The annual celebrations at Rātana, a small pā near Whanganui, are considered the unofficial start to the political year.

The Rātana Church was founded around 100 years ago by Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. 

Today, Rātana members gather every year to mark his birthday, January 25, although the celebrations usually take place over several days. 

Who was Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana?

Born in 1873, Rātana first became widely known for his spiritual work before he turned his attention to politics.

He was famed for his work as a healer, which brought many people to his farm. That farm would become known as Rātana Pā.

Rātana eventually established his own church in 1925.

Influencing parliament

By the 1930s, Rātana had shifted his focus to politics.

Parliament got its first Rātana-affiliated MP in 1932, with Rātana members holding all of the Māori electorates by 1943.

Rātana members would go on to hold those Māori seats for decades. 

Rātana himself famously met with New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, in 1936. That meeting would be seen as the beginning of a powerful political pact between the Rātana movement and the Labour party. 

Honouring the Treaty

A key aim of the Rātana movement was recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi. 

Rātana’s founder attempted to meet with King George V in London in 1924 and present him with a petition that thousands had signed wanting redress for Treaty breaches and land confiscations. The New Zealand government of the time prevented the meeting.

Nearly 50 years later, Rātana-affiliated Labour MP Matiu Rata became Minister of Māori Affairs and Minister of Lands. 

In that role, Rata pushed through the Treaty of Waitangi Act in 1975, which established the Waitangi Tribunal. 

He had also earlier introduced a bill to make February 6 – Waitangi Day – a national holiday. The Waitangi Day Act passed in 1976.

The Rātana movement today

Unofficial support for the Labour party remains today, however Rātana members now share diverse views across the political spectrum. 

This is why politicians from several parties usually attend the Church’s celebrations in late January and speak on the marae at Rātana. 

Those speeches often mark the start of the political year, as Parliament prepares to return following the summer recess.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters are both expected to attend Rātana celebrations this year, alongside leaders from Labour, the Green Party and Te Pāti Māori. 

But ACT leader David Seymour told the NZ Herald earlier this month he will once again not be making the trip to Rātana.

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