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

Preparations for peacetime

Preparations for peacetime

In many parts of New Zealand during 1944, the MWEO held meetings to promote further flax-roots action on Maori issues, with long-term improvement in Maori governance in mind. At four conferences hosted that year by the Maori MPs, support for continuance of the organisation after the war was overwhelming. Such enthusiasm was not confined to Maori or non-official channels. Rehabilitation authorities were among those anxious to continue using the services of the Maori committees. page 204At the Labour Party conference in 1944, delegates adopted post-war socio-economic reconstruction proposals which included a role for such an organisation. The remaining proponents of a Maori Councils-style replacement had once again to defer the matter – in the event, permanently.

That year Tirikatene chaired a working party centred on Maori MPs which further developed the proposal for a co-ordinating ministry to be in overall charge of Maori welfare, broadly defined. Paikea had argued, just before his death, that statutory embedding of a permanent MWEO-type structure would lead to enthusiastic Maori sharing of the burden of administering their own affairs. Although there was a danger of state appropriation of Maori energies, this would be counteracted by vigilance and flax-roots energy. In any case, a limited degree of government intervention would be offset by autonomist, and other, benefits to Maori. While such ideas influenced drafts of 'Maori Social and Economic Reconstruction' legislation being shepherded by Tirikatene through the working party, the members were conscious of the need to avoid giving too much ammunition to their powerful opponents in the political and bureaucratic establishment. They therefore proposed, for example, that while the MWEO-style committees would 'retain their degree of autonomy' under a new ministry's umbrella, they should be brought 'within public service requirements'. Blueprints for the ministry were cautious.

At a 'Maori summit conference' chaired by Labour Party President Jim Roberts at Wellington's Ngati Poneke Hall on 18–20 October 1944, it was clear that the Maori MPs' concessions were insufficient to deflect widespread opposition to the legislative proposals within state circles. Fear of officially franchised committees 'running rampant' or intruding on bureaucratic patches was openly voiced. Native Department officials, in particular, at a time when their inefficiencies in farming, housing and rehabilitation were being widely criticised, were worried about their future if any kind of new ministry was established alongside them. Other officials and political advisers, while not necessarily opposing a welfare ministry to complement (or even replace) the existing department, had joined in the opposition on various grounds (including ethnocentrism page 205and racism), concerned to counter any Maori future that enhanced state recognition of rangatiratanga.

The Prime Minister's opening address to the summit conference attempted to reconcile the two broad strands of opinion, those for and against continuation of MWEO-style autonomy. But the sheer amount of distrust within the state and the party at the ability of Maori to control their own affairs had strengthened his initial caution about the extent of the powers that should be entrusted to Maori organisations. His thrust was, therefore, to contain rather than mandate rangatiratanga. The committees of the Maori collective wartime endeavour should certainly be extended into the peacetime world, he declared, but the Native Department was the only appropriate medium for regulating the ongoing relationship between state and Maori. Any committee system would have to operate under its auspices and in accordance with its rules.

In his support for continuance of MWEO-style committees, the most powerful man in New Zealand's political structure had once again revealed himself to be more in empathy with Maori aspirations than many of his colleagues. But now that he had taken heed of advice that a modified MWEO under a new co-ordinating ministry was 'far too radical' for peacetime normalcy, it was clear that the organisation's current embodiment of rangatiratanga, however limited, would not be contemplated once the wartime emergency was over – not even subsumed within a new Ministry of Maori Welfare/Administration. But the mood of the more than 400 Maori representatives at the summit was clear from the beginning: the principle for post-war indigenous reconstruction should be that Maori had control over Maori affairs.110

Thus the delegates responded vigorously to the Fraser 'compromise', knowing that a Native Department-controlled structure for the MWEO's successor committees would largely neutralise the collective power that Maori had been rebuilding under the umbrella of the state. While his proposal was, in their eyes, greatly preferable to the draft Maori Councils Bill which Mason was still promoting whenever he could, they still resoundingly rejected it. Not only that, they also rejected the compromises of the Maori MPs, demanding more power for the tribal and executive committees than they currently exercised. This would provide page 206'permanence and increased effectiveness to the Maori tribal and racial unity in the service of our race and of our country'.

In what was becoming a disparate debate, such stark differences between the delegates and those associated with government, Parliament and bureaucracy helped focus attention on fundamentals. On the one hand, Maori were attempting to transcend the paradigm of undivided sovereignty, and most felt that an enhanced MWEO system was a suitable starting-point for a collectivity-oriented future. Through the delegates, Maoridom was telling its MPs, and the government supported by most of its people, that anything less would be unacceptable. On the other hand, the politico-bureaucratic mainstream, while appreciating that Maori collectivism could not only not be ignored but might even be harnessed, wanted to claw back many of the powers Maori had gained during the wartime emergency. Insofar as Maori communal energies could be endorsed, they were to be placed and controlled firmly within the indivisible sovereignty that the government saw as being embedded in Article One of the Treaty of Waitangi. Whatever Article Two meant, it could not be interpreted as encompassing in the medium or long term even MWEO-style rangatiratanga.

Officials and politicians, buoyed by the Prime Minister's support for the Native Department to take over the tribal committee network, began to explore ways of taming Maoridom by this means. The exploration became intertwined with an incipient debate on 'urban drift'. There was an increasing feeling in some state circles that the wartime movement of young Maori to the urban centres might prove difficult to reverse. With Native Department officials continuing to view the future of Maoridom as suppliers of rural product and labour, this was perceived as problematic. Some advisers, however, began to believe that reversal of the urban migration might not be desirable. The fact that Maori were mingling with pakeha in large towns and cities, well away from their tribal support mechanisms, could have the result of weaning them from tribalism – a major step en route to the elusive goal of assimilation.

Few officials as yet advocated active encouragement of permanent urbanisation, but some believed that positive results might flow if the state took a hands-off approach. If younger Maori wanted to opt for the page 207'civilisation' and work prospects of the cities rather than the constraints of the marae, the political economy would be helped. Welfare payments for rural dwellers unable to make a living off the land would be avoided, internal migrants could contribute to an industrialising national workforce and the processes of hegemony would be enhanced. That permanent urbanisation would lead to detribalisation, and therefore assimilation, became an increasing theme in public and official discussion. Some of those advocating the benefits to the nation of such a development believed that continuance of strong MWEO-style institutions would hinder indigenous urbanisation, postpone the loosening of tribal bonds and impede the Crown's long 'civilising project'. While the assimilationist agenda could accommodate some 'interesting trappings' of 'native culture', the continuing existence of tribally based institutions with significant autonomy was not conducive to 'Maori progress'. If there had to be some form of official Maori committees, these should be confined to the rural areas where, as tribal committees, their negative impact on progress towards full assimilation might be minimised. Such incipient rethinking took place amid longer-standing considerations.

If collective tribal grievances could be ameliorated, for example, assimilation might speed up even in rural areas. In particular, the continuation of tribally based demands for Crown recompense for past injustices remained a major roadblock on the route to an assimilationist future. With the end of the war seemingly in sight, such demands should be addressed. Doing so might even be sufficient to subdue opposition to the Crown's hobbling of the MWEO and its successor organisation. Government representatives at the 1944 summit conference had therefore made some concessions on settling historical grievances, and these made a favourable impact on delegates.

But the fact remained that the overwhelming demand of the summit conference was for substantial Maori autonomy in the future, building on the semi-autonomy of the MWEO. Overarching this, but related to it, was the renewed feeling of the potential of power through 'close-knit unity' which had permeated much of Maoridom. The MWEO was clearly being increasingly seen as an emergent form of kotahitanga revival. The summit delegates' strong self-identification with such developing unity, page 208however, served to heighten the government's alarm. Unity was desirable for certain state purposes, but only if it were containable; a kotahitanga that was an aggregation of more or less autonomous bodies, even if they were technically under state auspices, could 'get out of hand'. State decision makers were the more determined, then, that the wartime institutions, thrown up autonomously, appropriated by the state and then in some ways reappropriated by Maori, should be brought firmly under Crown control and partially disempowered.

The Native Department had continued assiduously to lay the groundwork for such developments. It had put much effort into working on ways of gradually taking back, or taking over, functions performed by the tribal executive committees and their community-based committees.

In September 1944, for example, the department had begun to strike back against MWEO encroachment into the welfare area. While it had been prepared to devolve welfare activities to the proposed Maori Councils, now that these were highly unlikely to eventuate it had created the position of chief welfare officer. A veteran of the Maori Battalion, Major Te Rangiataahua Royal, was appointed to the position, and quickly began developing a structure by which the Native Department would handle all indigenous welfare functions. By 1945, the department's welfare work was already expanding greatly, its officers working closely with other Crown agencies interested in Maori welfare. Mason was soon ready to present the plans for a Native Department welfare branch whose operational purview looked very much like the welfare functions of the MWEO. In mid-year Tirikatene noted that the MWEO, bereft of the state-funded resources of the department, was steadily being squeezed out of social welfare.

The MWEO attempted to meet such challenges in various ways. Many of its members and supporters believed that, in view of the political leadership's clear intention to place their institutional network under the Native Department, it was time to fight with gloves off. They openly called for the old bureaucracy to be disbanded and replaced by a co-ordinating body that would be an umbrella for autonomous flax-roots organisations as well as a more efficient and empathetic all-purpose department of state for Maori affairs. This was a rearguard action with page 209risks. When – as seemed the most likely scenario – the MWEO committees came under Native Department control, critics in them could scarcely expect sympathetic treatment from those they had adjudged to be wanting.

The best that the pro-autonomy forces could realistically hope for was to protect the concept of a communally based committee system and ensure that central bureaucratic control over it was of relatively moderate degree. With increasing numbers of Maori coming to realise this, and so becoming more conciliatory, the Maori MPs presented new proposals which embodied greater compromise than the blueprints presented to the summit conference. In doing so they hoped to gain (no doubt, grudging) acceptance from the anti-MWEO milieu within the party (whose rhetoric was generally that of the Labour imperative of 'equality') as well as from those fighting on for a significant degree of Maori popular control, despite the intensification of the struggle on these issues between Maori and Crown. In the event they satisfied few on either side, debate raged on, and the MPs continued to work on watering down their proposals in an effort to get official endorsement of at least some kind of flax-roots involvement in Maori affairs of state. When the war ended in August 1945, a decision on the long and hotly debated issue of the future of the Maori War Effort Organisation could be delayed no longer.111