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Former Māori Affairs minister Koro Wētere dies

Former Māori Affairs minister and Labour MP Koro Wētere has died, aged 83, at Te Kuiti hospital this morning, after an ongoing battle with prostate cancer.
Koro Wetere

Mr Wētere served as the MP for the Western Māori electorate for 27 years and was Minister of Māori Affairs in the Labour government of the 1980s.


He was instrumental in having te reo Māori recognised as an official language.

The Prime Minister's Office said Jacinda Ardern was saddened at the news of the passing of Mr Wētere. She passed her condolences onto his family.

Former prime minister Helen Clark has described him as a "much valued colleague" in Parliament for many years.

Koro Tainui Wētere was born at Oparure near Te Kuiti in 1935, a member of the Waikato-Maniapoto tribes. He had a traditional Māori upbringing and a strong and continuing association with the Rātana Church.

After attending Massey University, he took up farming in Waikato. As a member of several Māori authorities, he became involved in efforts to end the loss of Māori land but was eventually convinced that politics was the only way to achieve the law changes needed to keep land in Māori hands.

Years later, in an interview with RNZ, Mr Wētere said that Māori had tried for decades to find a resolution for the losses - but it had always fallen on deaf ears.

"Everyone of our people face that situation. Today, we have a process now in place, giving our people an oppourtunity to be heard about those grievances.

"Moreover, it is the question of the crown saying, 'We have heard - let's now look at some of these matters of historic importance'."

He had already become a registered minister of the Rātana Church when he was approached to replace Iriaka Rātana as the member of parliament for the traditionally Labour seat of Western Māori.

He was 34 when he embarked on his parliamentary career in 1969. In his maiden speech to the House, he asked what was the value of material things when Māori could no longer feel pride in their culture. He worked to have more Māori seats than the four existing at the time and led the charge for te reo Māori being recognised as an official language.

Mr Wētere became a Cabinet minister with the fourth Labour government, serving as Minister of Māori Affairs from 1984 to 1990. In 1988, he launched a discussion paper suggesting a range of options for reforming the existing relationship between central government and Māori.

His time in the portfolio was not without difficulties. There was an inquiry by the Ombudsman into his decision to make deletions from a housing review and he was also caught up in the notorious "Hawaiian Loans Affair".

The Māori Affairs Department had considered borrowing $600 million from German sources via a Hawaiian middleman and although Mr Wētere put a stop to it, he defended his head of department and there was confusion over just when he had known about the proposed loan.

The cabinet refused to accept his offer of resignation and a State Services Commission inquiry subsequently found that evidence given by a loan proponent showed Mr Wētere had considered the idea far-fetched and had not believed it related to his department or the government.

He was a central player in the settlement of the Tainui claim in the 1990s and when he retired from Parliament, a delegation from Tainui honoured him with a waiata from the gallery. His parliamentary colleagues gave his valedictory speech an ovation that confirmed his reputation of not having an enemy in the House.

He became a spokesperson for Tainui after his retirement from politics and held directorships in several of its business subsidiaries. He was appointed to the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission and served on the Ngarimu Scholarship Board.

Mr Wētere was made a CBE in 1996 for his services to Māori and in 1999 he and the former National government Treaty Negotiations minister, Sir Douglas Graham, were awarded honorary doctorates from Waikato University for establishing a settlement process which restored honour and respect for the government.

Mr Wētere is survived by his wife, his two daughters, three sons, 16 grand and 14 great-grandchildren.

He will be taken to Tūrangawaewae marae late this afternoon and will be buried in his family cemetary just south of Te Kuiti.
Tributes

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters has expressed his condolences.

"On behalf of the New Zealand Government I wish to acknowledge the contribution Koro Wētere has made to the country and his remarkable service as a parliamentarian for more than quarter of a century."

Another former prime minister, Jim Bolger, said the death of Mr Wētere was a great loss for all New Zealanders.

Mr Bolger said they often worked alongside each other in their shared King Country electorate, despite being in opposing parties.

Mr Wētere was a man of integrity and humour, Mr Bolger said.

Labour's Kelvin Davis has also paid tribute.

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