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

Labour into office

page 161

Labour into office

Naturally, Maori expected significant gains from Labour's accession to office. Their anticipation intensified with Prime Minister Savage's allocation to himself of the Native Affairs portfolio. After the Mangai visited him, the Ratana MPs were invited to attend the government's parliamentary caucus, which they then formally joined. The Labour–Ratana alliance, perhaps bringing nearly half of Maoridom (there were said to be up to 40,000 Ratana adherents at the time) under the purview of the party, was formally cemented on 24 April 1936. There was understanding among Maori that results would not be instant: the regime needed time to ponder how to put flesh on the skeletal statements it had issued over the years, culminating in a recent affirmation of 'equality with individuality'. But early on some tangata whenua noticed ominous signs.

The interim settlement that the previous government had offered to the Waikato–Tainui tribal federation, for example, came off the immediate agenda and was not replaced. This was said to be following officials' advice that Taranaki's settlement had been dubious from a legal perspective and that Tainui's was likely to be even more so. Such reasoning astounded those who knew that the Taranaki agreement was a political settlement negotiated without prejudice to either side (albeit fraught with misunderstandings), that the Crown had not raised this with Tainui before and that for a decade Labour had supposedly been working out mechanisms for resolving historical grievances and might therefore have been expected to know what to do on achieving office. Those who were alarmed included Ratanaists. While it eschewed tribalism, the movement strongly page 162advocated resolving tribally based historical claims as a prerequisite for the aggrieved parties moving on to constructive engagement with the modern world. Indeed, resolution of such grievances was one of the stated reasons for Ratana's agreement to work with Labour.

The new government, however, wanted to avoid putting its main Maori policy energies into tribally based segments of Maoridom. Instead, it was searching for a panacea for settling the problems faced by all Maori. It tended to prioritise trans-iwi activity, making the unificatory conceptual base of Ratanaism all the more attractive. The resultant reluctance to pursue further tribally based trust board settlements was encouraged by key officials it had inherited. Some were advising that, notwithstanding commission of inquiry findings, tribal claims had no moral, let alone legal, basis. Others were questioning the wisdom of further agreements based on annual payments.

The Labour government's initial intention (notwithstanding its attacks on Ngata's land development schemes) was 'getting the Natives settled on their lands'. This would be, then, a different approach from that of Ratanaism, despite the latter's non-tribal attributes. The people-centred rangatiratanga which dominated Ratanaism (although it too, of course, had land aspects) was seen as important but not sufficient. Labour also had a different approach from that of tribally based Ngataism. While expanding the land development schemes – regarded as the key to demarginalising Maori – involved an element of collectivity, this was seen as appropriately located at the most localised of levels. The schemes were therefore to be detribalised as far as possible (although few believed that collectivism could be entirely removed from the rural Maori agenda).

The decision to focus on land development might have had an element of administrative convenience about it, including dovetailing with Native Department officials' advice on the appropriate way to tackle Maori issues. But it also reflected Labour's quest for 'equality of opportunity' for all citizens. The government would 'as far as possible [do] anything' to make the individual Maori 'a settler', a reflection of assimilationist policies that 'assisted the whole nation'. Tangata whenua were allocated the role of contributing to the national economy through Europeanised page 163farming techniques. Whatever their remaining connections with marae and tribe, they were supposed to opt for 'new ways' which stressed the ethos of individual expertise and effort. Such an approach would benefit Maori (as well as 'all New Zealanders') while not frightening a pakeha constituency which knew little of the Maori world, 'locked away' in its rural isolation.

Many Maori accepted the trade-offs involved in Labour's land development thrust, stressing its relative continuity with the Ngataist regime. The new government continued to appreciate the significance of turangawaewae, for example, however much it needed to be adapted for capitalist farming. From Ratanaist and other perspectives, however, the land focus contained retrograde elements. This was partly because it remained posited on sub-tribal groupings, and partly because the state's actions were ultimately for the 'public' rather than the 'Maori good'. The latter would be at best a subset of the former: the interests of a national pakeha collectivity overwhelmed those of the ethnic collectivity it had displaced. Even during Ngata's oversight of the schemes, and more so after it, Maori input into land development trended away from, rather than towards, significant participation. In any case, only a certain proportion of Maori could be assisted by land development. Most important of all from a Maori perspective, the emphasis on settling some people on the land, rather than attending to the needs and aspirations of all Maoridom, was at best only a single step towards autonomy. In fact, some who regarded the search for people-based autonomy as the only viable route for Maoridom saw the policy as backward-looking.

The Ratana movement perceived its presence within Labour to be primarily that of a watchdog on behalf of all Maoridom. Not only its mass base gave it kudos and strength, so too did the fact that for the first time a significant Maori movement had sought to persuade its people to vote for policies rather than to register adherence to candidates along traditional tribal lines. Even if Ratana had not been inclined to ally with it, the new government would not have been able to ignore his movement. The fact that Maori formed a disproportionate section of the poor, whom Labour's socio-economic policies aimed primarily to assist, meant that its organisation was a positive advantage to Labour. The page 164medium-term prognosis for Ratanaist policies seemed favourable, then, whatever the Savage government's falterings at the beginning. Hope was raised, in fact, as early as January 1936, with a prime ministerial address at Orakei which pledged to uphold the letter and spirit of the Treaty. Government implementation of 'equality of status' between (and accordingly, equal treatment for) Maori and pakeha was stressed.96