A direct descendant of Ngāti Te Whiti and Ngāti Tāwhirikura chiefs who controlled Petone, Ngauranga and Thorndon at the time of the Treaty of Waitangi, Mākere Rangiātea Ralph Love epitomised the tradition of chiefly leadership practised by his family, and was to become the leading elder of Wellington Māori. He was born at Homebush on Arapawa Island, Queen Charlotte Sound, on 16 September 1907, the fifth son of Rīpeka Wharawhara Mātene and her husband, Wī Hapi Pākau Love, who farmed on the island. His parents belonged to senior families of Te Āti Awa, Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui, with connections to most of the iwi of Taranaki, Wellington and the northern South Island.
Three days after his birth Ralph (as he was known) was handed over to be brought up by a paternal aunt, Nui Te Hē (whose name, meaning the ‘Great Wrong’, commemorated land losses of her people), and her husband, Hoani Wārena. When he was seven he was sent to Petone to live with his parents in Taumata, their Korokoro home. He had not known that he was adopted, and pined for Nui for some years.
He was educated at Petone West School and Petone District High School. As a younger son he was not trained in oratory and traditional knowledge, and was encouraged to stay in school instead of attending hui. In the weekends he went pig-hunting and played for the Petone Rugby Football Club. He had hoped to gain an engineering apprenticeship in the railway workshop in Lower Hutt, but his father arranged for him to join the Native Trust Office as a cadet in 1925. Soon after, he became a clerk in the Native Department, and after some years in Wellington he was transferred to the department’s Wanganui office. Among his early tasks were visits to Taranaki to pay out rents on reserved lands, held under perpetual leases after having been first confiscated from and then returned to Taranaki Māori.
On 6 May 1933, at the Church of St Augustine, Petone, Love married Flora Heberley, the daughter of carver Thomas (Tāmati) Heberley and his wife, Annie Christian, of Lower Hutt. Ralph and Flora were to have a daughter, Marie Nui Te Hēr and a son, Ralph Heberley Ngātata.
When the Second World War broke out Love joined the army, but was declared medically unfit for overseas service: in 1927 he had broken ribs playing rugby and developed tuberculosis, losing a lung and spending 2½ years in a sanatorium. He served as a recruiting and liaison officer with the Māori War Effort Organisation, and in 1946 was appointed a justice of the peace. From 1944 to 1949 he served (at first unofficially) as parliamentary private secretary to MP and cabinet minister Eruera Tirikātene. Together they worked on plans to develop the Māori War Effort Organisation into an instrument of Māori self-government after the war, but this was rejected by Native Department officials and government ministers. However, parts of their Māori Social and Economic Reconstruction draft bill were used when designing the Māori councils and tribal committees created by the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945. Both Love and Tirikātene were disappointed that these Māori organisations were not made self-governing, but were instead brought under the aegis of the department. Love was Tirikātene’s private secretary again in 1957–60, and worked closely with him and his successor, Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan, for many years.
Ralph Love had been an active supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party from the early 1930s. He attended annual conferences and assisted its Māori Organising Committee from 1936. In the 1950s and 1960s he was a member (and chairman for some years) of its revamped Māori Policy Committee and he served on the party’s national executive from 1963 to 1968. He was also heavily involved in organising the inaugural conference of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in September 1951. He informally replaced Ruth Wright, the first dominion secretary, within six months of her appointment, and his position was confirmed by election at the second conference. His work in the Native (later Māori Affairs) Department included stints as assistant controller of social welfare, conversion officer and deputy registrar to the Māori Land Court. He attended many delicate land negotiations between Māori and the government. In 1958 he helped establish the Epuni Boys’ Home, and later assisted Jock McEwen to teach Māori carving to prisoners at Wī Tako (later Rimutaka) Prison.
Through all these activities Love maintained his sporting interests. He was chairman of the Wellington swimming club in the late 1940s and a keen follower of cricket. He was a rugby referee in Wellington and Wanganui, captain and coach of the Onslow Rugby Football Club, and by 1950 was secretary of the Māori Advisory Board of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. He wrote articles on rugby for the magazine Te Ao Hou, and toured the country with various Māori rugby teams as their manager and speaker. In May 1952, when the NZRFU first appointed a Māori representative to its council, Love was selected. He was also a supporter of the Petone Rugby League Football Club, recognising that many Māori youth were attracted to this code.
Love believed in the right of Māori to a separate identity and to self-determination, and was instrumental in the development of Māori rugby. He argued that Māori should have their own teams and compete in the international arena in their own right, a stance that led him into controversy. In 1959–60 he provoked an outcry by supporting the right of Pākehā administrators to decide whether the All Blacks should tour South Africa, even if this meant accepting the exclusion of Māori from the team. Undeterred by protest, he visited South Africa in 1964 and 1970 to see the apartheid system for himself. His views on separate Māori teams were controversial, and eventually led to his replacement on the rugby union council by a more conservative representative in 1971.
In 1962 Love was elected to the Wellington City Council, and became Māori welfare officer for Wellington under the Department of Māori Affairs. In 1965 he retired from Māori Affairs and was elected to the Petone mayoralty on a Labour Party platform. In January 1967 he lost office after being convicted of technically breaching the Local Authorities (Members’ Contracts) Act 1954 when he voted to increase his own pay. At the subsequent by-election he was re-elected mayor, holding office until October 1968.
Although he had long been prominent in public affairs, it was in retirement that Love emerged as a national figure, a focus of protest concerning many Wellington and Taranaki land issues, and a senior kaumātua to his people. He was now free to speak out on issues where earlier his role as a public servant had inhibited him. He was a trustee or chairman of several marae and reserves, including Pipitea and Te Tatau-o-te-Po marae and Te Puni cemetery reserve in Wellington, and Manukorihi marae and Moturoa reserve in Taranaki. He was a senior adviser to the Taranaki Māori Trust Board, chairman of Ngāti Pōneke Māori Association, and maintained a close association with the Rātana movement. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was an adviser to the Māori Women’s Welfare League. He was also an active Freemason.
Love was deputy chairman of the Wellington Tenths Trust and lost no opportunity to bring the grievances of his people to public attention. In 1990, when the arrival of settlers at Petone was re-enacted to mark the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and founding of the colony, he reminded those present that the government and settler population had yet to honour their side of the agreement.
Love was probably the most prolific Māori petitioner to Parliament in the latter half of the twentieth century. He petitioned to have the Treaty of Waitangi enshrined in legislation, and attempted to gain a guarantee that Māori representation in Parliament would be retained or increased. He also petitioned against proposed immigration legislation which would allow the British government to override the provision in the treaty for all the rights and privileges of British citizenship to be accorded to Māori, including the right to enter Britain. He even wrote directly to the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, objecting to this change.
One of his most influential petitions was presented in 1962, when he argued that the beneficial owners of the Palmerston North Māori Reserve should have the right to sell their interests at the market value and re-invest in general land, thus avoiding the restrictive provisions of the Māori Affairs Act 1953. His petition was referred to the government for favourable consideration and provoked a short, sharp debate in Parliament. It eventually led to a commission of inquiry, which in 1974 recommended major changes to the administration of Māori reserve lands.
Love instigated a number of claims to the Waitangi Tribunal concerning Taranaki and Wellington lands. In 1988 he sought an injunction blocking the government’s planned sale of its Petrocorp shares to British Gas, an action he felt might jeopardise Māori rights under the treaty. In 1987 he identified Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington Harbour and in 1989 the military base at Fort Dorset (surplus to army requirements and marked for sale) as potential areas of Crown land to be restored to Te Āti Awa – Taranaki in fulfilment of their Wellington Tenths claim. He also supported the separate development of marae-based justice for Māori and in the early 1980s called on the minister of Māori affairs, Ben Couch, to provide resources to enable Māori to establish their own systems of justice.
Flora Love died on 22 August 1985. Two years later Ralph (who had been made a QSO in 1975) was knighted. He accepted the honour reluctantly, on the advice of his son, Professor Ngātata Love, as an honour to all his people. Ralph Love died in Wellington on 30 July 1994, survived by his two children, eight grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. The tangihanga was held at Pipitea and Te Tatau-o-te-Pō marae, with the final service at St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, a collaborative event including Rātana and Anglican elements. He was cremated at Karori. Typically, at the time of his death he was still pursuing three land claims on behalf of his people.