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

The Maori War Effort Organisation's operations

page 192

The Maori War Effort Organisation's operations

The informal komiti which had sprung up early in the war had generally been rooted in iwi, hapu, whanau and other tribally based collective groupings. The structure of the new organisation built on them. The network of official 'Tribal Committees' which emerged was testimony – especially in view of the pan-tribal Ratanaist background of the organisers – to the continuity of tribal power in Maoridom. A contemporary scholar assessed that the authorities had gone beyond merely tolerating Maori traditional organisation, and were actually 'encouraging Maori cooperation along the lines of the Maori people's own traditions'. The tribal committees were 'to function entirely under Maori control and according to Maori ideas'. Although this discounted the fact that these were official structures, it is clear that under the MWEO Maori had gained unprecedented responsibility in the administration of their own affairs. At the very least, the tribal committees embodied the ideas of the October 1936 Labour Maori Conference's call for a network of komiti at the interface between Maori and government. An executive layer above enabled them to have an influence beyond the merely local.

The MWEO rapidly made an undoubted contribution to the war effort, beginning with improving Maori enlistment rates. As time went on, Maori demonstrated that they could efficiently run the largest tangata whenua organisation ever to be established under Crown auspices. It was, Paikea proclaimed, a 'revolutionary experience' for his people. Even under considerable media and other scrutiny, it did much to dispel, at least in the short to medium term, pakeha concerns about the Maori capacity to organise efficiently. Bureaucrats would have preferred more rigid state control mechanisms, but failing this had sought the appointment of 'reliable' military personnel to work with the MWEO.

At the top level, an officer was attached to the Maori Parliamentary Committee to liaise with the recruiting networks. Completely independent from the military in his seconded position, Lieutenant-Colonel H C Hemphill reported direct to Paikea. He had been selected partly because of his capacity to understand the tribal resonance of the organisation, and he quickly perceived the advantages of virtually page 193autonomous operation in the field. After consulting with Maori, moreover, he strongly advised the Crown that the principle of tribal organisation and leadership should be entrenched in all military services, including (as eventually happened) the Territorial Forces and the Home Guard.

By March 1943, the MWEO had enlisted 5178 men for overseas war service, 2088 for home-based military service and 10,229 for the Home Guard – making a total of 17,495 enlistments in the armed forces of New Zealand. This was seemingly done with good will between the Maori War Effort Organisation and officials, despite initial suspicions on both sides. When Hemphill stepped down in 1944 a northern kaumatua's farewell noted that Maori had seen him as their 'bulwark' in Wellington. The man put in place to help control Maori had been converted by his experiences to such an appreciation of Maori organisational capacity that he had been prepared to risk unpopularity with other Crown agencies.106

While the tribal committees had been founded mainly for military and related purposes, from the beginning 'general service' at home and abroad had been involved. It had always been clear, moreover, that both the basis of operations and the measures of success would reflect Maori values and goals. The network of tribal committees, therefore, almost seamlessly continued the 'home front' activities that their informal predecessors had engaged in, whatever the official requirements. This had been expected – and encouraged – by the Maori MPs. By March 1943, for example, the tribal committees had put thousands of extra acres of land into production. Accolades were many, and two 1944 assessments were typical: 'The story of the Maoris' total war effort … is one that it will be difficult to parallel anywhere in the world.' 'The Maori people are behind the country's war effort with a willingness and enthusiasm which in proportion to their numbers, would be hard to equal even by the pakeha.'

When the National Service Department began the task of national distribution of 'manpower', especially to 'essential industries', it received huge support from the tribal committees. It quickly set up Maori sections in its offices in centres of Maori population. The tribal committee and executive recommendations to officials embodied extensive knowledge and authority. These contributed to the National Service Department's page 194considerable successes with Maori manpowering, such as the placing of 10,825 Maori in essential occupations within six months. As a result, the MWEO committees soon secured the task of formal registration of Maori for the national manpowering operation, and it became mandatory for departmental manpower officers to consult with them before issuing decisions relating to Maori personnel. The two divisions of state, National Service Department and MWEO, worked together to place large numbers of Maori in workplaces such as freezing works, sawmills and dairy factories, and in shearing gangs and on construction sites. Workplace direction and control were, in fact, to become the biggest responsibility for the MWEO committee network. On 1 April 1945 some 15,000 Maori were working in essential industries.

By the end of the initial six-month MWEO experiment, a total of 315 tribal committees had been formed, each with a maximum of two representatives on one of the 41 district 'Tribal Executive Committees' which co-ordinated the tribal committee efforts. Maori leaders had never considered that the MWEO would be a short-term affair. Its successes had given them ammunition for extending the organisation's life beyond the experimental period. The Maori MPs had led the campaign, arguing that the MWEO's franchise should not only be renewed but broadened. The government, appreciating that its own interests as well as those of Maori were being advanced by the organisation, endorsed Paikea's formal approach for an extension.107

In view of the Crown's past actions, many Maori (including some of the informal war effort collectives) had at first been cautious about participating in a formally franchised war effort organisation. But when it emerged that the MWEO would be Maori-dominated and operated in Maori ways, with minimal pakeha bureaucratic interference, the enthusiasm level rose remarkably. Tribal committees not only investigated and provided for the needs of essential industries, they liaised and negotiated with various government departments, intervened in employer–employee relations in situations where production was affected, sought ways of maximising land use, promoted education and vocational training among their people, assisted in rehabilitating returned Maori servicemen, raised relief monies, oversaw expanded food production and page 195collected 'agar seaweed – the new Government industry which has been organised to supply the British Empire with this valuable medicinal and purifying commodity'. Before long, moreover, many of the committees were taking on the functions of local bodies, assuming powers previously exercised by the Maori Councils/Maori Health Councils and their village committees (a few of which continued a separate existence outside the MWEO, though in relation to it). They did so 'with considerable success' – not only from their own perspective but also, at times, from that of the state.

The tribal executive committees played a more formal role. At first they focused on co-ordinating military recruiting, and later their energies were concentrated on directing and controlling labour. They presided over a huge mobilisation, and by March 1943 some 29,000 Maori (out of a total of 95,000) were in military services or appropriate industries. At a less formal level, and with or without official mandates, they steadily expanded their range of activities. In many instances, together with their tribal committees they were doing – unpaid – the work of the state. This was sometimes overt, as with their registration of all Maori of specified ages, with its obvious potential for pressured military service, or their tackling of such problems as absenteeism or changing jobs under false names. 'Cases of failure to comply with direction orders, absenteeism, etc., are dealt with by the tribal executive, which sits in conjunction with the Manpower authorities.'

Increasingly, moreover, the MWEO was being asked to intervene in the lives of Maori who were deemed to be behaving improperly in their private lives – those who had 'mis-spent' their family benefit allowances, for example – or to investigate 'cases where Maori beneficiaries … are capable of giving manual service'. As some Maori noted, this seemed proof that through the MWEO the Crown was in effect appropriating the flax-roots initiatives of Maori. With elements of the organisation being increasingly viewed as coercive agencies of the state, resistance from within Maori communities grew – especially towards the tribal executive committees, the main channel through which the Maori Parliamentary Committee and the central bureaucrats kept general control over the network.

page 196

But Maori mostly kept faith with 'their' organisation. The fact that the MWEO's committees received no state payments or subsidies might be seen as yet another example of Crown parsimony. Yet there was no pressure for payment, a reflection of the main Maori motivation for the MWEO – the desire to control their own contribution to the war effort. In the aftermath of Ngata's fall from grace, officials, politicians and the media were more determined than ever that, where state monies were involved, Maori organisations needed strong state oversight and stewardship. As the wartime committee system's financing was based mostly on fund-raising activities alone, however, the tribal executive committees could exercise general authority over the Maori war effort with a minimum of direct intervention by the Crown. Under this general supervision, flax-roots tribal committees did practically whatever they felt they needed to do.

Carried along by abundant local energy, the tribal committees moved, almost inexorably, into community-based activities which bore little or no relationship to their formal tasks. Some began providing social welfare support for their people, for example, particularly on issues in which the Native Department showed little interest. MWEO bodies handled, for example, the 'plight of Maori girls' who had arrived in the larger centres of population by directing them into 'productive or essential employment', finding them accommodation and warning them of the 'moral danger' from 'predatory' soldiers and 'professional seducers'. Maori and pakeha scholars and observers alike, at the time and since, have depicted the MWEO as embodying 'authority of a form unprecedented for Maoris' in post-1840 New Zealand and as 'an unprecedented empowering of the Maori people to manage their own affairs'. Hemphill, typical of contemporary officials, noted to Paikea that 'never before has so much direct responsibility been given to the Maori people'.

Whatever the reservations about and resistance to the MWEO among some of the Maori leaders and people, it is difficult to overestimate its impact within Maoridom. Its extensive autonomy meant that even the tribes with the most vocal grievances against the Crown could take part enthusiastically. In the face of suspicions among intelligence officials, based mostly on memories of the First World War, Princess Te Puea page 197herself headed the Waikato tribal executive committee, which eventually supervised the largest number of tribal committees in any of the MWEO regions.

While the state was always apprehensive about unauthorised ventures by its agencies, some of the 'extra' MWEO activities proved to be so useful that they were formalised. Following a conference on Maori welfare in 1943, for example, the organisation took on the role of advising Maori recipients on the best use of welfare benefits. While this might well be seen as (and in some instances certainly became) a coercive supervision, it was appreciated in a number of tribal milieus. The Crown increasingly appreciated such interventions, too, and would make auxiliary appointments to assist committee work. From early 1943, following MWEO recommendations to the National Service Department, 'lady welfare officers' were appointed in cities (and later in large towns) to complement efforts to ease the adjustment of recently arrived women. Other auxiliary appointments aimed to help hard-pressed urban Maori committees provide assistance to young male migrant workers 'cast adrift' in the cities. And all along, the committees worked alongside pakeha voluntary contributions to the war effort.

MWEO committees, pakeha committees and state institutions had in effect combined to turn local effort into a national mission. Accordingly, as the MWEO's work escalated 'a degree of acceptance of Maori values' grew among pakeha. This led, in turn, to increasing Maori confidence in operating collectively in a society dominated by other cultural and organisational modes – boosting that which had been inspired by the MWEO in the first place and, more broadly, by the emerging pre-war 'sense of Maori unity'. The results of the MWEO's work, then, enhanced the perceived benefits to both the country and Maoridom from the tangata whenua operating, in some contexts, 'as a race'. One observer referred to 'a unity unparalleled in the history of the tribes'. 'For the first time', an historian has noted, 'one organization had successfully co-ordinated Maori efforts and had brought within its ranks all the accepted Maori leaders. Maori were moving into participation in the mainstream of New Zealand life but on their own terms.'

Alongside increasingly favourable publicity depicting the MWEO's page 198work as a nationwide Maori collective endeavour, calls for a structured revival of kotahitanga were increasing. A temporary Crown enfranchising of Maori self-organisation, to assist 'the nation' by placing spontaneous and informal effort under some formal control, had increased the potential for Maori unity of action and (possibly) organisation – all of which would most likely aid the quest for autonomy. Such autonomist implications were present at sub-national levels too. The degree of freedom for the tribal committees and their executives that was needed to ensure success had led, in a sense, to reappropriation by Maori at regional and especially local levels.

Pakeha officials, politicians and others who regarded any manifestation of Maori self-determination as inherently dangerous were alarmed at such propensities within the MWEO. The organisation was seen as particularly problematic because such a large proportion of Maoridom placed such significance on it. Paikea felt the 'Maori War Effort' to be so significant that, he told the Prime Minister, it was 'the greatest thing that has happened in the history of the Maori people, since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi! Whereas the military bureaucracy were not alone in feeling that the MWEO should be disbanded once it had performed its recruiting function, he and other Maori leaders were quickly arguing that it continue through to the end of the war. The extra tasks that they encouraged it to take on, in fact, increasingly included preparations for the peacetime relationships and organisation of Maori. Moreover, since the MWEO was a model that Maori greatly preferred to that of the Native Department, Paikea and others urged that the organisation itself be extended into peacetime.

This particularly alarmed the professional Native Department bureaucrats, upon whose activities the MWEO's work had quickly and inevitably encroached. In contrasting the two organisations, Maori people generally had their views confirmed about the paternalistic, controlling and Wellington-centred focus of the department. They had therefore increasingly bypassed the old bureaucracy, going straight to the MWEO committees for advice and to offer assistance. The provision of adequate housing was one area where the Native Department was seen as particularly deficient, and where the bottom-up concerns and activities page 199of the MWEO were appreciated. The clear (though not universal, because of its location within the state) success and popularity of the MWEO, coupled with the increasing push to extend its energies into post-war reconstruction, implicitly threatened even the continued existence of the Native Department. A scholar opined that the 'fundamental problem of finding the right place for a fast-multiplying native people in the modern social and economic system' lay more with the Maori-initiated and-run MWEO than with the old-style bureaucrats. The organisation was being hailed for its potential to enable Maori to address issues of 'economic and cultural adjustment', and to give 'the Maori race as a whole both renewed confidence and an instrument of its own through which the people may by their own efforts go far toward solving the "Maori problem"'.108