THE MAN AND HIS WORK
THE HON. ERNEST BOWYER CORBETT
The ancestry of the Hon. Ernest Bowyer Corbett goes back to the first European pioneers. His mother was the grand-daughter of Hansen of the brig Active, who brought Marsden to New Zealand. His great aunt, Hannah Hansen, was the first white child born in New Zealand in January 1816. Mr Corbett was born on a Taranaki bush farm at Okato in 1898 and now he is retired from politics he lives again at Okato. More than most white New Zealanders he feels intimately part of his corner of the country; he likes to be known as the man from Taranaki; Egmont is his mountain.
Okato was then a predominantly Maori community and Ernest Bowyer, one of a family of ten, went to the Puniho School which had a predominantly Maori school and later to the Okato State School. After leaving school, he joined the Post and Telegraph Department, then worked in a dairy factory. But farming was in his blood and he took on a place half in bush, half in scrub, with a mud road for access, cleared it and brought it into production. In 1922 he married Miss Doris E. Sharp; took her to the farm on a sledge.
From an early age his interests went out to public life as well as farming. The Oxford Dairy Company, the National Dairy Association, the Dairy Industry Insurance Company all owe a good deal to the activities of Mr Corbett, and so do numerous social and sporting organizations. What spare time remained Mr Corbett spent gardening and climbing Mount Egmont.
In 1943 he became Member of Parliament for Egmont and in 1949 Minister of Lands, Forests and Maori Affairs. In his Lands portfolio, Mr Corbett was responsible for important and far-sighted legislation to prevent undue land aggre-
gation. In Forests (a portfolio he abandoned in 1954 due to ill health), Mr Corbett was in charge of the arrangements with the Tasman Pulp and Paper enterprise. But in this article we shall recall only his contact with the Maori people as Minister of Maori Affairs.
The first great Maori meeting he attended as Minister was the Rangiatea Centenary celebration at Otaki. This was also the last great meeting of the late Sir Apirana Ngata. Here, Sir Apirana threw out a powerful challenge. With his usual wealth of detail and documentation and oratorical fire, the old statesman assailed various features of Maori Affairs administration. Sir Apirana knew that the new minister was not yet familiar with all this detail but nonetheless this was a way to show to the Maori people what kind of man Mr Corbett was. In his reply he was undaunted, conceded nothing but made a characteristic promise of vigorous action. “On the East Coast you have a saying ‘Taihoa’,” he said, “but in Taranaki where I come from we say ‘Kia tere’ (make speed). And I am sure, Sir, that while you are alive to spur me on I shall have no opportunity to sit down on the job.” The feeling of the meeting was one of confidence in the new Minister who had shown both strength and sincere purpose in a contest with the greatest living Maori.
Sir Apirana passed away shortly after this, but Mr Corbett's admiration remained. Right at the end, when his health was very precarious he insisted on making the long trip to Waiomatatini purely as a pilgrimage of aroha to the graveside
The highlight of Mr Corbett's career as Minister was probably the legislation on the succession to Maori land interests to prevent the breaking down of uneconomic interests. This was a very challenging piece of legislation because it is no small matter to be deprived by law of the right to succeed to ancestral land, even if this land measures no more than a square yard. Mr Corbett saw, however, that unless something was done it would not be long before most Maori interests would indeed not be much greater than a square yard, and therefore economically useless. In fifty years time what he has done may well be regarded as the salvation of the Maori land heritage. After long negotiations and some compromise, Maori leaders agreed to the legislation and it went through the House unopposed, as part of the Maori Affairs Act 1953. In 1955 a stop was also put to the constant breaking down of interests in Maori Reserved Land.
In Maori housing, employment, land development and welfare, constant progress was maintained and expenditure rose regularly year by year.
He spent much of his time visiting maraes in the remotest corners of New Zealand; the Minister's car was forever churning the roads of the backblocks. He liked to have solid farm earth under his feet, judge the grass, the fertility, decide for himself whether a block was worth developing.
And he liked the idea of Maoris farming their land. He lost no time in releasing as much land as possible from departmental control to Maori farmers and incorporations.
The business side of farming and transacting housing mortgages was entirely familiar to him before he became Minister; he administered it quickly and efficiently like the director of a large corporaton.
Yet he recognised that this was not the core of his task. The real problems were less tangible but concerned human behaviour and the social changes occurring in the Maori race. Here Mr Corbett had his experience in social organisations to fall back on and also his enthusiastic work as a layman for the Anglican church.
This experience gave Mr Corbett a very idealistic view of social services; he regarded them as a mission, where qualities of heart were far more important than training and where the general aim was to lift people to a higher level. It was here that the Minister met conflict and sometimes disappointment. At Meetings he used to tell the Maori people ‘I give you not what you want but what you need’.
However, there was no doubt of the vigour with which Mr Corbett provided what he thought was needed, nor of the sound and earthy judgment
Mr Corbett was a regular visitor at the meetings of the Maori Women's Welfare League. This picture is from the Auckland conference of 1955. The people are: on his left Mrs Iriaka Ratana, M.P., on his right Mrs Whina Cooper, M.B.E.; behind him Mr P. K. Paikea, M.P., and Mr J. te Herekeikie Grace, M.V.O. (Hill-Thomas Photograph)
Some controversies in which he took part obscured the fact that he was fundamentally a man with a deep loyalty to the past, to his own background in Taranaki, and also to the cultural heritage of the Maori people. When money was to be spent on a Maori dictionary, or the recording of ancient songs or the carving of a meeting house, Mr Corbett supported it. He had the Maori Affairs Committee room in Parliament Buildings decorated in traditional style. He often said that to develop fully a man had to love the land and his cultural heritage.
In the Maori heritage he was particularly impressed with the great leaders, such as Ngata and Buck. One day looking through copy of Te Ao Hou he singled out a photograph of Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Peter Buck and Bishop Ben- ‘This is good material for your magazine.’
Mr Corbett derived tremendous satisfaction from the achievements of the Maori Women's Welfare League. He believed women are achieving wonderful things. ‘It is God's task they are engaged in’, he said, ‘giving the children an anchor. Maori women deserve all the more credit for they often labour under tremendous difficulties with large families, sometimes with added burdens through poor housing or isolation’.
With the foundation President of the League, Mrs Whina Cooper, M.B.E., he maintained a close friendship. Mrs Cooper was at times a ferocious critic in pressing her demands, but at the same time she was his trusted confidant. For he admired her tremendous character. On the eve of his retirement she sent him the following telegram: ‘Though far away my arohanui to you both… Through your greatness and loyal support leagues reached heights. You were my rough diamond friend. Once again I thank you. May God bless you both and enjoy the rest. Will meet again, Whina’.