay, and in the first week of June 1943 she and several Auckland trade union leaders, including the poet and Communist RAK Mason, organised a massive work bee at the bay. Led by Mason, two hundred mostly Pakeha members of the Labourers Union laid a three hundred foot long palisade of manuka stakes and totara posts in deep concrete around the Ngati Whatua village. The Auckland Trades Council gave Ngati Whatua three hundred pounds worth of building materials, so that improvements could be made to their village and to the marae that formed its centrepiece. The Council also announced that any worker who helped either to clear the site or build there for a non-Maori authority would be blacklisted, so that he could not work anywhere else in Auckland. In his biography of Te Puea, Michael King described the response to the work bee:
Orakei inhabitants shed tears when Wally Ashton, secretary of the Trades Council, presented them with a visitors' book for the marae. Te Puea, for her part, thanked all the Pakeha workers. 'For what you have done for our people who needed it most, I do not know how to say often enough, 'God bless you', she said.
By 1943, Peter Fraser's Labour government had given itself sweeping powers to curtail trade union activity and political protest if such activity was deemed to be damaging New Zealand's war effort. Fraser had used his powers to ban The People's Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party, for opposing the early stages of the war. Even in 1943, when the party had reversed its position, Fraser was deeply suspicious of Communist Party members like RAK Mason. Fraser had no sympathy for the desire of Ngati Whatua to preserve their village at Okahu Bay. He could not understand why iwi members would prefer the unheated and unhygenic housing of the village to the comfortable state-owned homes that had been built in nearby suburbs and offered to Ngati Whatua. Fraser's dour, economistic worldview could not accomodate the Maori concept of mana whenua, which assigns a special, unquantifiable value to an ancestral home. Nor could Fraser understand that the collectivism of traditional Maori society, with its extended families living together and communal organisation of labour, would be badly damaged by the settlement of nuclearised families in scattered state houses.
Fraser was very angry at the work bee, and threatened to arrest Te Puea and her trade union allies. Te Puea herself later revealed that she wore two pairs of underwear on the day of the bee, because she feared she might be spending her next night in a cold prison cell. Many trade unionists stayed overnight at Okahu Bay after the day's work, because they feared that the police or the army would attack, tear down the palisade they had built, and destroy the village. In the end, the government backed down and the people of Okahu Bay were left undisturbed.
In 1951, though, the National government of Sid Holland gave the green light for the destruction of the Ngati Whatua settlement, and police and bulldozers moved in. The kainga and marae at Okahu Bay were knocked down and torched, the land they had stood on was seized by the state, and Ngati Whatua were forced into state houses they could never own (iwi members could not resettle on the hills that overlooked the bay, because the ten hectares they had owned there had been seized under the Public Works Act in 1950).
It is significant that the destruction of the kainga at Okahu Bay took place in the same year that the Holland government used the famous one hundred and fifty-one day lockout of waterfront workers to crush the militant wing of New Zealand's trade union movement. It is likely that the state only felt free to move against the Maori of Okahu Bay after it had sapped the strength of their allies in the trade unions.One of the weeping children who watched their homes and marae burning to the ground in 1951 was named Joe Hawke. Twenty-six years later, Hawke would lead the occupation of Bastion Point to highlight Ngati Whatua demands for the return of all the land stolen from them. The epic occupation was supported by many Auckland trade unions and left-wing political groups.
On May the 25th 1978 the National government of Robert Muldoon used seven hundred police, soldiers, and naval personnel to destroy the village that the occupiers had built on Bastion Point. Hundreds of protesters were arrested. As soon as they heard about Muldoon's attack, trade unionists across Auckland walked off their jobs in a 'wildcat' (spontaneous) strike. Following in the tradition of 1943, the unions declared a 'green ban' which barred their members from doing any work for developers on Takaparawha. It was thanks partly to this union ban that the site remained undeveloped in the years after 1978. The collaboration between organised labour and Ngati Whatua is an important part of the story of the successful struggle to return Bastion Point and Okahu Bay to their rightful owners. Today Maori are still trying to win back a lot of stolen land, and ordinary Kiwis of all races are increasingly concerned by the buy-up of coastal land by wealthy individuals and multinational companies. The multi-racial, union-backed fight against the theft of the lands of Ngati Whatua is an example to us all.
Michael King, Te Puea: a biography, Hodder and Staughton, 1977, pg 219; Rachel Barrowman, Mason: the life of RAK Mason, Victoria University Press, 2003; Ranginui Walker, Struggle Without End, Penguin, 1990, pgs 215-219.]