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

Labourism and Ratanaism

page 156

Labourism and Ratanaism

The Labour Party, the major party of the pakeha working class, displayed sympathy with the struggles of all marginalised people, Maori included. MP Peter Fraser had called in 1923 for the 'spirit' as well as the 'letter' of the Treaty of Waitangi to be 'carried out'. Maori were by then organising within the Labour Party, but it was logical that the mass Ratana and labour movements should move closer together. In 1924 the 'first official gathering' between Maori and Labour Party representatives took place at Parewanui Pa, near Bulls. Pakeha participants showed themselves to be familiar with Maori customs, and expressed solidarity with tribal grievances against the Crown. Party leader Harry Holland promised, using the language of the Treaty of Waitangi, to restore lands that had been unjustly taken.

Remedies, however, were to be on the condition that compensation did not create injustices to New Zealanders as a whole. This was a matter of interpretation, and some Maori noted that Labour's 'national good' concerns remained principally with the European morehu. Holland did, however, make some specific promises that gave hope to Maoridom. When Labour gained office, for example, it would appoint a commission to investigate 'native lands' and other matters. A dialogue between Labour and Maori leaders ensued and a Maori Advisory Committee of the party, headed by key Ratana follower Rangi Mawhete, was established. In 1925, with Ratana's support, Mawhete stood for Labour in the general election.

While there was some Maori lobbying for Labour to endorse a separate Maori parliament, this was too far from the party's platform of 'equality' for it to contemplate. At the 1925 Labour Party conference the Maori Advisory Committee made two submissions. The first reflected the longheld view that Maori be enabled to run their own affairs. The second built on Holland's pledge of a commission, advocating a high-level body to settle Maori land problems within the Treaty relationship. A joint committee of Maori and pakeha delegates reported favourably on the proposals and they were adopted by the whole conference. The party's policy statement for the general election of that year took the resolutions page 157into some account. It included not only provision for a Treaty-based royal commission into land claims, but also the 'revolutionary concept' of a Maori organisation to advise a Labour government on administrative, socio-economic and legislative matters.

The idea of such an organisation went some way towards acknowledging the advisory committee's concerns to procure Maori control, at national level, over issues relevant to Maori once office had been achieved. The importance of centralised Maori input into the political executive was stressed, partly because the regional institutions set up in 1900 had lacked national influence. Through a channelled role in advising on policy and its implementation, Maori would contribute to and eventually gain a share in political decision making. Labour's package of Maori proposals, although less radical than some of the ideas discussed at Parewanui and elsewhere, reflected both the pressure of Ratanaism and the propensities of a party of 'the underdog'. There had already been a drift into Labour of Ratana adherents who saw the similarities between the two movements. The party believed it had gone a long way towards meeting Maori desires, and its campaigners visited many Maori areas during the run-up to the election.

Labour's proposals were branded 'wild promises' by one of the most assimilationist of the former Young Maori Party leaders, Maui Pomare. Under competition for his seat from Mawhete, he counterattacked vigorously. In so doing he inadvertently acknowledged that Labour had been prepared to accommodate a number of Maori aspirations, particularly through his condemnation of 'one of [its] political catch-cries', the right to 'Mana Maori motuhake'. For him this was not just impractical, but also undesirable. He caricatured it as 'entirely separate Government for the Maoris [on] every matter affecting the native race'. But Labour's willingness to meet Maori aspirations lacked practical definition of ways to give effect to rangatiratanga. Pomare was therefore nearer the mark when he said on the hustings that the party's ideas did not amount to a 'clear cut policy'. In fact, some of its pakeha-oriented proposals seemed to cut across Maori interests. Some tangata whenua feared, for example, that its platform of 'land usehold' might prove to be another mode of confiscating Maori land. Pomare's retention of his seat may have reflected page 158such concerns, as well as the fact that Ratanaism had yet to become a fully politicised movement. It was certainly far from ready to throw in its lot with an essentially pakeha party.

The Labour Party's Executive Council continued informally to reconfirm its 1925 'native policy', and did so formally in 1928, 1931 and 1934. While generally assimilationist in orientation, the party could see that neither rapid nor full assimilation was acceptable to Maori – that only a handful of Maori had taken advantage of the legislation enabling them to be legally designated European was just one of many indications. While it started out with such general appreciations, election results and other indicators helped it come to more specific conclusions. In particular, it realised that its Maori support might remain minimal unless it secured the formal backing of the Ratanaist mass movement, for which there seemed good grounds for optimism. Ratanaism's call for the removal of the constraints of tribalism, and its achievement (as a leading Labourite put it) of having 'broken down the strong barriers of Tohungaism', fitted well with Labour's emphasis on casting aside socially constructed bonds and rules which inhibited attainment of 'equality for all', or at least of 'equality of opportunity'. At the 1928 election, in fact, the thrust of Labour's Maori policies was not dissimilar to the positions of the four 'independent' candidates put up by Ratana: ratification of the Treaty, settlement of grievances and attainment of mana Maori motuhake. While the four were defeated, they did poll substantially. The Labour Party became even more interested in accommodation.94

By 1931, Maori members of both movements were increasingly co-operating at flax-roots level. The foundation for an alliance was already in place with a network of local Labour–Ratana committees, often headed by community leaders. Ratanaism reassessed its stand-alone politics, taking into account Labour's expanding strength, the synergies between their respective policies and the wishes of its members. That year the two organisations endorsed in principle Ratana involvement in the Labour movement, an 'informal alliance' based on Labour's support for the Treaty of Waitangi and its ramifications. During the 1931 general election campaign the Labour Party refrained from endorsing any candidates for the Maori seats, leaving the field clear for the Ratana candidates. In turn, page 159these nominally independent candidates pledged to vote with Labour if they were elected.

The Labour–Ratana pact failed to persuade the Maori voters, perhaps partly (as Ngata believed) because of the early popularity of his government's land development schemes, and partly because the future of the combination seemed problematic. But in August 1932 Ratanaism entered the parliamentary scene when T W Ratana's principal disciple and organiser, Eruera Tirikatene, gained the Southern Maori seat in a by-election. He had done so with Labour support, after the party's intended candidate was deemed ineligible. When he was sworn in as an MP, the Labour whips acted as his sponsors. The new MP declared that he would work for the rights of all Maoridom, and he quickly began attending Labour caucus meetings and generally voted with Labour. Both inside and outside the House, Tirikatene tirelessly highlighted the significance of the Treaty and its promises to Maori. He demanded that it be incorporated into legislation, and a Ratana-organised petition to this effect gained over 30,000 signatures.

T W Ratana attended a 'Maori Labour Conference' in September 1932, along with party leaders, and assured it of his movement's continuing co-operation in ousting the government. The conference suggested establishing a nationwide organisation of Maori Labour branches but further consideration was postponed, partly because of rural Maori hostility to the party's anti-Ngata stance. A committee of Labourites continued the campaign, however, and informally co-operated with Ratana networks. Interest in the Treaty was growing in the Dominion at this time. Among other things, the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi was donated 'to the nation' by the Governor-General, who noted the Maori quest for 'justice, equality and peace'. The first official commemorative gathering in its grounds occurred in 1934, where the 1835 'Declaration of Independence' flag of the 'United Tribes of New Zealand', the symbol for Maori of unrelinquished or unrequited sovereignty, flew.

Despite such national interest, Labour, essentially a pakeha party, did not want to damage its election prospects by too close a Maori identification, especially following the fall of Ngata which it had helped engineer. It did not stress Maori matters while electioneering in October page 160and November 1935, and they were not covered in its manifesto. But the fact remained that for over a decade Labour had been pledged to address Maori grievances, and this was now to be achieved in overall cooperation with Ratanaism. During the general election campaign, moreover, Labour leader Michael Joseph Savage promised equal treatment for Maori and pakeha, especially in policies to promote equality of economic opportunity. In effect a pledge to honour the Treaty's Article Three commitments, this was welcomed by many Maori, although some noted a certain resiling from the aspirations for autonomy that Maori sought under Article Two and for which Ratanaism overtly campaigned. At the election a second Maori seat fell to the Ratanaist movement when Tokouru Ratana took Western Maori. Labour gained office for the first time, and its leaders talked of their Maori 'partners'.95