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

Opposition and fightback

Opposition and fightback

Langstone had been confirmed as Native Minister by Fraser, but relinquished the position in late 1942. The Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, H G R Mason, took over the responsibility from him and was formally confirmed in the portfolio on 7 July 1943. Mason had little knowledge of Maori and was even less disposed than Langstone to empathise with their aspirations. He relied a great deal on his departmental officials' advice. Even at this relatively early stage of the MWEO, their tack was generally to stress the danger that the indigenous war effort could lead Maori to affirm what one observer called 'a nationality of their own'.

Langstone, Mason and the Native Department all appreciated, however, that the MWEO was both too successful and too popular to be dismantled at once. While it should certainly be disbanded at the end of the war, its powers should meanwhile be curbed – although, in the interests of the national war effort, the community involvement which characterised it could not be seriously truncated. Senior officials, such as Mason's private secretary, Michael Rotohiko Jones, worked through several possibilities for 'taming' it.

One, advocated by influential figures such as Judge George Shepherd page 200(who became, from February 1944, the Native Department's permanent head) was particularly favoured. Shepherd agreed that the Crown would probably have to meet a post-war demand for Maori community participation in affairs of state, but felt that this process could by-pass the MWEO. Indeed, it could begin at once, based on the pre-war plans to revive Maori Councils. When these became entrenched, the MWEO committees would merge with them. As the new bodies would be under the firm tutelage of the minister and his department, the MWEO's implicit challenge to the state's authority would be a thing of the past and a smooth transition to peacetime could occur.

When Paikea died on 6 April 1943, Fraser called him 'irreplaceable' in view of his pivotal role in mediating between Crown and Maori. Mason and his officials moved quickly to take advantage of the resulting hiatus at the top of the Maori War Effort Organisation. The aim was to seize control of the agenda for future Crown-Maori relations, and push through the Maori Councils model (or something like it) as a means of implementing this at flax-roots level. A month after Paikea's death, politicians and officials attended a 'summit meeting' to discuss Maori wartime organisation. M R Jones and the Native Department representatives presented a draft Bill to re-establish a Maori Council system and locate it firmly in the department. The MWEO officers present at the meeting had not been consulted beforehand and they and the Maori MPs vigorously opposed the proposal. Both groupings noted that the plan 'took away the autonomy they had secured in various aspects of Maori affairs' and heavily reinserted the state into Maori decision making.

Fraser could see the dangers in circumventing the representatives of organised Maoridom, especially during a national emergency, and agreed that Maori needed to be widely consulted before any actions were taken. He upset the Native Department 'old hands' by declaring that the MWEO mechanisms could be used as legitimate conduits for passing on Maori views about the future of organised Maoridom to the government. Tribal executive committee meetings were called to consider the Maori Councils proposal. When the consultation process was completed, the Crown was notified that there had been unanimous tribal opposition to it. page 201Whatever the departmental misgivings about possible 'stacking' of MWEO-convened meetings, there could be no doubt about the general feeling in Maoridom.

Tirikatene had in effect taken over control of the MWEO on Paikea's death, and soon succeeded him as Member of the Executive Council Representing the Native Race. Knowing full well what the outcome of the consultation on reviving Maori Councils would be, he had quickly convened an informal 'select committee' to produce or examine alternative proposals. This looked beyond the end of the war and envisaged a post-war Maori organisation that would retain the considerable autonomy already built up. The main proposal was for a 'Ministry of Maori Welfare' to preside over a continuation of the wartime network of tribal committees and executives. Given the delicate circumstances, this plan was a paler version of the 1936 proposals for a new ministry to be the liaison and co-ordination point for all Crown-Maori interaction. But it did reflect the innovations of the 1940s, which seemed far more promising than the idea of breathing new life into experiments from the beginning of the century which had not proved durable.

In face of the entrenched might of the MWEO and its political backers, based as this was on popular enthusiasm for the Maori war effort, Mason and the Native Department soon made a tactical withdrawal. A final decision on Maori Councils was postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, the MWEO continued to occupy the moral high ground in its support from the Maori people. Tirikatene, Mawhete and others sought new ways of using this to extract concrete concessions in relation to the Labour Party's long-standing formal commitment to mana Maori motuhake. They began working on details of their plan for a department of state to service and enhance networks of tribally based committees. One radical proposal helped emphasise the collective basis of decision making in Maoridom: the projected Ministry of Maori Welfare would report to the combined Maori MPs. Although the plans did not call for the scrapping of the Native Department, its very existence was more than ever under adversarial scrutiny within Maoridom.

Whereas the department's primary aim was to serve the interests of the Crown, Maori continued to see the MWEO, and by extension any page 202successor to it, as essentially their own organisation. This is not to say that they did not cavil at its flaws – and indeed there were increasing numbers who disagreed, for example, with its intrusion into people's lives. But the problems could be addressed in a Maori way through use of customary methods such as hui. As Maori support for continuing the MWEO in some form increased, opposition within the state grew accordingly. While Mason's Maori Councils proposal had been put on hold 'for further consideration', so too had all other proposals. This gave ministers and officials time to develop grounds for querying the need for the MWEO to continue even to the end of the war. Reasons were eagerly seized on – that the army declared it had no further need for Maori recruiting efforts, for example. By the end of 1943, both Native Department officials and their minister had begun openly arguing for the almost immediate disbanding of the MWEO. Their campaign was strengthened by the support of, in particular, the Treasury, which saw grave dangers to the fabric of the state from the continuance of an organisation that was potentially difficult to control.

The fact remained, however, that the MWEO was continuing to deliver services required during the wartime emergency, at a time when the Native Department's concentration on matters such as land development schemes had made it increasingly more reluctant and inefficient in performing many of its other allocated tasks. Among the MWEO's vocal supporters, for example, were returned servicemen who had received more (and more willing) assistance from the tribal executive committees and their community-based committee networks than from the lumbering department. Sectors within the Crown appreciated the value of MWEO work which the department could not, or would not, undertake. They also saw that to dismantle the MWEO immediately would lead to an enormous Maori backlash. The MWEO continued on, protected in particular by the Prime Minister, who had been persuaded in February 1944 to become Minister in charge of the Maori War Effort.109

Fraser's motives in agreeing to the additional portfolio did not, however, add up to a message of unqualified support for the MWEO. He could not ignore much advice that there was a risk to the state that the organisation might attempt to establish and perpetuate itself as a 'a page 203state within a state'. He could now keep a closer eye on the MWEO, begin to curb those of its powers which concerned him, and if necessary intervene quickly to contain the situation. As the result of an ongoing official review, from March 1944 the MWEO was progressively instructed to truncate aspects of its operations. Some of these directions merely reflected that many of its initial purposes had been fulfilled – in July, for example, its recruiting officers were reduced from 21 to 15. But others were, in effect, instructions to keep away from matters under Native Department jurisdiction – or even to give up certain activities, including certain welfare functions, altogether.

Despite such setbacks, the Maori War Effort Organisation continued to thrive. In September 1944, for example, 51 tribal executive committees and 398 tribal committees were operating, and the figures were to peak at 61 and 407 respectively. Based as it was on communal organisation, the MWEO had developed its own internal dynamic. Since this had positive implications for the 'national good', Fraser continued to extend its life, in an implicit bargain. The state wanted to continue to use such power and energy in the 'public interest', so long as it could be restricted to outcomes desired by the Crown; Maori wished to continue working through the MWEO for the national war effort as well as for their own reasons. However many restrictions the government attempted to impose, Maori maintained their feeling of empowerment within the MWEO. Tirikatene declared that continuing control by Maori of things Maori was 'the most vital matter being discussed both generally and politically on every Maori Marae in New Zealand at the present time'.