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State Authority, Indigenous Autonomy: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900-1950

New developments at mid-century

page 260

New developments at mid-century

After the war the indigenous population was well on its way to tripling since its late-nineteenth-century nadir, and it would be recorded in 1951 as 115,676 (out of a total population of 1,938,032). By then, increases in and transfers of the Maori population were adding to the enormous strains on tribal organisation that had followed colonisation. In 1936, 83 per cent of Maori lived in rural communities, and at the time of the population adjustments at the end of the war this proportion was calculated to be still at a relatively high three-quarters. But the wartime 'urban drift' continued during peacetime, and after 1950 it became a deluge; from around 1960 Maori 'became a predominantly urban people', involving a change in lifestyle of 'staggering' proportions.

As urban migration had gathered momentum, tribal leaders had increasingly seen that it would be a struggle to retain strong traditional structures. Some felt that the survival of Maoritanga itself was already under threat. Not only had sizeable numbers of their people left for the large towns and cities, but also these had few tribally based (or indeed Maori-based) support mechanisms in their day-to-day lives. Displaced individuals and families mostly had to interact with, and often came largely to conform to, cultural norms that were largely alien to their rural and tribal upbringing. One later observer believed that 'the abrupt resumption' of close interracial contact from the 1940s, heralding a 'post-withdrawal stage', led to 'a more traumatic, conflictful, and anxiety producing adjustment process than in situations where the contact had been gradual and continuous over a long period of time'.125

Although it was slow to appreciate the nature of the problems that resulted from urbanisation, the state would increasingly come to encourage internal migration; among other things, this would be taken as an opportunity to return accelerated assimilation to its strategic agenda as a seemingly achievable item. In such circumstances, Maori Affairs did little to encourage robust development of the tribal executive and committee system, except in law enforcement. Maori leaders, however, were increasingly appreciating that the welfare organisation apparatus could be useful for general collectivist as well as tribal collectivist purposes. page 261Although the official committees were originally rurally and tribally oriented, moreover, a number of Maori leaders, including some marae-based rangatira, saw that expanding the committee system onto urban streets might be useful for such matters as promoting race relations (or at least stopping their deterioration), assisting 'at danger' youth and creating a Maori collectivist ethos beyond the home marae or tribal headquarters.

In mid-century discussions it was already appreciated that setting up committees under the welfare organisation in the cities could be achieved only (except for urban tribes, or in towns or city suburbs with large concentrations of people from a particular tribe, usually based nearby) by pan-tribal or, more usually, decidedly non-tribal committees. The latter naturally gelled with the Ratanaist strand that had been so influential for some two decades. The beginning of urbanisation among Maori, therefore, added a complication to hopes of using the 1945 system as a beach-head for tribally based autonomy. From a tribal autonomist perspective, urban-based committees could be at best only a holding measure, helping Maoritanga survive, if not flourish, in a harsh new environment. The tribal focus would have to be kept up through informal social contact, tribal communication with dispersed members and 'visits home' for occasions such as weddings, holidays, whare runanga/meeting house openings and tangi/funerals. Incipient urbanisation, then, added yet another challenge for the many tribal leaders determined to further the autonomist agenda through welfare organisation committees.

But the most fundamental challenge remained that of the official policy of assimilation. While Fraser's 1949 report as Minister of Maori Affairs stated that his goal was 'an independent, self-reliant and satisfied Maori race working side by side with the Pakeha', in that year's general election campaign Labour had offered the same 'equality'-based policies as in the past. In the grand scheme of things, even the welfare organisation constituted only a minor policy and operational thrust. But this essentially assimilationist platform did not go far enough for the increasing numbers of Europeans who found the rhetoric of Maori self-determination, and even the sight of Maori socio-economic 'uplift' (which was significant in the period 1938–49), to be alarming. During the election campaign, the opposition made great gains by emphasising its continuing allegation page 262that the government was being held to ransom by the 'Maori mandate'. This may have been one reason why sufficient pakeha switched their votes to the National Party at the polls to bring Labour down.

When Sidney Holland's National ministry took office, Maori were understandably dismayed. His party had highlighted during the campaign that it was offering less to Maori than had Labour. This was across the board: an attack on both 'welfarist' state interventionism and – especially given its even greater stress than Labour on rapid assimilation – the quest for Crown recognition of rangatiratanga. Moreover, New Zealand now had a ruling party in which Maori were not represented at parliamentary level, for the first time since the provincial period in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. With no Maori in the political executive, a six-decade political tradition ended and, in addition, the office of Member of the Executive Council Representing the Maori Race was abolished. While the principal activities of the Department of Maori Affairs continued to be overseen by the Board of Maori Affairs, this no longer contained a Maori MP.

The reasons for such developments are complex and varied. A racial backlash against the increasingly visible Maori presence in urban areas may have played its part. Race relations could be deemed to be 'the best in the world' when most pakeha knew Maori only at a distance, but when Maori moved into their neighbourhoods and brought unfamiliar ways of behaviour with them the relationship could well degenerate. Whatever the reasons, there was an increasingly ethnocentric mood in pakeha New Zealand, and the policies of the incoming government reflected this trend. One of its ministers had said, when National opposed removing liquor discrimination, that Maori 'are Natives to me, and I will call them what I like': they should be treated 'like children'.

Similar comments were increasingly being made in public in a number of quarters, sometimes using language reminiscent of the previous century. At the same time, post-war assisted immigration from Europe, especially from Britain, aimed to increase the population on the basis of white 'kith and kin' who would fit in with the dominant culture of the nation. This clearly did not bode well for Maori aspirations for recognition of and respect for rangatiratanga. While it is true that Labour had 'no long page 263term commitment to empowering the Maori people', National was decidedly against such empowerment. If anything, it stood for disem-powering Maori.

Faced with Maori agency, however, members of the new cabinet proved to be pragmatic. A few ministers reflected a feeling in some National Party circles, for example, that, although one era of Maori development was finishing, another was beginning – and they were not too concerned that the participants continued to identify as Maori. One reason for this was that an emergent new Maori leadership was able to work within the pakeha as well as the indigenous world. It was assumed, in any case, that in the longer term the process of absorbing Maoridom would be facilitated by increasing numbers of such Maori 'modernisers'.

In a broader sense, however, it might be said that time was on the side of Maori in fulfilling at least some of their aspirations for self-determination. The half-century from the 1890s to the 1940s had been characterised in Maoridom by enormous social, economic, demographic, cultural and political developments. Despite the beginnings of 'urban drift' towards its end, since the 1920s much had happened to affirm the vibrancy and adaptability of the Maori people, their organisational modes and their culture. At mid-century, many marae-centred communities were thriving and others were being reconstructed. The pace of tribal and cultural reconstruction had been assisted by socio-economic gains under Labour, which had done 'more for the material well-being of the Maori people than any other Government or Party'. That this had occurred without Labour 'really understanding Maori culture' indicates that, intentionally or otherwise, significant autonomist advances were quite possible under governments which had a poor appreciation of Maori perspectives. Governments would do whatever matters of state required. If political pressure, or national economic production, required measures that would also assist Maori fortunes or aspirations, the need to intervene would qualify – for as long as was expedient – hegemonic, pakeha-oriented ideology and strategy.

Expedience proved to be as much a characteristic of National as of Labour, whatever its rhetoric and formal policies. The new government, for example, continued inherited agricultural and pastoral developments page 264which promised benefits for Maori that were also in the 'public good'. The situation was not entirely clearcut, and some National suggestions for such reform clearly violated rangatiratanga. The Labour MPs fought attempts, for example, to facilitate compulsory rationalisation of land ownership for, in Tirikatene's words, that 'hits right into the heart and soul of Maori mental sentiment and Mana i.e. the alienation of his lands without his consent … It is not the value of the land that counts but the principle'. But the Crown was, after the 1949 general election, prepared to continue working through the Maori Welfare Organisation and other Maori institutions when it believed that the benefits to Maori would further its own aims and objectives. The struggle for rangatiratanga would keep operating within as well as outside and against the state.

One issue faced by the Crown which would ultimately assist Maori in their pursuit of rangatiratanga was New Zealand's role in the international community. Again, while Labour and National ideologies clashed, both had to face certain global realities. While 'empire' had reached its greatest-ever geographical spread in the 1930s, the subsequent war had been a catalyst for the beginning of global decolonisation. The New Zealand Labour Party had taken a relatively 'progressive' stance on such issues, and its record on the international decolonisation movement had been followed within Maoridom. From the 1950s, whatever National's formal foreign policy, the world experience of 'national liberation' struggles would be increasingly closely monitored by New Zealand. That Maori leaders were attuned to these issues did not go unnoticed in state circles, although the ramifications for New Zealand would take decades to work through – and in the eyes of many remained unresolved by the end of the century.

Such debates and developments were already present in incipient form in mid-century New Zealand. Repatternings of Maori leadership to meet post-war challenges and changes were being observed in the 1940s. Some of the new generation of Maori leaders that was emerging had qualifications and approaches which reflected urbanisation, higher across-the-board educational standards (resulting from the reforms of the 1930s), the increase in quality of life among Maori set in train by Labour's equalising policies, and the opportunity for leadership thrown up by the page 265experiences (and deaths) of wartime. Post-war leaders, who were not necessarily of traditional rangatira stock, assisted with, and were sometimes at the forefront of, the operation of the 1945 legislation – either on behalf of the Crown, especially at head office in Wellington, or out in the field on behalf of their tribes.

Those in the Labour camp, in particular, focused on achieving full equality in society for Maori, while at the same time seeking to promote those aspects of Maoridom which had survived assimilationist colonisation and were deemed worthy of preservation, revival or adaptation. In this sense, they had taken on board the ideas of the mainstream Young Maori Party milieu, which had long been developing a vision of two peoples in one nation. Ngata had insisted in 1929, for example, that Maori demanded to remain ethno-culturally distinct, and that aspects of traditional culture which should be retained (including the language) needed proactive protection.

Wherever and however the post-war Maori leaders operated, however assimilated they appeared to be (or not), most reflected the general desire of their people to retain their 'differentness', and seek Crown respect for rangatiratanga, at the same time as participating increasingly in mainstream New Zealand. They were, then, heirs to a long effort to come to terms with the state and its political economy while at the same time attempting to rebuild organised Maoridom. The Crown was fully aware that the 'Maori problem' had not gone away.126