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

Maori Land Councils

Maori Land Councils

There was therefore little Maori opposition to the passage of the Bill, despite its various shortfalls from a tangata whenua perspective. It proposed establishing councils to superintend Maori land matters, having the capacity, for example, to assume in certain circumstances Native Land Court powers to determine ownership of customary lands. In supporting its introduction as the best deal they could get from the Crown, Maori MPs noted that preservation and control of the remaining Maori land could only come about at this late point through state action. That the Bill was the best they could hope for was a point Seddon reiterated. Ngata argued to the 1900 TACSA conference that, while the 'compromise' was far from ideal, it was a good enough start. Few Maori saw it as a panacea for controlling their remaining landed patrimony, but when placed alongside what seemed to be the exciting 'home rule' development of the Maori Councils, it was deemed to be progress along a route towards rangatiratanga. The Maori Lands Administration Act, by which Maori gained at least 'a small degree of local say in land matters', together with the suspension of purchasing, constituted a significant development at the end of a century that had been marked by contact, colonisation and conflict.50

Maori hoped that this could become the platform for other developments central to their collective future, goals summed up by Ngata as 'the retention of Maori culture while adapting to the dominating Pakeha society, and the improvement of the Maori race spiritually, economically, and socially'. The new land administration system, then, would not just help prevent politico-cultural disaster, but positively assist in a revival of Maori fortunes. The Act's preamble, in stating that Maori should not be left landless, seemed to confirm that the Crown appreciated Maori wishes on this fundamental issue. The Maori Land Councils it set page 71up were to ensure that sufficient area was left for 'maintenance and support' of Maori communities. They could also set aside inalienable reserves for other purposes, such as burial, fishing and birding.

The legislation, too, seemed to meet some Maori requirements for self-management of the remaining communally owned lands. Block committees, for example, could investigate ownership of papatupu/customary land in line with tribal rules, draw up hapu boundaries and lists of owners, and make recommendations to the Maori Land Councils. The latter could ascertain ownership, except where there was contention, in which case the supreme power of the Native Land Court would come into operation.

Most significant of all, the legislation embodied the triumph of the Maori negotiators who had, while agreeing with the Crown that development was necessary, influenced it into accepting that this could generally come through leaseholding rather than through alienation of freehold. The idea was to complement Maori-farmed and-inhabited lands with retention of a broader turangawaewae/'place to stand', albeit comprising lands often leased out for the time being. Pakeha know-how and capital would develop the latter while preparing them for ultimate handing back to Maori. The Act confirmed, in short, that land development need not be posited on pakeha ownership: tribal lands could be voluntarily vested in the Maori Land Councils, which would guarantee title and thereby facilitate leasing out.

It was envisaged, indeed, that leases could become the main means by which Europeans and their capital gained access to and worked the land, and that the Maori Land Councils' main function would be to administer the leases of lands vested in them. The monies could be used to develop those blocks that stayed in Maori hands to meet the immediate needs of the tribespeople. When the leases expired, Carroll argued, a new generation of Maori would have developed the skills and finances to farm the lands themselves, and thus benefit their families, their sub-tribes and their tribes, and all New Zealanders. This was the philosophy behind the taihoa on initiating new sales of Maori land.51

There was provision for one Maori Land Council for each Maori Land District in the North Island, and over time seven were set up, with page 72five to seven members each. An indigenous majority on a Council was possible, as two to three members were to be elected by Maori landowners of the district and another Maori member would be appointed by the Governor. A sizeable proportion of Maori members, the mediators believed, would help effect rangatiratanga in matters such as management of leased-out lands.

The Act was presented to Maori principally as a measure to conserve land in collective ownership, with Hone Heke and other MPs stressing the importance of tangata whenua taking advantage of the lease provisions. Such endorsements have led many historians, even those generally disinclined to take the Crown's explanations at face value, to interpret the Maori Lands Administration Act as a 'creative and constructive' attempt to preserve a patrimony for Maori. The legislation's fundamental aim has been depicted as giving tangata whenua 'control over land management and alienation' and enabling them to 'restrain the rate of alienation'. Some say it went 'a long way' towards meeting Maori aspirations to keep and develop their land, or even that the Maori Land Council system provided 'real autonomy'.

In shepherding the measure through Parliament, however, Seddon and Carroll openly admitted the government's major motivation: making accessible more land to settlers for grazing and cultivating, in the 'public good'. As even an autonomist interpretation has acknowledged, 'legal control and governmental supervision' prevailed within the Maori Land Council system. Moreover, the Native Land Court could 'wrest the ultimate mana' from a block committee by 'handing down an irrevocable decision' of contrary nature. While Maori operated the 'processes of investigation and decision-making', these could be overridden by the Crown and its agencies.52

On paper a 'feasible compromise' had been achieved. The Crown had ceased initiating the buying of land, in return for arrangements for Maori to lease to pakeha and play a prominent role in the institutions handling such arrangements. In reality, however, the sole criterion of success in state eyes would be the proportion of 'idle lands' brought quickly into settler production, and the system's future hinged on this. Such intentions, and the Crown's pressure to give effect to them, page 73contributed to the results. Whatever the arguments about the Maori Land Councils' independence and consultation, through this system Maori were to be 'deprived of all authority and management of their ancestral lands' for the foreseeable future. This seemed to be 'simply another means of the State taking their lands' rather than any acknowledgement of their rangatiratanga. And so there was, initially, considerable reluctance to place tribal patrimony under the control of a government organisation.

When appointments to Maori Land Councils were finalised towards the end of 1902, moreover, tribes could see that Crown-appointed Maori had 'loyalist' backgrounds. One key member, for example, had served a long apprenticeship on official 'native committees'. The pakeha head of his Council was, equally typically, a former Crown land purchase officer. He and the other chairs knew which purchase transactions the Crown wished to complete or (if policy changed) initiate, and their organisations prioritised accordingly. Other factors, too, militated against the Maori Land Councils being self-determinationist mechanisms. While they held many of the powers of the Native Land Court, for example, they could never become an alternative to it. Even had they been inclined to meet local and regional wishes for autonomist preservation and control of patrimonial lands, they held insufficient authority to satisfy tribespeople who might put their faith in them.

When word spread in Maoridom about such ineffectiveness, some tribes began to boycott the Maori Land Councils or disrupt their work. Only two districts co-operated quickly with the government's plans to 'open up' sizeable lands to pakeha through leasing. In turn, the Councils could do little to fast-track the government's prime aim of pakeha settlement and development. Hopefully, wrote a Poverty Bay commentator in 1902, 'the district should reap the benefit of this fine bush country being speedily settled' as a result of the Council's work. If land could be readily developed in this way, it would be a process of 'great simplicity as compared with the tortuous methods of the Native Land Court'. But once the Maori Land Councils were fully operating in 1903, such hopes were generally dashed. This was partly because of the ponderousness of the system the Crown had set up. Even in an area where the committees were supposedly 'working well' for the Crown, a page 74royal commission investigation revealed that only 28,315 out of 175,393 acres had been uncontested in a way that would facilitate development.

Maori who used the system tended to do so in their own interests rather than adhering to the Crown's agenda. Papatupu block committees, for example, might expedite determination of titles for customary land with an eye to ongoing occupancy rather than temporary loss through leasehold. With title investigations completed, pakeha expected the new system to 'test the feeling of the owners as to placing the properties in the hands of the Council, for administration' and leasing. When early results showed that often this did not occur, there was chagrin among officialdom and settlers. Block committee investigations, in other words, tended to subvert Crown intentions by focusing on or assisting community aspirations.

Through using the committees Maori could both avoid Native Land Court costs and create the conditions for raising their own farming productivity. Indications are that they tried to operate fairly within Maoridom. One committee, for example, declined to assess that an historical conquest had occurred, even though some of its members 'would have benefited to a large extent' from such a finding. The 70 committees in Taitokerau worked hard to reconcile differing viewpoints, attempting to create stability within their communities. Commenting on general criticism that the block committees had 'ignobly failed', a royal commission would praise some of them for advancing Maori interests in an 'astonishing' fashion. Moreover, many Maori considered that, compared with what had existed before the legislation, even the Maori Land Councils represented progress towards their aspirations. Some groupings which initially opposed or resisted working through them realised, after close observation of their operations, that they could be used for their own collective benefit. Such opting-in began to move some Council procedures in the direction of autonomy.53

Other tribes bypassed the new machinery altogether, especially if Maori representatives on the Councils were from rival iwi or were deemed to be too compromised by association with the Crown. Such iwi sometimes attempted to minimise the impact of irreversible alienation or to meet Crown pressure to 'free up' lands by establishing leasing regimes page 75independent of the Maori Land Councils. In some places such as the Rohe Potae, indeed, tribes had long preferred to lease rather than sell. The increase in Maori interest in direct leasing arrangements after the 1900 legislation, while not seen as ideal, was nevertheless welcomed by the Crown. 'Temporary alienation' through leasing under any arrangement was now accepted as an appropriate Maori response to national needs, legitimating the (relative) taihoa on Crown purchasing.

For Maori, the taihoa policy and the leasing option gave them a chance to regroup collective interests, working such land as they could while receiving rentals from the remaining tribal patrimony. Once the leases had finished, they would be able themselves to develop the bulk of the land remaining in Maori ownership. This seemed a suitable statement of rangatiratanga in difficult circumstances. But the 'leasing solution' was problematic from the outset. Pakeha generally preferred freehold tenure, distrusting the very concept of Maori landlords, and so Maori wanting to lease did not necessarily find viable takers. Moreover, the brake on Crown purchasing had been justified, in terms of public good, partly by the prospect of Maori farming portions of their tribal land. This they would do using development monies not only from pakeha rents, but also from loans. Despite Carroll's and others' efforts at persuasion, however, neither Crown nor private enterprises were generally willing to provide tribes with credit (although loans were provided to pakeha farmers to develop their land).

Whatever the difficulties, the Young Maori Party's and others' concerns to prevent 'disintegration' of their people 'as a race' had resulted in a system in which Maori could retain some measure of control over the land. Numerous tribes had determined to make the best of it. Papatupu block committees did a great amount of work and the Maori Land Councils were used to seek better prices for leases. Yet the initial positive Maori responses to the 'leasing solution' were too few in the eyes of both Crown and settlers. The moratorium on new state purchasing would, therefore, constitute no more than a brief holding operation in the inexorable settler push for land. Some pakeha MPs and others had said from the beginning that, since Maori did not view the system as anything other than an imposed 'compromise', they were scarcely likely to make page 76great use of the block committees or Councils – at least not in a way the Crown wished. Such views appeared to be vindicated when the system did not result in releasing land for pakeha farming anywhere near fast enough to satisfy settler demand.54

From a Maori perspective, however much some tribes used it, the system could not provide many opportunities greatly to advance autonomy. The increasing numbers who decided to explore it did so in an attempt to take advantage of whatever the Crown was willing to proffer. The Crown came to share the view many Maori had had in the first place. It eventually decided that the 1900 Act held no great prospect for bringing undeveloped land into production, by Maori or pakeha, or for a satisfactory land control regime. It therefore reverted to its old policies, including promoting land purchasing for white settlement.

With taihoa gone almost as soon as it had been put into place, tribal authorities had to continue to watch land and resources slip away, often as a result of the impoverishment of Maori in a cash-oriented economy at a time of demographic revival. This was a far cry from that which so many had sought, a land base (with, at the very least, Maori managerial input) from which, ultimately, to reclaim their collective local and regional autonomy. The 1894 reintroduction of Crown monopoly on purchase meant that the state 'bought on its own terms' when it resumed purchasing, and this resulted in low prices. Those who saw autonomy in terms of the ability to do what they wished with their ancestral lands, including selling them, were particularly vigorous in criticising the absence of a free market. The situation constituted a double blow for those compelled reluctantly by marginalised circumstances to sell.

The resumption of permanent land alienation helped revive fears that tangata whenua would become 'idle' and therefore a call on the state coffers. In the past, 'idleness' had been seen as a reflection of collectivism. 'As long as we have communism so long shall we have non-employed Natives, and so long shall we have idleness', Pomare had thundered, reflecting general pakeha sentiments. In 1900 Seddon opined that communal life on the land meant 'idleness, carelessness, and neglect'. But removal of all links with the land, in a situation where there were few suitable waged jobs, would – policy makers feared – lead to page 77destitution, which would be potentially costly to the Crown, rather than to assimilation.

This led to some exploration of new ways of developing the 'leasing solution'. One government response to Maori reluctance to voluntarily lease their land was to move towards compulsory vesting of lands for leasing. This concept emerged as early as 1902, with legislation allowing compulsory vesting of land in Maori Land Councils for 'native townships'. In 1904, with increasing pressure on the Crown to make more land available to pakeha, the principle was considerably expanded. Properties on which rates were owed could be compulsorily vested in the Maori Land Councils for leasing out and other purposes.

This has been seen as the beginning of the process of 'transforming the Councils into coercive and interventionist institutions rather than expressions of Maori self-government'. But such coercion had been implicit in the system from its inception – one of the reasons many Maori had been initially reluctant to co-operate with it. Ngata supported the 1904 measure on the ground that compulsion via Maori Land Councils would retain the land for future generations, there being no alternative other than to lose it altogether, but he was soon acknowledging that the 'Maori ideal is opposed to the whole of the legislation from 1900 down to the present time'.

From the beginning, Crown 'concessions' to Maori in the Maori Lands Administration Act, especially its restrictions on full land alienation, had been seen by some pakeha and their political representatives as impeding the job of settlement. Now, given the slowness of the new machinery, many Maori-owned lands were seen to remain 'unused', and settler pressure grew even stronger. Extension of compulsory leasing provisions was seen as a possible compromise solution. Ever since the Rees–Carroll Commission's findings in 1891, James Carroll had been arguing that compulsory vesting of all 'idle' Maori-owned land would address both Maori and pakeha problems. In 1905, as Minister of Native Affairs, he proposed that the time for this had come: pakeha farmers would contribute to the national economy on the leased-out acres, while Maori would both benefit from rents and retain underlying title to their remaining patrimony. But the Crown was, by this time, disinclined to page 78undertake any more 'half measures'. New legislation would not only embrace compulsory vesting, but also facilitate full alienation.55