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

Politics of land

Politics of land

The first of the land development schemes showed that the United government's aim of incorporating Maori into the economic mainstream was not necessarily incompatible with the very communalism that the Native Land Court had been set up to erode. The state, pursuing its own agenda, was not deterred by widespread Maori celebration at the possibility of achieving their economic recovery by means which had a collective resonance. Ngata was invited to stay on as Native Minister in George Forbes' conservative ministry in 1930, and in the Depression-induced Forbes-Coates coalition government that followed it from September 1931. By then 41 schemes were operating, and policy relating to them remained unaffected by political change and national economic woes.

This was largely because, although the schemes had a collective orientation, they were very much the creatures of state direction. Ngata had preferred development to follow consolidation, but this had proved too slow. Massive state managerial control, albeit intended as temporary, was the price of a speedier approach. Land destined for development would be placed with the Native Department and associated specialist bureaucracies, the owners temporarily surrendering proprietary rights. The Native Department acted as both mortgagee and trustee, the 'mother and father' of the land and its owners, in the words of one bureaucrat. State control was pervasive. Scheme supervisors, for example, had to deal direct with the Native Minister even on detailed matters. He appointed the members of advisory committees, and in any case their consent was not necessary before a development proceeded. While the collective owners could nominate the 'occupiers' of sections, the final selection of 'competent' Maori to farm the developing lands was done by the state in order to protect its loan investment.

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As the schemes proceeded, moreover, the occupiers gained a degree of protected legal status, so strengthening individualisation inside the Maori economy at the expense of the present and future rights of collective owners. This was contrary to initial Crown assurances that, once debts were repaid, land and stock would revert fully to the owners' collective control. Yet ultimate retention of full control over their own lands had been, a senior official later acknowledged, 'the most important part of the contract' for Maori owners.

The ramifications of state direction became increasingly clear, dismaying the many who had felt that state-assisted development would significantly promote land-based rangatiratanga. A foretaste of things to come occurred on the very first scheme under the 1929 legislation, at Horohoro, when the foreman treated the local hapu as 'strangers on the block' and ignored their views. Maori noted the preponderance of pakeha in key positions, and increasing bureaucratic intervention.

The Treasury, in particular, tried to ensure managerial regimes to its own liking, such as those with pakeha supervisors. In an effort to placate iwi that had suffered raupatu by restoring some kind of land base, moreover, resettlement to developing lands outside their rohe was sought, to the chagrin of the 'host' tribes. From 1933, for example, some Waikato were placed (along with Ngati Porou people with farm development expertise) on lands in Te Arawa territory. Separation of the great majority of owners from decision making or tilling contact with ancestral land in the development schemes frustrated many who wanted to use them to foster communal and cultural activity within Maoridom.

Other forces were also detrimental to the Maori search for Crown recognition of rangatiratanga. By 1932 the Native Trustee had lent beyond what was deemed prudent, and so his office was merged with that of the permanent head of the Native Department. The trusteeship was now virtually just another part of the state's Maori bureaucracy and was often used to provide an independent source of funding for the department, a situation which continued for half a century. At best the trustee's office had acted as a guardian, even a developer, of those Maori assets placed with it. Maori had generally seen it, however, as an inefficient user and distributor of their assets, even though it had enabled some land-based page 120(or other) sustainability schemes to flourish. Many now noted an increasing caution and paternalism among the trustee bureaucrats in matters such as asset distribution, which added to the frustrations of the Maori quest for autonomy.

Conversely, initial pakeha suspicions of the schemes were placated by increasing state intervention in Maori affairs, as well as by success stories. The latter even helped to promote the idea that some tribally based collectivism might not necessarily equate with a 'degenerate race' practising 'communistic customs'. However much it was pitched for pakeha consumption, Ngata's vision remained inspired by a belief in the virtues of a rural and communal way of life that perpetuated Maori customs. While he envisaged Maori increasingly participating in the pakeha economy as individuals, they would retain their tribal ties and loyalties in their social lives. The development schemes would create a critical economic mass within a rohe, and thereby underpin a reflourishing of tribal institutions.

'Total assimilationists' had therefore been quick to counterattack. In response, from 1931 the Crown grew increasingly defensive. One official policy thrust, for example, stressed that an incorporation was, and should only be, a temporary expedient to enable the Crown to negotiate with a single body in a given area. New legislation, moreover, attempted to insulate issues of productivity for the 'national good' from those of tribal culture. Maori farming was to be mainstreamed as far as possible. Full assimilation was reaffirmed as ultimate state policy. And all the while the gap widened between socio-tribal control of the land in the schemes and the power of the bureaucrats (and some of their 'occupiers'). Maori hopes that the schemes' structures might prefigure a new kind of collectivist adaptation to modernity looked increasingly forlorn, dashed by the sizeable difference between promise and reality in operational control. Significant working community or tribal autonomy had seemed within reach, but once again this had proved to be a chimera.78

All the same, although Ngata was increasingly careful in his public statements, many pakeha were uneasy about the ultimate outcomes of the land schemes so long as he remained in charge of them. He was seen as a 'cuckoo in the state's nest'. The very success of some of the projects page 121(76 had been inaugurated by 1934) escalated such fears, even inside officialdom, where obstructions and moves to curb his power were under way. Some detractors took an opposite stance, deeming the schemes a failure for having proved inadequate to counteract the effects of the Depression on Maoridom. With three-quarters of adult Maori males unemployed, tangata whenua were regarded as a serious potential burden on the state.

Any criticism of land development that assumed it had been intended as a quick-fix panacea for the Maori economic plight was, of course, unfair. But the argument did reflect deep-rooted fears among pakeha. These were exacerbated by the Maori demographic recovery. This had first impinged significantly on pakeha consciousness when the 1921 census revealed that the total tribal population had increased to some 57,000, but many observers had still considered this a temporary phenomenon. A decade later, such a view was untenable. With land development unable to prevent such an increasing population from 'burdening the state', the amounts spent on it, and the policy itself, came under increasing scrutiny. Native Minister Ngata, the symbol as well as the controller of the schemes, came increasingly under fire.

Unfortunately for him, operation of the schemes had given his enemies ammunition. Unwilling to have his work impeded by red tape and minimal staff, Ngata had pressed ahead relentlessly. For him and many tribes, land development was far too important for their people to be held up by accounting and other niceties. The financial control departments of state began to be critical at an early stage, the more so as depression worsened. They and others focused on the very factors which had helped induce Maoridom to back Ngata's schemes: the speed of their implementation and the significance of input by tribal leadership and structures. In 1932, the National Expenditure Commission, established to reduce official spending, declared that Ngata's schemes had used excessive government funds.

In essence, while the various attacks personalised the issues to Ngata, they were directed at the system itself. Faults were contextualised as part of an alleged grave error in giving any minister (especially a Maori one) extensive powers to promote Maori interests. The fact that there was an page 122element of 'tikanga Maori' in the implementation of the schemes merely gave further ammunition to those who objected to 'separatist policies' per se. Appointing people with mana and cultural competence, rather than necessarily with administrative skills, meant that official accounting and other bureaucratic requirements had often been neglected. A process of scrutinising and reducing Ngata's spending and decision-making powers began. The Native Land Settlement Board was established in 1932 to take hands-on control of the schemes. In 1933 the Controller and Auditor-General refused to approve the previous year's land development accounts, and apparent irregularities in field and district office accounts came under examination.

The Labour political opposition attacked Ngata vigorously, and Parliament's Public Accounts Select Committee launched an investigation. It felt that 'a lot of unnecessary fuss had been made', and the Auditor-General did not consider a public inquiry was necessary. However, the committee was under such political and media pressure that, in order 'to allay all suspicion and misunderstanding', it recommended that a commission of inquiry be appointed 'in the public interest'. In February 1934 the government, under similar pressure, established the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Native Affairs.

Many Maori feared the worst, and with good reason. The commission had no Maori representation, and comprised individuals known to be unsympathetic to continuance of a Maori way of life. It was headed by Judge David Smith, who was known to favour the emergence of individualised Maori farming and, concomitantly, to oppose the Ngataist stress on as much communal involvement in ownership and control of land as possible. Meanwhile, official New Zealand had been moving against Ngata. That same month he was forced, in line with a National Expenditure Commission recommendation, to relinquish oversight of both development policy and operations to the Native Land Settlement Board. In this way a direct and symbiotic relationship between minister and Maori 'was transformed into a bureaucratically driven process intended to generate a "national good".'

In such an atmosphere the commission of inquiry began its hearings in April 1934. The answer to its ostensible major question, whether page 123Ngata (and those close to him) had taken shortcuts in the administration of the land development schemes, was a foregone conclusion. It was far from secret that infractions in public service regulations had been required to counter bureaucratic inefficiency and resistance to the schemes. But the three-month investigation ranged far wider. Its broad agenda amounted to the exemplary disciplining of Ngata for his advocacy of a development path which accommodated tribal organisation and leadership, and ultimately for his 'break with assimilationism' which underpinned this. Both the schemes and the 'Maoritanga' he was conceptualising were seen as an impediment to full assimilation, and ultimately as a danger to the unitary state at both tribal and central or proto-nationalist level. Under hostile questioning, Ngata faltered. In any case, his attempts to balance his desire to preserve and promote key aspects of the Maori way of life with his duties as one of the highest members of the government were probably doomed in advance.

As a minister, he was forced into defending the state on its own terms. Development schemes, he proclaimed, were essentially to promote individualism among Maori, and relatedly for the good of the 'general public'. Certainly, he agreed, occupiers had to operate in the context of tribal leadership and the protocols of the whanau and hapu — but this needed to be within the competitive arena that had replaced the anachronistic 'communism' of the 'old world of Maoridom'. The commissioners were (rightly) unconvinced that Ngata's 'reconversion' to an individualistic agenda was genuine or fundamental. They noted with disapproval his clear attempts to promote Maori culture under the umbrella of the development schemes: the restoration of communal buildings as a focus for rebuilding Maori pride, to take one instance.

The commissioners noted that attempts to encourage, or even preserve, aspects of iwi or hapu self-determination pointed to the minister's agenda being collectivist rather than individualist. They expressed open disapproval of ministerial interventions in the schemes, both authorised and unauthorised, of Ngata being too much 'in a hurry', of his disregard of accountability mechanisms, of the 'wastefulness' of intertribal hui. Such matters were adduced as evidence to support the commission's aims, which amounted to an assault on rangatiratanga and an endorsement of page 124full assimilation. The commissioners believed, as Smith said, that 'it is necessary to see that the whole system [of land development] is not given a communal bias … these schemes should not be used to give the Maori a basis of communal bias which would detract from the work of individual farmers'. They would not even endorse, Ngata noted, the concept of the 'nominated occupier' of land. The mere fact of multiple ownership by members of whanau and hapu was seen not just as economically unviable, but also as profoundly uncivilised and diverting Maori from a fully assimilationist future.

Experience of political power from the inside had shown Ngata that his former belief in Maori holding their own in a largely assimilationist polity was unrealistic. He was now urging that his people take greater proactive measures to control their own futures, using what was left of the land base to underpin such developments. In the view of the commission and its co-thinkers, bringing down the national figurehead for Maori aspirations would constitute a powerful actual and symbolic strike against the indigenous communal ethos. Although Ngata was absolved of personal corruption or wrong-doing, the commissioners sought out, and found, some 'minor graft', dubious ethical behaviour (such as 'favouritism' towards specific tribal groupings) and 'careless accounting' in the operation of the schemes. On this basis, in effect they declared that Maori socio-political objectives were ultimately incom patible with the designs of the state, which had allegedly tried to accommodate Maoridom and been rewarded by muddle, chaos and peculation.79

Some of Ngata's pakeha colleagues appreciated the difficulties he had faced in the past (such as inadequate back-up from the Native Department) and the commission's biases (its lack of contextualisation, for example, including any appreciation of the schemes' successes). But, because such importance had been attached to bringing him down by those operating the hegemonist agenda, those colleagues withdrew their public support. When the commission's report was tabled in the House, therefore, Ngata had little political support and resigned as Native Minister from 1 November 1934. He figured that this would be sufficient victory for the assimilationists, enabling the land development system to continue page 125'in the national interest'. While obviously the schemes would be under much greater state control, his resignation announcement urged his people not to falter in their goals.

In characterising the commission as a 'prosecution' from its very beginning, rather than an independent inquiry, Ngata did, however, emphasise the magnitude of the struggle. He knew that the whole affair had hindered Maori chances of pursuing autonomy through government bureaucracy. More broadly, it had reinforced stereotypes which would make it harder for Maori to continue their struggle by extra-official means. Even a sympathetic chronicler claimed that the results of the Ngata inquiry indicated that 'the ethics of accountability had no place in tribal morals and habits'. General public suspicion of state assistance of any type to Maori, and of Maori politicians achieving high office, was heightened. Almost four decades would pass before a Maori again assumed the ministerial portfolio for Maori issues.

Ngata continued informally to guide and inspire land development after his ousting. Not only did he believe deeply in the schemes, he felt that their ongoing success would help Maori 'prove' their capacity to assist the 'public good' while forwarding their own interests. He persuaded Forbes himself to take on the Native Affairs portfolio as a way of protecting the project, and in fact its scope soon expanded. But the rectification of inefficiencies highlighted by the commission, and widespread post-commission trumpeting of the ideological dangers of collectivism, meant that communalist elements in the system were increasingly sidelined. The Native Department took ever-greater control over the land incorporations, for example, and a Board of Native Affairs, established in April 1935, would supervise the whole land development process with the Crown's aims firmly in mind.

While the new board was given both sweeping powers and considerable finances to improve Maori land, sections of the legislation under which it operated disempowered Maori. In particular, the repeal of the local advisory committees, which Ngata had often used to ascertain the wishes of the Maori whose interests were involved, symbolised the direction of government policy. Three-person district committees, each including a Native Land Court judge, were established to replace them. page 126The emphasis was increasingly on coercing Maori to develop their land. The Board of Native Affairs had 'the power to do almost anything to bring Maori land under development'. If owners resisted the Crown's wishes, their views could be overridden. By the time the government was defeated at the polls in 1935, some Maori no longer saw the development schemes as a means of expressing even limited rangatiratanga. Some, indeed, saw state-led land development as trampling on it, or as the Crown having appropriated yet another Maori initiative.

Maori groupings did, however, fight back in a number of ways, including trying to use land development to rejuvenate collective endeavour. Some continued, for example, to convene the advisory committees unofficially. Others organised spontaneously to oppose (in a judge's words) 'any conception which inherently contains the possibility of dispossession' of their land. A Native Affairs officer noted of Far North Maori that there was 'a very strong suspicion that any scheme brought forward and sponsored by the Government has something behind it to their detriment'. Such feelings were widespread and continued well into the future, with stories circulating, for example, of officials violating undertakings to return developed blocks to the people. More immediately, volunteering land for development diminished, despite ongoing Crown proselytising. Many noted that government propaganda appealed to self and national rather than tribal or collective interests. After the official denigration of Ngata, and by extension of all Maori, many turned back to the counsel of those who had continued to operate within their traditional structures.

The development programmes had been envisioned by Ngataism as contributing to a revival and reorganisation of Maori life, helping to meld the 'best elements' of the cultures, mores and rhythms of life and work of both ethnicities. In a relatively short time, both friends and foes of the schemes had noted, the collective organisational component of the amalgam had been elevated by even the most pro-government of Maori leaders. Under Ngata's stewardship, they were no longer defensive about preserving 'the best in their ancestral past' as an integral part of a major 'reassertion of Maori mana'. The movement was not 'retrogressive in being retrospective', for it saw that developing the land along western page 127farming lines was the final chance of securing at least some land base upon which to generate cultural and political revival. What it did insist on, however, was the right to conduct a way of life that took into account collectivist principles. It was this, antithetical to rapid and full assimilation in the rural areas as it was, which had caused the Crown to crack down on manifestations of assertive, land-based rangatiratanga within its purview.

The Maori resurgence continued regardless, based partly on the momentum gained from the development schemes and spurred on by Ngata's increasingly powerful commitment to rangatiratanga — the result of ministerial experiences that had led him to appreciate the full magnitude of the obstacles to modifying the official policy of assimilation. In 1935 the first Labour government was elected, and many Maori hoped that land development could be reclaimed for rangatiratanga. At first, such a prospect seemed viable. After Ngata persuaded the new Prime Minister to enhance the mana of the Native Affairs portfolio by taking it on himself, the theoretical parameters of the development projects were reviewed. This resulted in greater Maori input. Native Department officers, for example, were instructed to take into account the views of any informal 'committees fully representative of the local inhabitants'.

Despite such short-term developments, however, there was no political will to reverse the Crown's fundamental negativity towards the embodiment of meaningful communal, tribal or sub-tribal decision making in the schemes. On land-based matters, decisions were instead increasingly imposed from the politico-bureaucratic centre. When the Native Department declared that the voluntary committees would be used to 'communicate its intentions and views' to Maori, rather than the other way round, it was reflecting this ethos. Such a development was not, however, a fatal blow to the quest for rangatiratanga. For land-based development could only assist in underpinning the struggle for autonomy, particularly in communities which continued to hold suitable land. Rangatiratanga was in essence a political matter and needed to be primarily addressed as such.80