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

The Maori War Effort Organisation established

The Maori War Effort Organisation established

Paikea and the other Maori MPs were well aware that the Native Department was generally regarded by their people as an oppressive agency of racial control. It could not therefore act as the central institution needed to co-ordinate and regulate the regional and local Maori war effort activities. They proposed, therefore, to create a structure that would be independent of the department and built on the existing, mostly informal, groupings. The latter generally approved the Maori Parliamentary Committee's propositions, whose autonomist slant reflected their own views and activities.

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There were also some concrete reasons of state for a separate Maori body to run the war effort. One was a record-keeping problem: the Crown was unable to obtain accurate lists of Maori eligible for war service. It had not compiled Maori electoral rolls, and social security registrations covered only a quarter of the Maori workforce. Tribal knowledge was the best way of accessing such information. But tribal leaders were scarcely going to give this priority, or even assist at all, if departmental officers were presiding over the exercise.

It took a considerable time to establish the concept of the Maori War Effort Organisation. This reflected the difficulties of systematising so many disparate, far-flung and often relatively inchoate institutions. It was also hampered by hesitancy from bureaucrats about the possibility of Maori taking control of things Maori. From the state's point of view, caution was essential for a number of reasons. One was efficiency. Another was that the informal, quasi-formal and tribal Maori wartime organisations that had sprung up or taken on new forms or tasks had often refused to have anything at all to do with the Native Department. Their spontaneity and independence made them a potentially untameable, and therefore troubling, force. Most politicians and advisers, however, came to appreciate that establishing a centralised co-ordination mechanism, even if outside the conventional bureaucracy, might help bring the wartime komiti under some control. This would be a better option, on efficiency grounds, than an imposed bureaucracy that would engender little enthusiasm or co-operation. If it could also establish firm linkages with existing state machinery, that would be a bonus. The bureaucrats concerned with both containing and using Maori organisational energies focused many of their in-house discussions on ways of encouraging this.

In line with imperial norms, the New Zealand state had always been adept at appropriating indigenous movements that were too powerful to suppress or which might aid Crown goals. Native Minister John Ballance had typified this phenomenon when referring in 1885 to unofficial Maori komiti as the equivalents of local government. By officially franchising them as such, he had proposed, they might become useful instruments of state rather than problems for it. Since then there had been many page 191actual or attempted appropriations, and such matters were now on the Crown agenda again.

Many Maori leaders, however, especially the MPs Paikea and Tirikatene, saw maximising the Maori contribution to the war as a means of pursuing rangatiratanga in a way that would assist both peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand. They believed too that Crown acceptance of virtually autonomous Maori control of their war effort would help ameliorate long-standing suspicions of the state among Maoridom. This might herald a new chapter in Treaty relations and lead to an eventual working partnership. The Maori Parliamentary Committee went to work at once, setting up ad hoc centralising and controlling measures to provide thinking time for the best way to harness the methods, organisations and enthusiasms which had developed since the beginning of the war. Their efforts increased with the perceived threat of Japanese invasion after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and they were ready to submit a proposal for a fully fledged scheme by May 1942. The Maori War Effort Organisation (MWEO) was approved by the War Cabinet as a six-month experiment on 3 June 1942.

The Maori Parliamentary Committee, still chaired by Paikea during his time as Minister in Charge of the Maori War Effort in the War Administration of June–October 1942, was to superintend it. The general plan was to establish, in each electorate, Maori organisations representing the main iwi groupings. They would report to and interact with politicians and departments through liaison officers seconded from the army, a reflection that their main initial task was military recruiting. Tribal customs and configurations were taken into account in selecting committee areas and military recruiting zones. Selection of both the 21 zones and the recruiting officers often involved departing from military and administrative norms, adding to delays, but during the six-month experimental period the MWEO structure was fine-tuned. In the event, politicians and officials were satisfied with the level of efficiency which ensued, including in committee work other than recruiting, and the life of the organisation was extended.105