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Māori leader for justice and Te Reo remembered

July 2016  |  Hōngongoi

Features and News  |  Ngā Kōrero Tāhuhu

Sir Graham Latimer was born in the far north on 7 February 1926 and died aged 90 on 7 June 2016. The longest serving chair of the New Zealand Māori Council, a founder of the Māori Language Commission and driver of Te Reo as an official language of New Zealand Aotearoa, Sir Graham helped forge a new direction for Māori and modern New Zealand. Former Prime Minister Rt Hon Jim Bolger who worked alongside Sir Graham over many years shares his memories of this courageous leader and friend.


Graham Latimer grew up in very modest circumstances in the Far North and went to local schools before joining the Territorial Army at 17. In 1943 he enlisted in the New Zealand Army and served with the Māori Battalion. Following WW2 he served with J Force in Japan from 1946 to 1947. On his return he worked with NZ Railways and then became a dairy farmer. During the 1950s his views for Māori society led to his rapid position of leadership. By the late 1950s he was a spokesman for Ngāti Whātua and was made a Māori warden in 1956. In 1963 he was elected to the Tai Tokerau District Māori Council and the following year elected to the newly-formed New Zealand Māori Council. He was appointed vice president in 1969 and president in 1973. Some 40 years later in 2013, he gave up the presidency due to ill health.


When Sir Graham Latimer rapidly moved to leadership of the New Zealand Māori Council the political world took notice. He certainly was a man with a very clear mind of what he wanted and how he wanted to achieve it. He brought a willingness to challenge the government of the day and had a clear voice in affirming the Waitangi Tribunal and its recommendations.

When I first started going to Waitangi Day commemorations, the rallying cry was ‘the Treaty is a fraud’. While New Zealand entered into the Treaty in 1840 with noble intentions it could be understood how the Treaty was seen as fraud. But Sir Graham said, ‘Don’t create a grievance to settle a grievance’. That was his pragmatic approach. He looked ahead to create a solution.

He was a very genuine leader and wanted to make a difference for his people. He was successful in achieving the honouring of the Treaty, where rights that were enshrined couldn’t be ignored – and we in New Zealand had to honour that. One of the first results was the Fisheries Settlement. I worked alongside him to bring together the principles of the Settlement. Sir Graham demonstrated a great willingness to understand arguments on both sides and was able to bring the perspective of Pakeha involvement to his people.

Sir Graham was a man of his time and of a time New Zealand had to address its history. It is so important we address our history. He was active at a time when New Zealand had to address its past in a manner that wasn’t divisive and in a way that all could agree was fair and reasonable.

He was a man of great personality and he and his wonderful wife Lady Emily [who died in 2015] were a close team. A man of faith he was for many years actively involved with the Anglican Church.

Sir Graham Latimer has left us in a much healthier place without question.