Steve Watene - A Lifetime of Service
Puti Tipene Watene, popularly known as Steve Watene, was a New Zealand rugby league player and politician who gave a lifetime of service to the Maori people.
Born in Kirikiri, Thames, in 2010, he was the only child of Rose Maria Savage (Hawete) of Te Arawa and Te Whanau-a-Apanui, and her second husband, Toke Watene, a farmer of Ngati Maru descent. He had a half-brother from his mother’s first marriage, and his parents also fostered more than 30 children. His paternal grandparents were Mita Watene and his wife, Kataraina Matene, the daughter of Matene Te Nga, a noted Ngati Maru chief. He had strong connections to the Tainui, Te Arawa, Mataatua, Horouta and Takitimu canoes. His iwi and hapu affiliations included Ngati Te Aute, Ngati Whanaunga, Ngati Hauauru, Ngati Paoa and Ngati Tamatera.
An exceptional sportsman, Watene achieved great success in rugby league. He gained his first cap in 1930 at the age of 19 and went on to captain the New Zealand rugby league team in three tests in 1936 and 1937. He was the first Maori to captain the Kiwis. In his farewell to international Rugby League he captained NZ Maori against the touring 1937 Australian team which NZ Maori won 16-5 in a famous victory at Carlaw Park. George Nepia and Jack Hemi were two legendary footballers to play under his leadership. At the end of his playing career he became a coach and selector and today his services to rugby league are recognised by the Steve Watene Memorial Medal – the Kiwi Rugby League Player of the Year award.
During the 1940s and 1950s Watene became involved in the integration of rural Maori to the urban environment, particularly in the Mount Wellington – Tamaki area. As well as helping to arrange state housing for the newcomers, he was instrumental in the formation of Ngati Muturangi Maori Club and in 1948 helped establish the Maori Community Centre in Fanshawe Street, Auckland, a forerunner of modern urban marae.
During the 1951 waterfront dispute Watene and two others toured tribal districts on behalf of the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union to discourage Maori from volunteering as strike-breakers. In 1953 he was elected to the Mount Wellington Borough Council, serving for three years. He was also a member of the Tamaki School Committee. Watene Road in Mount Wellington was named in his honour after he left the borough.
Around 1956 the family moved to Petone, where Steve Watene became a hostel manager and industrial welfare officer for the Gear Meat Company. He worked closely with trade unions and earned a reputation as a man of fairness and strong convictions. He was a member of the Petone Borough Council (1962–65) and became chairman of its works committee. He served on the administrative committee of the New Zealand Maori Council and worked for the Maori Education Foundation. His commitment to education was spurred by his belief in its importance to the development of Maori self-determination.
Active in the New Zealand Labour Party, Watene served on the Maori Advisory Committee and its successor, the Maori Policy Committee, from 1955, chairing the latter from 1958 to 1963. He represented Maori on the party’s national executive for six years, and was elected as Labour MP for Eastern Maori in November 1963.
A Mormon, he broke the stranglehold of the Ratana movement on the Maori seats, and he was known to hold different political and social views from the Ratana–Labour members. Watene was an effective MP, respected by both sides of the House, and a staunch advocate for Maori interests. He was acutely aware of the plight of his constituents and remained accessible to their concerns. A fierce opponent of land sales, he criticised Ralph Hanan’s Maori Purposes Bill 1965, which amended the Maori Affairs Act 1953 and other legislation, and argued against the removal of the meeting house and cemetery at Ruamata marae to make way for Rotorua’s airport. He also vehemently challenged racist or patronising remarks in the House.
Deeply committed to the Treaty of Waitangi, Watene maintained a traditional view of the rights and duties embodied in the relationship between Maori and the Crown. He saw the treaty as a guarantee of Maori parliamentary participation, and supported increasing the number of Maori seats. After his father’s death in 1955 he had become a spokesman for Ngati Maru in their claims over the Hauraki goldfields.
While he supported integration, Watene also believed in Maori self-sufficiency. He urged that the country’s wealth be spread evenly and expressed his concern about the widening gap between Maori and Pakeha. However, he saw the role of the government as creating an environment where people might thrive as a result of their labours, not as a welfare agency. He foresaw continued urbanisation, and argued that, as well as education, Maori needed realistic employment opportunities.
In 1967, he died in the Maori-decorated Maori Affairs Committee Room of Parliament at Parliament Buildings, Wellington. He suffered a heart attack while cross-examining a witness at a sitting of the Maori Affairs Committee on the controversial Maori Affairs Amendment Bill. Watene had feared that the bill would lead to the continued alienation of Maori land, an issue at the heart of his mission as an MP.
After a large tangihanga at Te Tatau-o-te-Po marae, Lower Hutt, and a funeral service at the local Mormon church, he was buried at Te Puni cemetery, Petone. He was survived by his wife Phyllis and 11 of his children.
Though he was a most conscientious and industrious Parliamentarian, it was in tribute to Steve the man rather than in deference to his status as an M.P. that all of Maoridom gathered at the Tatau-o-te-po Meeting House at Petone and at the nearby Te Puni Cemetery.
The East Coast people of the Hikurangi and the Hokowhitu-a-Tu parties were there in force as a tribute to the wonderful post and support which he had been to them. The same could be said of groups or representatives from all over New Zealand who came to pay their tribute.
Pakeha also were there in large numbers. The Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Keith Holyoake, the Minister of Maori Affairs, the Hon. J. R. Hanan, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Norman Kirk and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr R. Jack led the waves of Parliamentarians at the Tangi, all showing by word and action how genuinely shocked and grieved they were at the sudden unexpected loss of their friend.
One tribute had the following observation: “As he lay there on a Wednesday morning peaceful in death in the Maori Affairs Committee Room I thought how appropriate his surroundings were. There in the room he loved so well, beneath the giant facsimile of the Treaty of Waitangi and the photographs of Maori Members of Parliament of an earlier generation—Buck, Ngata, Carroll, Pomare.”
How fitting an epitaph to a lifetime of service to the Maori people.