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

Maori Councils established

Maori Councils established

The political legislation, the Maori Councils Act, provided for elected, self-governing bodies in the rural areas where most Maori lived. In particular, the Maori Councils were authorised to control the 'health and welfare and moral well-being' of Maori. They would operate at regional level, laying down rules of social control through bylaws valid within their own boundaries, which were designed to reflect meaningful tribal clusters. Beneath them, elected village committees/komiti marae would supervise and enforce their rules in the small communities in which most Maori lived. These worked with non-official flax-roots organisations such as Kotahitanga's Komiti Wahine, which became commonly known as 'Ladies Committees'.

On the surface, the legislation provided for devolved local government powers which approached those of boroughs and town boards. The operation of the Maori Councils (nineteen were initially established) was to be heavily constrained and guided by the state, as one might expect from the Crown-Young Maori Party collaboration in their emergence. But they were designed to draw their energies from the rhythms of everyday tribal life. Thus the unity movements, as collaborations of tribally based bodies, had backed the ideas behind the legislation. They appreciated that the Councils marked a break from the effective exclusion of Maori from New Zealand political processes, and that the Crown accepted that they would broadly reflect tribal configurations and operate accordingly.

For its part, the Crown's short-term aim was to indicate that nationwide tribal unity of organisation and action was unnecessary. More generally, it sought to appropriate tribally based vitality and steer it in a 'safe' direction that would ultimately contribute to assimilation. Sections of the legislation which allowed Maori custom were thus qualified by others which worked in the opposite direction, such as suppression of page 51Maori notions of compensatory punishment for offenders. While the Crown had not abandoned its view that (in C W Richmond's words) the desired virtues of '[c]hastity, decency and thrift cannot exist amidst the waste, filth and moral contamination of the Pahs', it believed the Maori Councils could be used to lay the groundwork for removal of the 'communistic' way of life that allegedly perpetuated this state of affairs.

The official village committees were often easy to establish, as many were based on pre-existing komiti. For such matters of communal and state interest as sanitation, they had coercive powers over their people. Their tasks of enforcing Maori Council bylaws and local regulations and of carrying out specified devolved state duties were often assisted by the appointment of their own policemen. Ever since the founding of the colony the Crown had used the services of Maori to help control, and if necessary coerce, Maori and sometimes pakeha citizens. This function had been carried out continuously in many Maori communities whether or not there was official sanction for it. The various pan-tribal, religious and other Maori movements had their own systems for imposing and maintaining order – Kingitanga's watene and Ringatu's pirihimana, for example, controlled their own adherents. Maori and state interests often coincided in large areas of rule enforcement.41

Where there were actual or perceived discrepancies between the needs of the state and those of Maori, however, the Crown was always proactive to ensure that its requirements prevailed. There were incentives for the Maori Council system to promote social control measures that met the Crown's wishes; its structures, for example, were to be funded partly from fines levied under approved bylaws. With Council and komiti representatives, assisted by their own policemen (often working in arrangement with regular constables), controlling 'suppression of injurious customs such as drinking and gambling' and other behaviours considered undesirable, the Crown gained an extra enforcement regime at no cost to itself.

Moreover, some Maori Council activities that had been devolved by Parliament removed sources of strife between Crown and tribespeople, placing the onus on Maori authorities. In the past, for example, collecting the dog tax had been a matter of contention and tension. For the state, page 52dog-tax enforcement was partly a way of reducing the number of dogs and thereby minimising danger to settlers' farm stock. Quite apart from their incapacity to pay, given a semi-subsistence lifestyle, Maori viewed the tax as an assault on their way of life. The issue had been the catalyst for the last armed rebellion against the Crown in the nineteenth century, the 'Hokianga Dog Tax Rebellion' of 1898.

The Maori communities themselves were now given the task of collecting the tax. As it was to be one of the Maori Councils' main sources of revenue, there was a great deal of incentive to collect. If they were to make full use of the Maori self-management system set up by the Crown, then, the komiti marae had to work actively to extract what was seen as an unjust tax. Some Maori argued from the beginning that, rather than being organisations to empower Maori, the Maori Councils and their committees were nothing more than agencies of the state. The whole structure was characterised in some quarters, in fact, as the Ture Kuri or Dog Law.

The Young Maori Party had been invited to draft model bylaws to guide the Maori Councils. It had done so, with Crown requirements firmly in mind, at its annual conference in December 1900. This was held in association with Kotahitanga's hui in Wanganui and so the Crown agenda, mediated by the party, was furthered in the heart of the major unity movement. The model bylaws emphasised such matters as the suppression of what were seen as 'pernicious customs', and some Maori observers were distinctly uneasy about what such phrases really meant.

There were also suspicions of the Crown's intentions from Kingitanga, which (correctly) believed that the state's primary aim with the new institutions was to head off kotahitanga. From the beginning, the government had explored various ways of gaining sufficiently widespread acceptance of the Maori Council system to supersede Kotahitanga and Kingitanga. It had decided that a colony-wide pan-tribal body placed above the local and district structures was necessary. But this could not be allowed to be too powerful. Thus the shapers of the system found a relatively anodyne solution, with the Act allowing for general conferences of Maori Council representatives.

In the event, this was not sufficient to head off Kingitanga, which page 53within a year had rejected the new institutions and set about establishing its own local committees. However, the main perceived threat to the Crown's indivisible sovereignty doctrine had been Kotahitanga, and here it had success. From the time of the legisation it attempted to persuade the Maori Parliament movement to disband, on the ground that it had been made redundant by the Maori Council structures. Despite Ngata's reservations about the Councils' potential effectiveness, he and Carroll had accepted the government's desire to dissolve the main unity movement. As a result of their hard-argued persuasion at a joint Kotahitanga–Maori Councils meeting at Waiomatatini in 1902, it was decided to disband Te Kotahitanga o Te Tiriti o Waitangi and merge it with Maori Council general conferences. Some groupings retained an independent 'Kotahitanga' identity, but the unity movement never again reconvened under the Paremata Maori umbrella. The main perceived threat to indivisible Crown sovereignty, an authentic major Maori political movement, had quickly been subsumed and then removed. In return, the Crown was obliged to hold some general conferences. While these did provide an occasional pan-tribal forum of some value, they did not represent any significant advance for autonomy.42