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

Alienation versus retention

Alienation versus retention

In effecting the alienation of the bulk of the land from Maori, as indeed in the colonising project in general, the Crown had contributed to the disruption of traditional social and economic structures, including the power base of chiefs. It seems that, given the relative disempowerment of traditional chieftainship after the land alienations, Maori increasingly reinforced a pre-existing capacity to turn to leaders recognised for their achievements, as opposed to their hereditary status, in order to reforge page 67self-determination. This does not imply any faltering in the collective desire to retain and regain land and control. The ambition to retain land was in fact encouraged at the turn of the century by the government's review of its alienation policies, a reflection of concern that tangata whenua might become a strain on the state as a result of total landlessness. Realisation among officials and politicians that a slow-down in the alienation rate might benefit state aims had, in fact, already featured in the Crown's negotiations with Maori bodies in the later 1890s.

Any possibility of resiling from alienation had been pegged to a quid pro quo: productive use by Maori of the soil for the 'public good'. The involvement of Maori in Crown-approved ways to 'improve' non-alienated land had been explored in the past – in the 1883 experiment of committees which could investigate title to land, for example, and some shortlived legislation three years later which allowed owners of a Maori block to act as a single legal entity. But the advent of the Liberal government in 1890 had meant that a concerted push for closer pakeha settlement at the expense of Maori land ownership was inevitable, a key electoral base of the party being the actual and would-be European 'small farmer'. The best Maori could hope for was that their views would be partially taken into account.

This had seemed to be happening when W L Rees and James Carroll, constituting a commission of inquiry on Maori land law established soon after the Liberal victory, endorsed an 1885 idea (from the head of the Native Department) for, essentially, tribal determination of title. They proposed, moreover, state-authorised, Maori-based management regimes to lease out Maori lands and sell those not needed or which required 'unlocking' by pakeha investment. But settler pressure had ensured, instead, an escalation of aggressive Crown purchasing under the Native Land Court system. The government accepted only those Rees–Carroll Commission's recommendations which facilitated its land buying, such as the reintroduction of the Crown's purchasing monopoly. Over the five years from 1894, well over 1.5 million acres of Maori land were alienated. As we have noted, in fact, the Liberal government was a key regime in the history of the relentless parting of Maori from most of their land. Its aim was bald and bold: to remove 'uneconomic' (Maori) page 68owners from fertile and accessible land in order to replace them with 'productive' and 'scientific' (pakeha) farmers.

Everyone involved in examining the politico-organisational future of Maori needed to address the question of land. Within the ranks of the Young Maori Party, the lack of full agreement on the exact extent or type of adaptation, partnership or autonomy that should be sought partly reflected differences over land. Pomare and Ngata, for example, were at opposite poles over how land fitted into 'the rehabilitation of their people'. Ngata's solutions were much more popular, and were (in the words of a later commentator) 'in the direction of communistic management': by collectively occupying and developing the land, it could be saved from loss by Crown action. Assimilatory tendencies, then, should have very strict limits when it came to what was left of the landed base of the indigenous political economy. Until Maori could obtain capital and know-how for development, the land could be made productive by leasing it to pakeha. Pomare, however, felt that collective tribal land tenure was outdated, given the requirements of farming in a capitalist economy and the Native Land Court's operations to individualise interests in land. If farming by Maori proved not to be viable, as would often be the case, selling their interests and seeking wage work instead (perhaps on the same land, with a new pakeha 'settler') was the answer. For him, leasing was not an acceptable alternative, as living off rents from the land created idleness and degeneracy rather than the regeneration he sought.48

But not even the government thought it could implement such a regime, at least not at that stage. Under enormous Maori pressure, Premier Seddon had succumbed to the view that the tangata whenua could retain much of their remaining land, so long as they agreed to a new land administration system. In 1898 the Maori Parliament debated his proposal, which watered down the Rees–Carroll recommendations for state-sanctioned, Maori-run committees to manage indigenous land matters. Kotahitanga's eventual draft Bill on Maori land issues was influenced by these processes and the Urewera legislation. It sought to replace the Native Land Court with local Maori committees operating under six district land boards, block committees to bring land into production, and an appeal board. It was envisaged that sales would cease and, once page 69ownership was established, block committees would lease out some land and use the capital from there and elsewhere to finance development of the rest.

The Crown was not prepared to go so far as to abolish the Native Land Court, or give farming powers to committees, but negotiators on both sides were feeling their way towards a deal. There seemed to be general acceptance in Maoridom that the government's proposals marked progress, but only so long as all purchasing initiatives ceased. The government was in fact increasingly realising that, if land alienation escalated, indigenes might become so economically marginalised as to be a major burden on the state. Quite apart from the 'law and order' ramifications of such a scenario, Liberal philosophy saw the state as taking some safety-net responsibility for the poor: it would be difficult to escape such an obligation to an impoverished Maoridom. Maori MPs passed the qualified support of Maori on the Crown proposals to the Native Affairs Committee, and the government incorporated them into draft legislation in 1899. Pending further action, new purchasing was suspended (although current transactions were to be completed). This became known as the taihoa/slow-down policy.

The Crown had been influenced by its 'mediation' discussions with the Young Maori Party, which generally favoured leasing out quantities of land as a way of meeting both pakeha demand and the Crown's desire to put all lands to maximal productive use. Such arrangements would enable tribes to retain the mana of underlying title and gain the land back at the end of the leasehold period. In December 1899 James Carroll (known as 'Jimmy Taihoa' for his delaying tactics on land purchasing) became the first Maori appointed to the position of Minister of Native Affairs. This assisted further progress on Maori land issues. By the end of the century, then, land policy negotiations facilitated by Carroll and Young Maori Party and allied leaders were coming to fruition, in tandem with the negotiations which had led to the establishment of the Maori Councils.

Carroll and the Crown then built on the various draft land Bills, as well as on the results of consultations, when preparing sister legislation to that setting up the Maori Councils. The main factor for Maori was retention of ownership, which would require a great deal of leasing out. page 70A revised administration system as sought by the Crown was an acceptable 'compromise' for the main Maori groupings, so long as it simplified and expedited leasing arrangements and protected owners' rights. This the Maori Lands Administration Bill, introduced in 1900, seemingly did.49