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

Maori Land Boards

Maori Land Boards

Under the Maori Land Settlement Act passed in 1905, the Maori Land Councils were replaced by Maori Land Boards. The new legislation acknowledged, in effect, that the voluntary leasing policy had not met Crown objectives. Replacement measures included the Maori Land Boards' overseeing the renewal of large-scale Crown purchasing of Maori land in four Maori Land Districts. The other two, Taitokerau and Tairawhiti, hosted very strong tribal sentiments against selling land, and to avoid conflict the Act spared them from Crown purchase attempts. In return, however, the Minister of Native Affairs could compulsorily vest in the Maori Land Boards, for leasing out, any Maori lands which he deemed to be 'not required or not suitable for occupation by the Maori owners'. The Act also greatly expanded potential use of compulsory vesting in the boards of Maori-owned land in the other districts, following Native Land Court investigation of its title. The Maori Land Boards were to administer vested land for the 'benefit' of the owners, but this included leasing it out for as long as 50 years. Some Maori called the legislation, therefore, the 'Land Alienation Law'.

The new boards were portrayed as another 'compromise' between the Crown's imperatives and Maori concerns to preserve land-based rangatiratanga. 'Safeguards' to 'ensure' adequate remaining landed endowment for the groupings relinquishing the land were stressed, for example. Carroll, continuing to mediate between the two ethnicities whose heritage he shared, pronounced the measure an acceptable balance between pakeha land hunger and Maori interests.

However, as three Maori MPs and many other people protested, the new machinery had a negative impact on rangatiratanga. Quite apart from its compulsion and purchase clauses, the Act also removed the Maori Land Councils' elected Maori component from the replacement bodies. Not only had the element of democracy disappeared, there could no longer be Maori majorities. Two of the three Maori Land Board page 79members were to be pakeha, usually the regional Native Land Court judge and his registrar. The third member was to be a Maori appointed by the Crown – not necessarily someone who would represent the interests of the iwi concerned. The boards, moreover, had lost most of the Maori Land Councils' judicial powers, such as examining recommendations on and determining title to papatupu lands, reducing the amount of Maori input. Clearly, the new appointment, membership and jurisdictional arrangements represented a move towards disempowerment of Maori authority in controlling and administering land.

From this time on, pretences that the Crown's Maori land mechanisms were intended to provide a degree of self-government were gradually abandoned. This message was reinforced by the new Act's greater coercive strength in several areas, not just compulsory vesting. Once land had been vested in a Maori Land Board, for example, the owners might well lose management and control of it for often very long periods. The reasons for vesting, moreover, continued to widen under further policy and legislative moves. From 1906, to cite one instance, land covered with noxious weeds could be taken. When the Tangoio South block was vested in the Ikaroa District Maori Land Board because of such an infestation, the owners were to have no say in its management for two decades. When they received it back, it was in a worse state than originally. Although they had retained title, preserving their land-based rangatiratanga at a formal level, over a long period their turangawaewae could not form an effective base for politico-cultural autonomy – or for their tribal economic development. While land had remained the base for most of the autonomy aspirations at the turn of the century, even the small degree of jurisdiction granted in 1900 to Maori to control its rate and mode of disposition had quickly disappeared. The Maori Land Boards were, more openly than the Councils, conduits for the transfer of ownership and control to Europeans. Maori protests were to no avail.56

State encroachments into the interrelated issues of turangawaewae and politico-cultural power went beyond the Maori Land Boards. Alienation mechanisms soon expanded. The abolition of the Native Department by Liberal ministers had been an expression of the prevailing page 80'dying race' belief and faith in the speed of assimilation. Its re-establishment acknowledged that such an assessment had been far too 'optimistic'. Not only were Maori not disappearing, but also, at least for the foreseeable future, their affairs needed some specialised state attention. But departmental duties now related mostly to land alienation. Where they were protective, this reflected the need to ensure that Maori had sufficient land remaining to prevent them from becoming a burden on the state. The department's operations shifted decision making even further from the Maori Land Boards, even though the latter gained extra administrative and other functions as time went by.

Those aspects of Maori Land Board work which, it was said, would benefit Maori were seldom implemented. This was due in part to the lack of resourcing available for anything but the mainstream function of transferring control of land from Maori to pakeha. The boards had no capital to assist Maori development, for example. Therefore owners' or lessees' attempts to make vested land fully productive frequently failed. As lease periods fell due, the land was often allowed to revert to an underdeveloped condition, burdening its owners on its return rather than enhancing their prospects of rangatiratanga and prosperity. Successive amendments to the legislation, from 1906's extension of compulsory vesting powers on, made the fundamental premises of the Maori Land Settlement Act all the more clear to Maori.

In any case, purchasing rather than leasing remained at the forefront of the Crown's intentions. State bureaucratic methods were often devoid of niceties. A 'laudable provision' in the 1905 Act, whereby the price offered could not be below capital value (as assessed by government valuers), was in practice 'emasculated by Crown pre-emption'. The value was assessed as that of the land alone, even though much Maori land was covered by rich resources such as millable forests. Conversely, land retained by Maori was habitually overvalued, raising its land tax and rates liabilities, as the Valuer-General himself acknowledged in 1913. Meanwhile, a great deal of pressure to sell had been placed on Maori who were unable to meet the state's monetary demands. In these and many other ways, land alienation rates picked up again, despite alleged safeguards to ensure the continuance of Maori mana over the remaining tribal estates. Maori came page 81to give the 1905 legislation a new nickname, the 'Ture Kohuru Tangata', which had connotations of confiscation, treachery and destruction.57