“Ben Couch: Cabinet Minister in New Zealand Parliament,” Ensign, Apr. 1983, 25
Cabinet Minister in New Zealand Parliament
The best known Maori in New Zealand is a Latter-day Saint who takes the gospel seriously.
Parliament buildings in Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, are modeled after their British counterparts at Westminster. There are long, straight corridors, walls of stained wood, plum-colored carpets, and a warren of cubbyhole offices for innumerable government functionaries. And there are the ranks of elderly, rumple-suited messengers and guards who conspire to give the establishment the air of a slightly faded Victorian club.
Imagine the surprise, then, of a party of tourists who round a corner and are met by a smiling group of twenty LDS missionaries complete with name tags and clipboards. At their head is a stocky, graying man who could be one of them forty years earlier. His name is Manuera Benjamin Riwai-Couch. As a member of Parliament, he was selected by the prime minister of New Zealand to be a cabinet member and duly appointed Minister of Police and Minister of Maori Affairs. When he ends his political life, he hopes to go on a mission for the Church.
Ben Couch, as he is known to most New Zealanders, spent only three years on the back benches of Parliament before being promoted to the front ranks. His background before entering politics was that of a sheep shearer, and later a shearing and building contractor. He received his education at Pirinoa Primary School, at Otaki Maori Boys’ College, and then at Christchurch Technical College.
How does a part-Maori country boy come to achieve in three years what other politicians might strive for their entire careers?
“That’s easy,” he chuckles. “It’s the Church. The Church has taught me all I know.”
While others might be in politics because they are politicians, Ben Couch is there because he believes it gives him a unique opportunity to serve his country and his God. What is more, he makes no secret of it; and when he goes to visit a colleague in a neighboring office, the sheaf of papers under his arm is just as likely to include the latest family home evening manual as a government report.
His tours of Parliament Buildings and the more modern Beehive Annex are standard for new missionaries who have come to regard the tours as part of their introduction to New Zealand. Visiting General Authorities get a similar tour and possibly meet with the prime minister, Robert Muldoon, as well.
When he speaks in public, Brother Couch’s remarks are as likely to be based on an article in the latest Ensign as they are to come from the pens of his departmental advisers.
“I find it goes down well with people,” he says.
Ben Couch was born in 1925 at Rapaki, a small settlement on the east coast of the South Island near Lyttelton, the port for the major city of Christchurch. His parents were Methodists, but his grandmother, who raised him according to Maori custom, was a member of the Salvation Army.
When his family moved to the North Island and settled at Kohunui in the Wairarapa just north of Wellington, he met and befriended many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One of them attended the same primary school (grade school). Her name was Bessie, and the attraction was immediate and lasting.
“We were childhood sweethearts,” Brother Couch recalls. Bessie finds it difficult to pinpoint when she first noticed Ben. “That was a long time ago when we were young,” she chuckles. “He would come up to the pa (Maori village) where I lived and we would go to school together.” Though Bessie didn’t share Ben’s interest in football, she was certainly attracted to the trim, handsome athlete. “He had no tendency toward the Church then,” she said, “but he had an appetite for Bible stories.”
“We were always together at school,” Ben adds; “and when I went away to Christchurch Technical College to train as a carpenter and builder, we still kept in touch. It was the same during the war when I joined the air force.”
Ben entered the armed forces near the end of the war and was never required to go into battle. However, he qualified as an airman-pilot on Tiger Moth biplanes and was posted for training on multiengined craft by the time hostilities ceased.
Like warriors all over the world, he came home to a new life and set about finding a place for himself. Two important things happened in the years immediately following the war he made the All Blacks, the national rugby football team, and he got married.
In the eyes of many, to achieve a place in what is commonly regarded as the most powerful rugby territory in the world would have been enough of an achievement for one lifetime, but what happened on the marriage field had a deeper and more lasting effect on the quiet young man from the Wairarapa.
“In training for football I sometimes had to train on a Sunday,” he said. “But that didn’t worry me then, because I was not a member.”
However, he had a wife who was very active in the Church and who insisted that they should pay tithing.
“I wasn’t very impressed with the Church,” he said somewhat ruefully, “and I couldn’t see how paying tithing would work. But we paid it and somehow or other I noticed that we were never short of money although we had humble surroundings.”
In those days missionaries were often about the house, and good-natured Ben laughed and joked with them even though he did not want to take formal discussions.
Bessie remembers that in those days there was no chapel in their hometown of Gladstone. “We used to meet in an old school house. Ben would sometimes come to meet me, but he would sit on the doorstep and wait—he wouldn’t come inside.”
Things changed one day when Brother Te Weringa Naera noticed the twenty-four-year-old Ben and persuaded him to come inside and began to teach him the gospel. Looking back, Ben finds it hard to pinpoint the time when he realized a testimony of the gospel had pushed its way quietly to the surface of his mind. Eventually he reached the point where he decided to join the Church, and he made a resolution: “I decided to be a good member rather than a Jack Mormon. If you believe something is true, you live it.”
The same principle lay behind many other decisions he made in the years that followed. It worked for his home life, it worked at Church, and it worked in business and in the community responsibilities he began to assume.
Ben became active in school and community committees and Maori and sporting organizations, served in branch and district presidencies of the Church, and all the while marveled at how Church teachings could be applied to all of his activities.
As a self-employed builder he became curious about where the taxes he paid were going. He started to enquire about the system they supported and, in his own words, “one thing led to another.” He was drawn toward the National Party, which is generally conservative in its policies, and he served as its Southern Maori Electorate chairman for ten years and as chairman of the Pirinoa Branch for six years and the Masterton Branch for two years.
In 1963 he stood for the Southern Maori seat in Parliament. Apart from its general seats, New Zealand has four which are exclusively Maori. Maoris can choose to stand for and vote in either a Maori or a general electorate.
However, the Maori electorates have long been regarded as strongholds of the Labour party, and it was no surprise when Ben Couch was unsuccessful. In 1972 he tried again, this time for the general Wairarapa seat. A strong swing against the National government dashed his chances, and it seemed that he would never get into Parliament.
Then came a Church meeting in Porirua and a talk by visiting General Authority Elder Neal A. Maxwell. “He told the members that they were going to have a member in government,” says Ben. “I was standing at the time (the elections were close) and so were a few others.”
Barely three months later Ben Couch was in Parliament as the member for Wairarapa. He held the seat in 1978, and after only three years in office was appointed Minister of Maori Affairs and Postmaster-General. In 1980 he dropped the Post Office portfolio to become Minister of Police, retaining his Maori Affairs responsibilities.
As a Minister of the Crown, his openness and direct manner of speaking made him a favorite target for opponents. Some called him “naive”; others said he was either too unsophisticated or lacking in guile to be a politician.
Unconcerned—at least outwardly—he weathered the politically generated storms and in the 1981 elections was returned to office with an increased majority.
A gospel principle that has stood him in good stead in politics is his ability to sustain leaders. His unswerving loyalty to Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, a man quick to defend his friends is well recognized.
Frequently during his time in office Brother Couch has spoken on a “one nation, one people” theme, and just as frequently this has drawn the ire of many Maoris.
One critic called this view “a sycophantic denial of Maori identity that panders to the Pakeha (European) ego and his monocultural ethnocentric world view.”
However, as Ben said on one occasion, “I am a New Zealander first and a Maori second, and I know that there are many intelligent and moderate Maoris who feel as I do, and have told me so.”
But in recent years that which has brought him most forcefully into the public eye is the question of law and order, particularly as it relates to a recent tour of New Zealand by the Springboks—a rugby team from South Africa.
Strong opposition was voiced to the tour and some groups predicted violence if a team from a country with an apartheid policy was allowed to visit New Zealand. To prevent the team from entering, however, would be against the law, and so the government refused to withhold visas. In democratic New Zealand, the question was one for the New Zealand rugby officials to decide, said Prime Minister Muldoon.
The rugby leaders would not withdraw their invitation, the team came, and the same groups that had predicted violence set about fulfilling their own prophecies. Riots involving thousands of protesters took place around grounds where the Springboks played. On one occasion, demonstrators ran onto a playing field and kept a game from beginning. Eventually the game was abandoned when police learned that a light aircraft had been stolen and might be deliberately crashed into one of the crowded grandstands.
New Zealanders watching on television frequently saw their traditionally unarmed policemen don riot helmets, heft shields, and wield long riot batons to hold their lines against ranks of similarly equipped protesters.
By its very nature, politics is stressful. The man in the middle of much of it has been Ben Couch. The pressure must have been intense, yet in the hottest moments he appeared calm. Always he was resolute in his conviction that law and order must prevail.
“The Church has given me a sense of peace,” he says. “When you pray before you go to bed, and when you get up with a clear head and a clear mind, there is no need for fear and worry. You just do what is right and let the consequences follow. And they sure do follow,” he chuckles.
It is remarkable that he can be so easygoing—this man who faced the country’s foremost television interviewer, live, at the height of the rugby riots, to debate the issues that were bruising and embittering the nation. It was a situation where a Pakeha was interviewing a Maori about the policies of a foreign country.
As a result of the interview, there were calls for Ben’s resignation from some quarters. But from others came praise for his attempt at a balanced view of difficult circumstances. Then in response to the calls for the Minister’s resignation came the cries of defenders who said the interviewer should be disciplined or sacked.
Finally, someone thought to ask Brother Couch whether the man should go. Certainly not, he said. The interviewer had merely done his job well. If there were any problems they lay with his own rather awkward attempts to explain his views. Very quickly a potentially explosive situation was defused.
Apart from his public life, there is a private side of Ben Couch reserved for his wife, Bessie, and their six children and thirteen grandchildren. “We are great pals,” he says of his relationship with his wife.
“We share a lot of love and respect for each other,” adds Sister Couch, “and we share the Church and the gospel. Our interest in going on a mission developed fairly recently, and it keeps coming to the fore. We don’t know what type of work we will do. We will just have to wait until we are asked.”
Bessie believes Ben has no difficulty fitting his church and political lives together. “I know there are some things one is supposed to hold back, that one is not supposed to say, but Ben comes out and says them. If he feels a thing is right, he will say so.”
“We got married young and had our children young—except for our youngest—and so we were able to grow up with them,” Ben reminisces. The youngest is Zion, now approaching eighteen and preparing to go on a mission. This decision has delighted his parents, who are giving him every encouragement.
“The rest of the six are married, with positions in the Church,” says Brother Couch. “We have always tried to spend time with them and show our affection for them in our little ways. Our choicest blessing has been to see our children follow the teachings of the gospel.”
Nowadays Brother and Sister Couch are frequently on the move around the country. They like to throw their Masterton home open to family gatherings, Church meetings, and firesides. Wherever they might be, they also attend church if possible. Sister Couch has a fine singing voice and is a keen joiner of choirs; she enjoys bringing music and the Church together.
During the time their children were young, Ben and Bessie became converted to the merits of family home evening and family prayers, and now that they are alone they are still consistent in their observances. “We have our meetings by ourselves and our prayers and our talks about the Church,” he said. “They are essential.”
One of Ben Couch’s closest friends in Wellington is stake high councilor Douglas J. Quirk. “I’ve known Ben since 1945,” says Brother Quirk. “I respect him for his straight-forwardness and his sincerity. He’s always been a fine example as a church member and as a sportsman. Ben has never been one of those people who seem to give a false impression. He doesn’t push himself in front of anyone. He’s quite happy to be part of the team.”
Brother Quirk says Ben lives for the Church. “Because of his standards, Ben is well thought of by the prime minister and by his colleagues in Parliament,” says Brother Quirk. “His wife plays a big part in his life, and as ambassadors for the Church in New Zealand, they couldn’t be better—we couldn’t wish for anyone else.”
Whether it’s church, home, or politics, the approach is the same. “We’ve never hesitated to acknowledge the hand of the Lord in our lives,” he says. “I have attempted to practice what I preach at home, in the community, and now in Parliament. We must remember who we are and act accordingly.
“We should not be afraid of the gospel of Christ,” says Brother Couch. “You have to be in or out. It is a black and white situation. There can be no grey. You can’t afford that.”
One of the most important aspects of his job in politics, as he sees it, is to emphasize the importance of the family as a basic unit of society. That is why such phrases as “no success in business can compensate for failure in the home” keep cropping up in his speeches around the country.
“Wherever I speak, I try to get the message across. I am not what you would call an intellectual person in the sense that some of my colleagues are, but by trying to follow the teachings of the Church I have not come out so badly after all.”
What do his Parliament friends think of his approach to politics and to finding an occasional Ensign or other Church literature among their correspondence?
“For one thing,” says Ben, “they often say: ‘I admire your integrity. Your Church has taught you well.’ And that’s what it is, the teachings of the Church.
“One thing I have been taught is to be honest with myself and with others. You could say that I am more noted for that than are some other politicians,” he chuckles, then becomes serious again. “I am a Mormon and proud of it.”