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

Tensions and problems

Tensions and problems

A Maori Organising Committee, with Paraire Paikea as its secretary, finally emerged from the suggestions made at the Labour Party's 1932 conference. It presented its first report to the 1936 conference, and eventually became the party's high-powered Maori Advisory Council. Moreover, many new Maori branches of the Labour Party were formed after the Labour–Ratana alliance was formalised, helping inject Ratanaist vigilance and energy. But such matters constituted developments within the party rather than the government. As many rank and file activists have found over the years, a government's policies do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and wishes of its party's membership and followers. Before long, many Maori were pondering on the ramifications of Savage's commitment to 'equality of status' for Maori. Some began to wonder, despite the government's endorsement of the Treaty, if it meant the loss of the special relationship that Maori considered they had forged with the Crown in 1840.

Such ponderings were fuelled by policy drift. For at first there was little proactive making or implementation of policy on indigenous issues, except over land development. The Prime Minister's promise of a conference of Maori representatives to discuss policies and directions was not fulfilled. Before long Savage, burdened with the heavy responsibilities of office in a reforming government, began leaving Maori policy direction largely in the hands of the Minister of Lands, Frank Langstone. This reflected the Crown's renewed emphasis on land settlement policy.

Langstone pushed issues that were not directly relevant to his portfolio largely into the hands of Native Department personnel, where they tended page 165to languish. The Ratana–Labour caucus (the two Ratana members of the House of Representatives had been joined by Rangi Mawhete on his appointment to the Legislative Council in 1936) could do little to counteract the conservatism of the bureaucracy. By the end of the first year of the Labour government, many Maori were revisiting their hopes of full implementation of more than a decade of promises. There had been problems of 'talking past each other', with Maori reading more into Labour's various statements than the party leadership had intended. It now seemed, however, as though even a minimal implementation of self-determinationist promises had been removed from the political agenda.

Not only were aspirations for even a small measure of autonomy put on the back burner, but there were other difficulties in the relationship with a Labourite Crown. Maori were frequently, for example, excluded by the politicians or bureaucrats from consultation over policies relevant to them, perhaps partly because Ngata's downfall had influenced pakeha perceptions of Maori capacity to contribute to matters of state. They were not invited in September 1936 to a key conference of departmental representatives and 'experts' in health, education and economics. The Maori reaction was anger. As a result, the Maori Organising Committee convened a three-day conference of Maori Labour supporters the following month.

The gathering was Ratanaist in orientation, and in preparing his keynote address Savage realised that mere reiteration of his government's focus on land development would be inadequate. Instead, he emphasised a developing theme within the government, one which both included farming development and drew on the rhetoric of equality: Labour would concentrate on implementing Article Three of the Treaty, incorporating this in its plans to establish the world's first fully fledged 'welfare state'. By ensuring that the welfare of all citizens would be looked after 'from the cradle to the grave' in health, housing, pensions, education and so forth, the government would, by definition, benefit all Maori. 'National good' arguments were being refined specifically to accommodate Maoridom.

For Labour, then, the fundamental problems facing Maori were caused page 166by poor living standards and, underpinning these, the economic base of the country. The government regarded Maori as 'the rural equivalent of the same groups that they were trying to provide an adequate standard of living for in the towns'. The Crown's Treaty obligations, whatever words the Labour leadership may have used in the past, were now oriented to solving the socio-economic problems of 'the native race'. The government was implicitly stressing that under Article One it was firmly in charge of interpreting how it would 'honour' the Treaty. Although Ratanaist and many other Labour supporters had been relying on the government to implement, in some way or other, Article Two, this would clearly be subsumed by Articles One and Three.

Article Three's focus on 'equality' was to be interpreted as 'equality of status' for all individuals. As foreshadowed at Orakei earlier in the year, the Savage government had added to its guiding socio-economic principle of 'equality of opportunity' (particularly, for Maori, by developing their remaining land) that of 'equality of treatment' for all individuals, Maori and pakeha. While its vision was of a state-led, welfarist government reflecting a collectivist ideology, this stance now referred to a form of collectivism which did not fit well with the indigenous communalism underlying Article Two.

A growing disquiet over such issues pervaded the October 1936 conference. While much of this was manifested in complaints about lack of consultation over incipient policy direction, delegates also made it clear that discussion with Maori would reveal that their people wanted impending social security and other advances to be on Maori terms and within a Maori context – which was not apparent in what was known about the planned programmes. There was much appreciation that Labour's principles derived from a social-democratic philosophical base that was more inclined to be pro-Maori than were mainstream pakeha political philosophies. But there were also firm statements that Maori members of the party would not cease to prioritise their own Treatyderived principles, and that these centred on the collective-autonomist approach of Article Two at least as much as on Article Three's implications for 'equality' for individuals. Maori delegates expressed lack of confidence in the system that now included 'their own' movement by calling for a page 167higher parliament to be formed – one that had representatives from both Maori and pakeha.

Pending this (or in lieu of it), they recommended other measures: the Labour membership's long-standing calls for a body to scrutinise Treatyrelated matters should be implemented forthwith; all prospective legislation should be examined through a Treaty-based lens; and, to remove the bureaucratic impediments to their cause, the existing state bodies dealing with Maori should be replaced with 'virtually a separate Maori administrative wing of Government'. This new 'Native Administration Department' would have planning, strategic and co-ordinating functions throughout the public service, as well as providing operational and judicial services.

While the delegates' suggestions for senior Maori personnel in the new body seem modest – at least one Maori in a top position and Maori associates for senior European members – they were adamant about the need for in-depth Maori input into decision making. The new administration would, for example, consult with a network of Maori committees that would be established to provide a conduit for the views of 'ordinary people'. The delegates' concerns complemented those being expressed in other quarters of Maoridom. Around this time, for example, an Arawaassembled meeting at Ohinemutu began planning for a 'Dominion Federation of Maori Organisations' to take pan-tribal perspectives to the government.

The conference recommendations reflected long-standing Ratana policies, which Savage and his key allies 'probably only dimly comprehended'. From this time the Ratana movement developed policies for a virtually separate Maori wing of government, to be administered by a board with sizeable Maori representation. But, while Labour was prepared to encompass a degree of 'special treatment' for Maori on the road to securing equality, it rejected the conference resolutions and their later manifestations. In doing so, it also ignored some non-radical ways of improving its relationships with Maori, such as better interdepartmental co-operation on Maori issues.97

Partly because of the welfare and 'equality' dimensions to Labour's policies, however, the new regime continued to be supported by page 168Maoridom in general. 'Maori Labour party committees came into being at almost every pa in New Zealand', with one candidate having 64 of them working on his behalf in the 1938 general election. To keep up Maori interest, party and government concessions were made. State thinking on the reparations issue, for example, was advanced together with the land development policies. A sector of the Crown, including even Langstone, was willing to consider handing back land to assist in settling tribal grievances, with groups receiving the land to be assisted to develop it.

Maori responses to this idea, which some had long been advocating, were enthusiastic. There were, however, some disturbing aspects to such thinking within the Crown. A senior official, for example, promoted the idea that the government could acquire blocks for use in reparations from tribes which had 'more land than is reasonably necessary'. Such misreading of the concept of turangawaewae was not untypical, and indicates why Maori felt frustrated at the government's propensity to listen to 'experts' who seemed to know little about their actual and hoped for way of life. In the event, land-based reparations were again discarded as a solution, partly because of difficulties of land availability and rohe contestation.

Increasingly, Maori had little choice but to see the main benefit from the Labour government as being its commitment to formal equality for Maori and pakeha in the emergent welfare state. In line with Savage's Orakei speech, for example, from 1 June 1936 tangata whenua were placed on the same unemployment relief work rates as pakeha. Yet there were many indications that it would not be easy for Maori to attain the 'equality' promised in Article Three. While the Orakei announcement symbolised the political executive's intent, it was to be marred in its execution. Developing Maori land was designated as relief work for the unemployed, for example, and so brought in very little income. In some instances, the continuance of inequality was even more endemic and blatant.

Under social security legislation, for example, pensions for Maori remained smaller than for Europeans. This policy reflected pakeha perceptions – and to some extent the realities – of difference. It aimed to page 169take into account continuance of collective-based Maori lifestyles in rural areas, which involved sharing resources, and support from whanau, hapu, marae committee or other groupings when their members got into difficulties. But the argument was explicated in public good terms. As Maori were not yet fully assimilated and contributing maximally to the economy, they should not reap the full fruits of the pakeha-based welfare state. In fact, to do so while receiving tribal support would, it was argued, privilege them over pakeha beneficiaries. The implication seemed to be that full 'equality' was a long-term goal whose achievement depended on full assimilation. This was contrary to the stated viewpoints of most Maori leaders, including many who sought both some autonomist separation and equality and even those who urged that the struggle for rangatiratanga should be downplayed until the 'full equality' of Article Three was achieved.

The number of competing and overlapping views within Maoridom about the current and future situations was increasing. Despite both government shortfalls in delivery and conceptual problems, many Maori – a meeting at Waitara in 1936 was typical – enthusiastically endorsed Labour's 'ultimate objective' of equality of treatment. Others interpreted differences in treatment between 'the races' as a back-handed recognition of rangatiratanga, given the assumptions that underlay, say, the differing rates in social security payments.

Whatever their strategies and tactics, however, most Maori groupings believed that the tasks before them were so great that state assistance would be needed to achieve their goals. This was a theme of a series of intertribal hui in the late 1930s. There was some official response to such Maori pressure, often couched in terms of problems over how any such help might be managed effectively. It was in this context that ministers and officials, for example, discussed a nationwide revival of the Maori Councils, some of which were still 'partially functioning' on the coattails of Maori Health Councils. While the motivation for such suggestions was largely to improve Maori health, talk of reviving the Councils held out hope of greater Maori participation in affairs of state. That was one of the reasons why nothing came of the idea: to formalise Maori input through organisations under the umbrella of the state could be seen to page 170threaten the assimilationist 'equality of treatment' approach.

The trend was towards decreasing any 'separatist' aspects of government activity. The continued downgrading of Maori involvement in running the land development schemes was a case in point. Native Department officials, for example, gained greater day-to-day control from the 1936 Native Land Amendment Act. The Board of Native Affairs would use its power to declare any Maori land subject to state development, and 'advisors' would be appointed by the Crown in areas where advice from Maori quarters was deemed to be 'unworkable'. By such means the government was gradually de-emphasising the remaining legal and bureaucratic mechanisms by which Maori groupings might gain a more effective presence in a pakehaised New Zealand. The party that had its roots in collective organisation by the pakeha working class, then, was engaged in policies which, at the very least, did not encourage Maori collective endeavour within the political economy. Tribal structures, which had formed the basis of many of Ngata's original plans, such as 'supervision' of the schemes by local chiefs and other leaders, became increasingly irrelevant to breaking in Maori land.

These and politico-bureaucratic equivalents had not been accidental developments. A pre-Labour government draft of what became the 1936 Act had placed some emphasis on the welfare of Maori landowners collectively, but the final version's thrust was on development in the interests of 'national good' productivity. Langstone noted that the Board of Native Affairs would 'want to see that the most capable men are settled on the land' – regardless of the wishes of the owners, or whether those deemed 'the most capable' were from the local tribe or were even Maori at all, or whether the owners even knew that their land was being brought under the Act. It is well recorded that pakeha supervisors, reporting to and taking orders from Native Department officials, routinely ignored local indigenous wishes. Efficiency, as interpreted by the state, was accorded a greater priority than the wishes of the Maori owners and their communities. Ngata had initiated the land development schemes as 'part of a broader scheme for a cultural revival for Maori communities, a strengthening of Maori leadership and decision-making'. He became more and more vocal on these issues. By 1939 he was complaining of page 171both the 'suppression' of Maori leadership involvement in the schemes, and the rise in importance of pakeha supervisors, shepherds, inspectors and the like. Many such personnel were, he believed, seeking opportunities for advancing their own careers rather than assisting Maori development.

The government did formally adhere to a policy on land development that incorporated cultural and ethnic revival and a degree of self-determination. Improving the yield from the soil would give Maori (in the words of the government's second-in-command, Peter Fraser) the 'chance to work out their own salvation' in multi-faceted ways. But it is clear that, increasingly, ministers felt that conceding any significant degree of autonomy would clash with the government's overriding commitment to 'equality' and assimilation. One commentator has detected a political shift under Labour from development of the Maori people to development of the land in the 'national good'. This is probably exaggerated, partly because state regard for Maori collectivity had never been high in the first place, but Maori political and socio-economic aspirations certainly took second place to policies of 'economic equality' for all individuals.

The emphasis on individual welfare helped the government see that developing the land might not be, after all, the panacea for reviving Maori fortunes. Ngataist wisdom on the matter was questioned in Maori circles as well. One reason was the differences over the best route to rangatiratanga. Another was that numbers of Maori (and pakeha) were gradually realising what became clear in retrospect: that a central focus on land development at this time was seriously flawed if the economic well-being of all Maoridom was the goal. So few Maori-held lands were left that, whatever the amount of state resources going into their development, only a minority of the people could be engaged in the process or benefit from its outcomes.

This problem was compounded by other factors. A sizeable number of Maori-owned properties comprised land that was at best only marginally developable. Moreover, those actually farming them did not necessarily support community life or endeavours. Many Maori could benefit only in the broadest sense of having a connection with communities where such land developments were occurring; many others, not at all. Even page 172those involved in the schemes often found little advantage in them. Loan repayment requirements were often onerous, and the amount of training inadequate. In fact, in many places farming on the development schemes provided little better than a subsistence living. By the Second World War, farming supported directly (and often poorly) only a fifth of Maoridom, and rural Maori unemployment was, in the words of a contemporary observer, 'becoming acute'. Emerging demographic indications were that working the land was not a viable option for sustaining Maoridom.

While these problems were gradually being realised, not least by Labour politicians, no major economic alternatives for Maori emerged. In the absence of firm political direction to the contrary, the state departments continued the schemes with little regard to their various flaws. Most people, in fact, Maori included, continued to assume that the socioeconomic future for Maori would remain farm-based. Some, however, both Maori and pakeha, began to draw the Crown's attention to problems in such assumptions. This was often in tandem with ongoing pressure for people-based rangatiratanga. These intertwined subjects began to be aired in public, including at a pan-Maori forum, the Young Maori Leaders Conference convened in 1939. The delegates heard, for example, Professor H Belshaw forecast widespread Maori migration to the urban areas. Internal migration had in fact already begun, and the conference discussed ways of better meeting Maori needs in Auckland – such as building on the experience of Wellington's Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club, whose establishment in 1937 reflected increasing numbers of Maori public servants.

Meanwhile, Maori leaders addressing the two key aspects of their people's aspirations, politico-cultural and socio-economic, remained torn by Labour's policies and practices, given that they involved the second subsuming the first. On the one hand, most agreed that Labour's welfarist and development policies, and its penchant for planning and centralising control of the economy, were helping some or all of their own people. Though so-called 'universal' assistance was less for Maori than for pakeha, for example, Maori started from a lower base and so made significant gains, especially from some targeted measures. On the other hand, page 173Labour's policies and practices not only downplayed rangatiratanga but seemed to some Maori leaders to cut across it. Even those inclined to praise the impact of social-democratic legislation on Maori living standards were often concerned lest welfarism, and other interventionist attempts to reduce class and status divisions, helped undermine Maori society. They saw in such developments the potential for weakening tribal leadership, collective responsibility and kinship ties, and subverting Maori cultural discourse. In short, they feared that, under Labour, Maori identity would be increasingly lost rather than, as they had hoped, endorsed and enhanced.

By the time war broke out in 1939, increasing numbers of Maori had joined Ngata and other leaders in criticising the seemingly constant encroachment of the state on Maori life and institutions. It is likely that, but for the war, the government would have come to see the need to address such concerns. At the very least, it would no doubt have registered the danger of having large numbers of Maori leave the land. If they could not find work elsewhere, they might become – especially those who had left their rohe – expensive dependants of the state. Possibly, then, increasing Maori pressure would soon have forced it to acknowledge that a focus on land development was not the only answer to meeting the economic aspirations of Maoridom – or even that welfare statism, however welcome for Maori marginalised by settler capitalism, was not a substitute for rangatiratanga.98

If new policies might have emerged as a result of the increasingly obvious inadequacies and inabilities of the old, signs of this, however, were few by late decade – especially of policies that acknowledged rangatiratanga in any fundamental way. In 1938, for the first time, a special Maori affairs section was included in Labour's election manifesto. This reaffirmed the commitment to raising Maori living standards, and in a general sense to recognising Maori as a not insignificant component of New Zealand society. But this was destined to be a minority role, and 'public good' matters were to take precedence over Maori aspirations. This was symbolised in the government's attitude towards the tribal complex at Orakei, where Savage had provided inspiration for Maori not long before. Now, so determined was the government to displace page 174Ngati Whatua from their ancestral land in favour of a state housing scheme that it established a tame commission of inquiry to give it the required 'independent' result.

Even welfarism was not doing as much for Maori, at the end of the decade, as might have been expected. The focus on land settlement had seemingly diverted the state from including tangata whenua in other state-planned and-assisted innovations. With no national plan for housing Maori, for example, many whanau continued to live in sub-standard conditions. Even the permanent head of the Native Department acknowledged that half of Maoridom was inadequately housed. The problem, moreover, had the potential to escalate as a result of demographic trends. In the decade to 1936, for example, the Maori population had increased by nearly three times the pakeha rate, despite high early mortality figures.

Langstone had taken over so much responsibility from Savage that he was eventually formally designated Acting Native Minister in addition to his major Lands portfolio. Maori noted that, in effect, he subordinated Maori policy to the quest for farming productivity and other matters prioritised by the 'national good' rationale. This did not occur without resistance, and pressure for a separate 'native administration' or polity remained. Labour's Maori organisation continued to base its activities on the platform of the initial Labour–Ratana alliance, even if it were honoured mostly in the breach. Such campaigns were paralleled in non-Labour settings. Even Ngata became an increasingly fierce proponent of an independently organised Maoridom within a bicultural country, a logical destination for the intellectual direction he had been taking since the late 1920s. In a sense he had led the camp which feared that Labour's emphasis on 'equality' would promote full assimilation.

But most Maori voices continued to support Labour's socialdemocratic ethos. Among the different strands and groupings which continued to advocate various platforms inside the Labour Party, Ratanaism remained the most notable. Pressure from the movement persuaded Labour to institute secret ballots for the Maori seats, to counter inbuilt advantages for chiefs and other tribal power figures in the previous system of transparent vote casting. This was introduced at the 1938 general page 175election, in which Paraire Paikea's winning of Northern Maori and Ngata's near-ousting from Eastern Maori heightened the Ratana profile within the party. Three of the Four Quarters were in place, and the parliamentary strategy would be completed in 1943, when Ngata was finally defeated.

By 1938, however, much of the old Ratana influence, whatever the self-determinationism it formally retained, had been subsumed beneath the requirements of the powerful government machine. At the general election, for the first time the Ratana candidates stood as Labour Party members. In essence Ratanaism had seen that it could not get far in the political system as a separate body, even if it came to hold the four Labour seats. It had therefore coalesced with Labour, a logical development since this reinforced Labour's propensity to focus on socio-economic progress, across-the-board welfarism and de-emphasising tribalism. But, in becoming part of a larger, pakeha-dominated party, it had compromised on certain of its goals, only to see, in turn, many of those compromise pledges themselves unfulfilled. Through incorporation of one political movement into another, the government had partially appropriated the considerable energies of a mass movement that had once been set up to pose fundamental challenges to the state. Ratanaism's absorption into Labour became even greater when the movement's founder died in 1939, his personal vision now somewhat dissipated within the 'broad church' of the Labour movement.

Yet both Ratana and general Maori efforts within Labour had by no means been wasted. Through them tangata whenua had demonstrated the capacity to be a significant force in the Dominion's affairs. They had shown, moreover, that one way of doing so was to adapt Maori customary methods to the western organisational paradigm. The Labour conference heard in 1937, for example, that during the previous year Maori had formed over 160 komiti within the party. It was at this point that the Maori Organising Committee became the Maori Advisory Council, a change intended to prefigure greater consultation by the ruling party and its officials with Maoridom, and greater Maori influence within the party. The new body built on the flax-roots strength of the many party committees and developed the policies of its predecessor organization.

page 176

The government was a different matter, but the party's advisory body was willing to flex its muscles, criticising – for example – the Crown's non-implementation of the 1936 special conference's recommendations. It openly deplored Langstone's dismissal of Maori aspirations to control their own lives, although giving him the dubious face-saving device of concluding that he had been 'wrongly advised by the Department'. However uphill the struggle, by 1939 Maori rangatiratanga aspirations were widely known and discussed within state and ruling party circles, and that in itself was a not inconsiderable achievement by Maoridom.99