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

The Stout-Ngata investigations of 1907-8

The Stout-Ngata investigations of 1907-8

The 1906 extension of compulsion embodied government acceptance of a policy that people should not be able to 'own land without using it'. It also reflected Native Minister Carroll's view that leasing out Maori land under Maori Land Board control remained a better alternative to purchase. But it seemed insufficient to save many remaining tribal patrimonies, and so the minister needed other policies if a vestige of land-based rangatiratanga was to remain. Again, paradoxically, these hinged on compulsion. He called for a systematic appraisal of the status of Maori-owned lands, a prerequisite for implementing a plan that would enable Maori to maintain direct control of land they 'needed' and to have the rest in effect compulsorily managed on their behalf or, if really necessary, sold. As a result, in January 1907 the government appointed a commission of inquiry into the best ways to use the remnants of the Maori-owned estate. Lands definitely required and fully used by the tribes would be identified. The rest would be vested with Maori Land Boards for sale or leasing, whichever was deemed appropriate.

This was Carroll's way of meeting the growing tide of both Maori and pakeha disaffection with the government's land policies. The intention was that Maori would negotiate with the commission over the productive land they needed for their own immediate future, but the exercise clearly had ramifications for Maori autonomous control and retention of their land. To help persuade them to co-operate, Ngata was selected as a royal commissioner, along with a veteran Liberal politician, Chief Justice Sir Robert Stout. This was a highly important 'mediating role between the Pakeha government and the Maori tribes'. The pair would investigate all Maori lands in an attempt, in consultation with the owners, to identify those that were 'idle' or not 'profitably occupied'. They were then to recommend to the government how the various lands could best be 'utilised and settled in the interests of the Native owners'.

Despite the degree of consultation involved, the commission's tasks page 82were far from unproblematic, given a fundamental Crown agenda that sat uneasily with rangatiratanga. As Maori leaders were well aware, the commissioners were to conduct their inquiries and frame their recommendations firmly within the parameters of 'the public good'. This meant that which best suited the capitalist political economy and the pakeha settlers on which it primarily rested. To place optimistic faith in the official reassurances of the time, as many commentators have done, is to obscure the ultimate motivations for the exercise. These were clearly not to restore or protect remaining turangawaewae, but to secure its use in approved ways by (usually pakeha) approved persons.

Nevertheless, many Maori took advantage of the commissioners' willingness to travel and listen to their views. Many hoped not only to influence the recommendations, but also to send strong messages to the state. Some submissions, for example, called for an end to the Maori Land Boards. As it turned out, the commission was as sympathetic to Maori aspirations as it could be within its own terms of reference. Its reports during sittings in 1907–8 stressed that Maori desires for land retention needed addressing (so long as they were compatible with 'the national interest') and generally accepted owners' views. It also criticised aspects of state land acquisition, such as the Crown's overriding the interests of minorities of 'non-selling' collective owners when purchasing. It proposed that all alienations go through the Maori Land Boards, to provide some measure of protection.

The commission believed that, while permanent alienation would inevitably continue, it should be limited to less than a fifth of the remaining Maori lands. Ngata, moreover, was especially sympathetic when reporting that '[t]he Maori ideal is that he should be left alone'. The best way to achieve this, and to assist Maori to hold onto their land, the commissioners (and Carroll and the Young Maori Party) believed, was by using the land. This Maori could not do unassisted, and so the state needed to help. Stout and Ngata thus argued that greater powers be given the boards to assist Maori landowners by, for example, raising money on the security of land for their farming developments.

More fundamentally, development required addressing the fractionation of interests in land that had resulted from Native Land Court page 83judgments. The commissioners proposed two ways to remedy this: incorporation and consolidation. In the first, the multiple owners of a block of land would 'incorporate' their fragmented shares in holdings to keep them in collective ownership, vesting control of the incorporation in a committee of management that represented and worked on behalf of the owners. This seemed to fit one definition of rangatiratanga over land that had passed through the Native Land Court's allocation procedures. In the second method, 'uneconomic' holdings in lands would be, through exchanges of shares, 'consolidated' into economic units for farming and development by individuals or small groups, along lines pioneered in Ngata's own Ngati Porou territory.

Provision for land exchanges for consolidation had, indeed, been enshrined in legislation since the establishment of judicial devices to detribalise land ownership in the 1860s. With the reintroduction in 1894 of Crown 'pre-emption' over Maori land purchase, too, the state had encouraged incorporation, hoping this would lead to leasing. The Crown was now particularly receptive to these aspects of the Stout–Ngata recommendations, for increasingly fragmented share ownership had meant that Maori holdings had been more difficult to acquire, and less productive if not so acquired. It envisaged purchase as the main solution to the 'public good' issues surrounding Maori land; both development methods highlighted by the commission ideally enabled easier purchase and hence quicker pakeha settlement.

At the very least they facilitated greater Maori production, and tribal spokesmen stressed this as well as ownership and control. They noted that, if several recommendations were taken together, consolidations and incorporations would enable them to develop the land themselves. Whatever the ravages of the past, some land-based rangatiratanga might be retrieved. Incorporation could certainly be seen from a Maori perspective as (in Ngata's words) 'in effect an adaptation of the tribal system, the hierarchy of chiefs being represented by the Committee of Management'. Consolidation, too, was often an affirmation of collective autonomy over land, especially via whanau-based ownership and production.58