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

Post-war social policy

Post-war social policy

As the end of the war had approached, the government turned its attention to socio-economic revival. Elements within the state were increasingly realising that this was not unproblematic in terms of indigenous policy. Over a decade, the number of Maori living in urban areas had doubled. It had been generally expected that most Maori who went to the cities and big towns for wartime purposes, or overseas with the military, would return to their tribal homeland areas. But the land-based Maori development schemes were insufficient to sustain the rising Maori population which had stayed in rural areas, let alone provide an economic base for a mass return of urban dwellers and former soldiers. The cities, moreover, required cheap labour for a country gearing itself for greater economic diversity, and their social life attracted people whose horizons had been extended by wartime travel. Thus, both 'push' and 'pull' factors meant that movement back to the tribal rohe was considerably less than anticipated.

Maori leaders, uneasy about the implications for tribal cohesion and progress if large numbers of their young people were to stay permanently in the urban areas, were not alone in their worries. Some state authorities had begun welcoming the trend to urban relocation as leading towards assimilation, but many others were concerned about the possible destabilising consequences of rapid change. A senior magistrate in Auckland in 1945 was just one of the commentators concerned about a 'serious Maori problem' in the biggest urban area. There had been, it was believed, too swift a transition from rural to urban, creating a problem that was page 228likely to be more than ephemeral. While the government continued largely to see Maori as a rural people, the demographic trend towards urbanisation, and its consequent problems, led sections within the state increasingly to promote social and economic development for Maori people wherever they were. It was felt that state links with tribal headquarters should be, if anything, reducing in favour of diversified interaction with Maori.

This trend in official thinking was a logical outcome, in any case, of the government's 'equality'-based policies. Reducing socio-economic disparities would improve the lot of Maori as individuals. There would be benefits for their existing institutions along the way, but this was not the Crown's major intention or priority. A smooth arrangement of socio-economic life in New Zealand, the modern effecting of the 'order and regularity' that had been the state's overriding imperative ever since 1840, could be best achieved in Maori policy by building on the founding principles of the Labour Party. Devolving a degree of self-determination to tribal groupings was not integral to this, although expedience decreed it was necessary in some circumstances and to some degree. The thrust of the Crown's intention towards Maori was in the opposite direction: the pace of assimilation was to be quickened.

At the 1946 Labour Party Conference, Fraser reinforced this general assimilationist strategy by reiterating that 'full equality' was the hallmark of the party's Maori policy. The ramifications were considerable, quite apart from the overt issue of the potential negative impact on tribal rangatiratanga. Implementing 'equality', for example, could manifest itself in assimilationist ways that had no place for positive discrimination policies aimed at removing systemic inequalities. When the National Employment Service was established in 1946, there was neither differentiation between Maori and non-Maori nor even Native Department involvement. The decision makers had wanted a close interrelationship between the methods and the goal of full employment for all citizens. But some Maori noted that the tangata whenua's initial disadvantage could well be perpetuated by a system which did not pay special attention to their needs and circumstances.

Debates on full assimilation and its connection with urbanisation had page 229been mostly speculative and tentative through to the immediate postwar years. While waiting for political and demographic trends to firm up, many of the Maori affairs policy makers seemingly continued to operate on the premise (or the hope) that 'urban drift' would prove to be a temporary phenomenon, and that the department's focus should therefore remain firmly on rural Maori. As the end of the wartime emergency approached, they (along with some leading tribally based Maori, including Ngata) made plans to concentrate their energies more intensely than ever on land development. Responding to the fears of social dislocation caused by urbanisation, some even began to work on 'back to the land' incentives.

As it turned out, the main disagreement with a land thrust for 'Maori policy' came from the National Employment Service itself, a department little influenced by official sub-cultural supposition and wishful thinking from the past. Its officials argued that a serious lack of employment for Maori in rural areas was imminent, and that the state should therefore take positive action to help actually or potentially affected individuals to adjust to the realities of post-war New Zealand. Among other things, new educational and vocational opportunities, and initiatives geared to other than the requirements of farm development and labouring, needed developing. At the end of 1947, an interdepartmental education and employment committee was established to explore possible solutions. In the event, policy developments which emphasised the individuals constituting Maoridom, rather than Maori grouped as rural collectivities, proved to be of greater overall economic benefit to tangata whenua than the relatively static policies of the 'old Native hands'.

Yet the Native Department, whatever its predictive and policy faults, had continued to understand that tribally based rangatiratanga did remain significant in Maoridom. The government knew, too, that the relatively unified Maori contribution within the wartime national consensus had been posited on the old tribal structures. Although the official emphasis was now increasingly on equality for all citizens, and some state sectors saw that changing Maori demographics required rethinking policies, ministers were reminded of the ongoing significance to Maori of their tribal links by Maori affairs policies and structures. Post-war reconstruction page 230policy needed to involve continuing use of tribal energies, as well as non-tribal policy developments. The tribal committees and tribal executives to be established under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act, however far short they fell from what was desired by Maori, would be important for both Crown and tribes.

Fraser declared that the Act's structures were to be 'as self-controlling and autonomous as possible'. The caveat 'as possible' was scarcely noticed at the time or by later commentators, but it was of considerable significance when placed alongside other qualifying remarks. In particular, the welfare organisation needed to be 'always stipulating for efficiency', a criterion envisaged in terms of 'equality', 'national good' and (ultimately) assimilation. There were people, both Maori and pakeha, who had been arguing that that there was no inherent incompatibility between rangatiratanga (or Maori 'race consciousness') and the 'progressive' politics of the labour movement, but their voices tended to be increasingly drowned out.

The state's weightier involvement in the Maori Welfare Organisation than in its wartime predecessor reflected an ongoing assessment that too permissive a regime for the committees could lead to indigenous developments that were hard to control. Fundamentally, such a fear had underpinned rejection of the original proposals for building on the MWEO structure. Official endorsing of a Maori committee network did acknowledge that the powerhouses of Maori decision making were collective and tribal in orientation. But, given that the welfare organisation's locally based and executive committees would both be securely incorporated into Native Department structures and their activities monitored and controlled by departmental officers, the tribes, sub-tribes and marae organisations were denied ultimate control of decision making.

Despite the missing dimension of rangatiratanga, for Maori there was no viable political alternative to the ruling party, and they were well aware that they had made considerable socio-economic gains under it. Few demurred when the 1946 Labour Party election pamphlet 'The Maori Way of Life' lauded Maori progress under social democracy. At a formal level, moreover, there was still talk of some form of self- page 231determination. That year the party even pledged that its policies would fulfil 'the self government of the Maori'. Tangata whenua flocked to vote Labour in the knowledge that, however far practice fell short of rhetoric, the party continued to offer much more than the National Party opposition. Because of the government's Maori policies, in fact, danger of a pakeha backlash was in the air.

With the parties split 38–38 in the general constituencies following the 1946 election, the four Ratana–Labour Maori MPs were depicted in the media and by National as holding the balance of power, Labour retaining office via a 'Maori mandate'. This was not strictly correct, as Labour held the four most marginal seats and all were in the general constituencies. But the perception was that Maori were propping up the government and extracting a price for their political support. Because this was politically damaging for Labour, in turn it became problematic for tangata whenua aspirations, with the government under increasing pressure to distance itself from any 'pandering' to Maori 'political blackmail'.117