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

The Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act

page 210

The Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act

By the end of the war, Tirikatene had consulted widely and persuaded many Maori that sacrifice was needed if the wartime gains were to be in any way preserved. He convened a Maori working group drawn from different parts of the country and, as a result, on 20 September 1945 sent the Prime Minister yet another compromise proposal. His new draft Maori Social and Economic Reconstruction Bill attempted to replicate the tribal committee and tribal executive system, but within a departmental structure very similar to the existing Native Department. This Department of Maori Administration would in effect be the old Native Department with new co-ordinating and other powers, but there would also be wide scope for flax-roots influence on decision making.

The proposed legislation was designed to meet both Labour's 'equality' imperatives, through focusing on promoting rapid socio-economic development, and Maori desires to run their own affairs. While Tirikatene and his fellow Maori MPs knew that it was unrealistic to expect the existing Native Department administrators to be discarded, they stressed that many needed to relearn their roles or take up new functions. In particular, the ethos of the new department would need to incorporate the 'self administration and discipline' which Maori had demonstrated in the war. Building on the successes of the MWEO, he emphasised to the Prime Minister, would mean that both Maori and the state benefited – and therefore the whole nation.

In particular, it was crucial that the reconstituted bureaucracy heed the views of Maori at community and marae level, via tribal committees. The draft legislation provided for each of these to select two delegates to page 211a tribal executive, as with the MWEO. But the executive in turn would elect a delegate to one of four district councils. The latter were to be a senior-level mechanism for passing flax-roots views onto the country's decision makers, and so would also contain representatives from the bureaucracy and Parliament. Each district council would elect two of the members of a Board of Maori Social and Economic Reconstruction, which would also include officials and politicians.

At officials' level, the new structure would be given wider terms of reference than the Native Department. Key MWEO functions would be added, and enhanced by the appointment of officers assigned to liaise between department and people. Government insistence on full accountability to head office by the community-based parts of the department was met, but there was a quid pro quo: the Crown would amply resource the tribal committees and their superior bodies, in contrast to the wartime emergency committees, Maori Councils and other such bodies in the past. Government resourcing was seen by some as a risk to autonomy, but measures to prevent undue head office or political leverage by this route were planned.

It was a big compromise from a Maori perspective, for it in effect endorsed continuation of the Native Department bureaucracy under a new name and in a powerful position over the network of Maori committees. In the eyes of those in the political ascendancy, however, the draft Bill had not sufficiently departed from previous proposals which 'clearly placed the future authority in the hands of Maori controlled organisations'. Mason, in charge of planning Maori reconstruction, vetoed the Bill as a government measure. However, he and senior Native Department officials could see that continued Maori non-co-operation with the Maori Councils proposal had doomed that as a viable alternative. The draft Bill alone was on the drawing board, and time was tight.

After consulting with his inner circle, Mason announced that he and his staff would set about forging a state-acceptable compromise out of the Maori compromise. While they claimed to be working on modifying Tirikatene's proposed legislation, in fact they were fitting it and aspects of the MWEO organisation into the framework of their own Bill (although without consulting the MWEO or the Maori MPs). The page 212redrawn Bill which emerged was therefore closer to the Maori Councils draft legislation than to that of the Tirikatene's working group. In essence, the minister was promoting a 'compromise', based on his own 1943 plans, to counteract a Maori 'compromise' that still embodied elements of the fundamental concept of the MWEO – community control of Maori affairs. The title of the new draft had replaced 'Reconstruction' with 'Advancement'. The latter looked towards a fully assimilationist future, in contrast to the former's implication of reconstituting elements of Maori socio-political organisation. The Native Department was to stay. While it was to be formally charged with co-operating with tribes, in essence it was to survive intact, with the 'old hands' firmly guiding Maori towards a non-Maori future. The Maori MPs' plans for regional and national representative bodies had been rejected, removing any high-level means of co-ordinating pressure on the government from official institutions with aspirations for rangatiratanga.

However, while the Mason draft removed Tirikatene's proposal for higher representation, its authors could not avoid retaining a network of tribal committees and a layer of what were now called 'tribal executives' above them. It differed from the working group's version of these, however. Survival of the old department had been inevitable in some form after the Prime Minister's statement at the 1944 conference, but Tirikatene and other Maori leaders had tried to preserve a significant degree of autonomy for the community-based and executive committees. This had largely disappeared in the new draft: all committees under the scheme were to be constituent parts of the Native Department rather than coming loosely under a departmental umbrella. The key people in the new committee structure were to be the department's district officers, who would be in hands-on charge of all activities and structures in their areas. The Mason draft, moreover, omitted any mention of the proposed new board, so the old, ethnocentric Board of Native Affairs retained ultimate bureaucratic control of the committee structure.

The Fraser government opted, unsurprisingly, for Mason's Bill. Most commentaries have depicted the resulting Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act of 1945 as a 'compromise' between Maori aspirations and departmental control. But it fitted that description only insofar as page 213Mason and his officials had been forced to retain some aspects of the MWEO system. The new structure, to be operative from 1 April 1946 (though some institutional transitioning began at once), was thus essentially a victory for the old bureaucracy. More broadly, it represented a triumph for the many in governing circles and pakeha society who opposed the prospect of the MWEO's evolution into a peacetime embodiment of rangatiratanga. The tribal committees that were to form part of the Native Department were not given the politically led task of exercising 'comprehensive economic and social power', as Maori had asked. Instead, they gained very limited powers, mostly in connection with 'Maori well-being and perpetuating Maori culture'. The tribal executives could promulgate by-laws on such matters as sanitation, health and housing, fishing grounds and water reticulation, but these powers were similar to those of the 1900 legislation.

Yet most analyses tend to see the Act as an 'enlightened' drawing upon of the MWEO experience, an attempt to 'recognise officially and standardise the procedure of [previous] unofficial councils of elders … in most Maori communities'. More critical accounts still tend to interpret it as a genuine compromise. Usually reflecting wishful thinking analysis, these are inclined to regret the government's 'mistake', through accident, compromise or loss of courage, in letting pass yet another opportunity to offer a real share in governance to Maori. A 'great policy initiative' ends up as 'ultimately sterile'.112

It is clear, however, that the politicians acted deliberately to curb the generally successful, and therefore 'dangerous', quest for autonomy that wartime conditions had fostered. The process of incorporating the MWEO into the state's machinery had disturbed a number of Maori, either because it intervened in their personal lives or was thought to intrude on tribal rangatiratanga. Yet this process had not been enough to defuse the inherent challenge to the indivisible and ultimately assimilationist state that Maori aspirations were seen to represent. The latter were so powerful that it would have been difficult to crush the communal energies unleashed within the wartime committees, and in any case, subdued and channelled use of such energies was beneficial for state purposes. A tighter form of appropriating Maori energies, which page 214controlled them far more than the MWEO central mechanisms had been designed or able to, had therefore been put in place. It is possible, in fact, to conclude that, at a formal level, the 1945 legislation 'appeared to give fewer powers' to Maori than had the 1900 Maori Councils Act. What can definitely be concluded is that, in the context of its times, the new Act reduced the power Maori had recently attained in the political economy. Maori reappropriations of the Crown's early wartime appropriation had themselves been incorporated into the state under stricter conditions.

The new Act, however, did require the Native Department to broaden its activities in a way that took into account the organised expression of Maori flax-roots views. The new structure, then, had some potential for Maori as well as for the state. Although they cavilled against the legislation in private, the Maori MPs praised it in public: the new MWEO-influenced organisation could be used, even in its bastardised form, to pursue rangatiratanga. The Acting Prime Minister's announcement of the new structure to Maori attempted to ensure their participation by taking just such a perspective. He endorsed a Ngataist co-existence of cultures: 'It is not for you to be as we are, but for you to be as you could and would be, with all the advantages that the Pakeha may have had.' The Maori MPs urged Maori not only to continue to participate in official committees, but to ensure that their activities were as expansive as possible within the limits laid down. To complement this, Tirikatene in particular lobbied the Native Department to tolerate broad definitions for the committees' work.

Many Maori accepted their leadership's arguments that, taking a long-term perspective, the Act represented progress for rangatiratanga. For all its inherent problems for Maoridom, the Act forced the department into a peacetime co-operation with Maori 'that would have been unthinkable in the [pre-war] years'. As with the MWEO (although within stronger constraints) a subtle expansion of permitted committee activities would quickly begin after the new structure was formally set up. It was soon noted that, whatever the government's intentions for the committees, the legislation 'seems to have empowered them to take an interest in anything at all'. Glowing contemporary Labour Party claims for the page 215legislation reflected a not inconsiderable participatory ethos. A 1946 election campaign pamphlet proclaimed that, with the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act, Labour's 1925 promise of mana Maori motuhake had been fulfilled. Although this assessment was highly exaggerated, it could be so boldly stated partly because Maori had accepted that some Crown recognition of rangatiratanga, however reluctant, had survived the war.

To conclude that the transplanted MWEO structure had, under the new legislation, 'lost its overall acceptability to the Maori people' seems too drastic. However, although the Maori MPs and other leaders urged co-operation, an immediate reaction to the legislation among many Maori was to withdraw their services from the state. A number of the existing tribal committees and tribal executive committees went into recess, or even formally disbanded, rather than reorient or subdue their energies in conformity with the requirements of a Native Department-based regime. When the department's Maori Social and Economic Welfare Organisation (soon called the Maori Welfare Organisation, or often just the welfare organisation) formally replaced the Maori War Effort Organisation, then, the committee system it inherited was considerably less impressive than the network operating during the war.

The initial wartime quest for expressing rangatiratanga in a way that assisted both Maoridom and the nation in general had remained too autonomous for the authorities to contemplate as a long-term prospect, even after it had been brought under state auspices. Parliament had seen fit, therefore, to tame it as part of the post-war reconstruction. It remained to be seen how severe was the bite of the tamed beast, and how often and under what circumstances official New Zealand would let it bite.113