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

The Maori Welfare Organisation

The Maori Welfare Organisation

The machinery that had been established by the Native Department to rival MWEO welfare activities had become the base for departmental 'social and economic advancement' operations under the 1945 Act. M R Jones, overseer of the Act, had been instrumental in the efforts to revive the Maori Councils rather than build on the relative spontaneity of the MWEO. He had then become a powerful player in superimposing a Maori Councils ethos upon Tirikatene's draft legislation. The establishment period for the new structure did not augur well for the future of even a 'second best' rangatiratanga. Implementation of the legislation was slow and lacklustre. Keynote positions in the new organisation were given to career public servants, rather than (as many had hoped) to individuals who had helped ensure the wartime success of the MWEO.

A Maori scholar summed up the implementation of the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act: the 'heat and spirit of the Maori War page 232Effort Organisation was discarded in favour of the orthodoxy of the Native Department'. The situation was worsened by a lack of resources for 'Maori Welfare'. The Minister of Finance, Walter Nash, was mindful of the need for reconstructive austerity, and his philosophical opposition to differential treatment between 'races' reinforced the scarcity of government funds available to set up and run the system. Even within the limits of Labour's truncated version of meeting Maori aspirations, the government's performance was widely criticised by tangata whenua.

Such criticism increased after the opposition's 'Maori mandate' campaign led the government to place the welfare organisation on an even tighter rein than it might otherwise have been. After the 1946 general election, with Mason's performance on Maori issues under scrutiny, pressure came from senior departmental officers for the Prime Minister to take over the Native Affairs portfolio. This was partly to ensure that the Maori MPs did not take control of the portfolio through their nominee, Tirikatene. This would have boosted the collective profile of 'the Maori Caucus' and encouraged the official committees to try to claw back some of the relative autonomy of operation that they had exercised through the MWEO. The officials' suggestion of Fraser's overlordship of Maori policy and operations, then, was intended to reduce the potential influence of rangatiratanga.

There would also be an upside for Maori. Prime ministerial mana would shelter the portfolio from public attack, and Fraser was generally considered to be empathetic with Maori wishes. In view of the mana involved, there was popular as well as official Maori support for the Prime Minister to take on the task. Jones expressed the views of many in feeling that Fraser 'governed with his heart rather than his head' on Maori issues. While some disagreed, he clearly did have a degree of empathy with Maori aims (especially socio-economic 'uplift'); and he had not been fully satisfied with Mason's handling of the welfare organisation. He agreed to take up the portfolio and, unlike Savage, did not delegate responsibility for Crown-Maori relations to a minister with less interest. On balance, Maori believed, they had gained from the situation.

Fraser relied heavily for welfare organisation policy advice on Jones, who, though closely involved in Langstone's and Mason's policies, had page 233also moved in Ngataist circles. As a result, the person steering the welfare organisation was becoming influenced by Ngata's and others' increasing belief that (inevitable) assimilationist tendencies needed strong counterbalancing by rangatiratanga. It was on Jones' advice that Fraser agreed to take on the new ministerial responsibility. He worked at once with the new minister to push through semantic changes symbolic of Crown recognition of the mana of Maoritanga. Replacing the 'Native Minister' in December 1946, Fraser became 'Minister of Maori Affairs'. From January 1947 his department became the Department of Maori Affairs. The word 'native', in fact, was to be removed from official discourse as having demeaning implications. In the following year Fraser, in the face of (pakeha) bureaucratic opposition, appointed Tipi Ropiha to the position of under-secretary of the department, the first Maori to head a department of state.

While such developments indicated a degree of state accommodation of Maori aspirations, however, the 'Maori bureaucracy' was generally able to operate much as before. The welfare organisation represented an addition of functions to the department, rather than a change in institutional culture. The incorporation of some MWEO attributes and personnel into the department was actively resented in some of its corridors, especially at head office in Wellington. While some efforts were made to thwart the organisational transfer of Maori wartime energies to peacetime reconstruction, however, in most departmental quarters the initial fears of 'excessive' flax-roots influence were quickly allayed when the small amount of rangatiratanga involved was revealed.

The ethos of the department remained, then, firmly assimilationist rather than autonomist, with professional bureaucrats in control of the welfare organisation activities. In turn, as the department noted in 1949, the welfare organisation 'gives general direction to [all of] the activities' of the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act. Its three dozen paid welfare officers were the key individuals within the 22 zones established under the legislation. The chief welfare officer, Royal, had been assigned to assist Jones in establishing the welfare organisation and setting its operating parameters. In 1946 he became, in the terms of the Act, Controller of Maori Welfare.

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Royal's style was very much that of the military from which he had emerged, in contrast to the participatory methods of the MWEO. He had publicly doubted the viability of parts of the 1945 Act which depended on MWEO-style organisation, particularly those concepts of community empowerment which had, in theory, survived the transition to the welfare organisation. As the key implementer of the Act alongside Jones, he was instrumental in stamping the departmental brand on the new regional and local structures. Furthermore, through careful selection of the welfare organisation's permanent staff he created a section of the department in his own image. The list of welfare officials reportedly 'read like a who's who of the [Maori] battalion', people used to giving or receiving orders. While they were attached to tribal executives, they were clearly defined as Native/Maori Affairs officers. Indeed, they were 'not responsible in any formal sense' to tribal or sub-tribal groupings.

Since their task was, however, to promote 'race uplift', at least some (military background or not) saw themselves as responsible to 'the people' (usually through their relationship with tribal committees) as well as to the controller. This did not accord with departmental wishes, and some of them quickly ran into difficulties. Their first point of tension was generally with the departmental officials in charge of the seven districts into which the country was divided, through which all communication between the field and head office had to pass.

The department emphasised decision making by officialdom, rather than government participation in, response to or tolerance of flax-roots policy formation. With the welfare organisation's committee network placed so firmly within the department, even the small number of autonomist-leaning 'compromises' inherent in the Act were rapidly being compromised. There was, however, a group of ministers who, for various reasons, wanted the organisation to involve the Maori communities in meaningful ways – at the very least by listening to their concerns and ideas and investigating them. For some, this was a matter of expedience. Fraser himself had several motivations, including appreciation of the wartime effectiveness of the MWEO committees as social control agencies. On taking up the Maori affairs portfolio, he declared that the department had been too negative towards consultation with, or even page 235popular participation by, Maori. By the department drawing the line in the wrong place, where it did not fully reflect the intentions of the legislators, efficiency had suffered.

Affinity with subjugated people may have influenced Fraser's assessment of departmental performance; he had reportedly 'never forgotten the experience of the crofters' being dispossessed in his native Scotland. In early 1947, dismayed at the domination of the welfare organisation by the department which he found on taking up the portfolio the previous December, he ordered compliance with the tribally based participatory ethos that had supposedly underpinned the formal structures and functions of the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act. In short, Maori communities were to be involved in its implementation without delay. Welfare officers in the Department of Maori Affairs were to be akin to the recruiting and liaison officers of the MWEO system, the crucial link between government and people, not superior officials supervising subordinates. They were to implement a genuine two-way flow of information and advice rather than act as nothing more than departmental control agents.118

That the 'Maori Social and Economic Welfare Organisation must not be looked upon as merely another branch of the Maori Department' was scarcely a message welcomed in mainstream officialdom. But it gave heart to committee members – and to those welfare officers who were not content to be mere implementers of state-imposed ways of doing things in Maori communities. Yet all still had to operate under an Act that considerably constrained marae or tribally based initiative. The administrative districts followed Maori Land Court boundaries, which were often contentious within Maoridom. The world of the district officers and that of officials in the bureaucratic layer beneath was essentially a pakeha one. The Maori presence operated mostly at the voluntarist level of the tribal committees and the tribal executives.

With the latter, however, there were some problems from a rangatiratanga perspective. Although the tribal executives comprised two representatives from each committee, for example, the boundaries of the areas they oversaw did not necessarily reflect what were, in iwi and hapu eyes, appropriate groupings. Even some tribal executive members argued page 236that the only authentic representative voices in the entire welfare organisation network were those of the marae-based tribal committees. Furthermore, as well as flaws in tribal executive boundaries and mandating, the absence of the high-level representational machinery (district councils, and roles for Maori MPs) that had been envisaged in Tirikatene's Bill impeded further development within the welfare organisation of the wartime kotahitanga which had flourished within the MWEO.

The Prime Minister would frequently state that the organisation's committees were to be as 'independent', 'self reliant' and 'autonomous as possible'. But the fact remained that the only part of the hierarchy with a relatively uncontested claim properly to represent sections of the Maori people, the voluntarist tribal committees, comprised the lowest level of a bureaucratic hierarchy run firmly from Wellington. Whatever Fraser said or believed, the tribal committees and tribal executives were integral parts of the Maori Affairs hierarchy, and its paid officials chose to highlight the caveats he attached to his words about the supposed autonomy of committees – that they were to be independent 'to a very large extent' and only to be as separate 'as possible' from the professional bureaucracy.

And so 'instructions' to the various sections of the welfare organisation went out frequently from the Maori Affairs head office, via its district officers, often after little or no consultation with the flax-roots. Before long the welfare officers were being (in the words of the historians of Maori Affairs) 'treated as the pack horses for other divisions of the Department', rather than – as they had expected to do – mediating between community initiatives and head office and government responses. The equine analogy derived from Fraser, who in 1948 instructed that the department discontinue treating its welfare officers as 'pack-horses' for carrying all manner of Maori Affairs requirements into the community. The minister would, from time to time, lament that departmental attitudes tended to 'nullify the purpose of the legislation'. As late as September 1949, not long before the general election that ousted Labour, he was warning that it was important that the welfare organisation should not be absorbed by the department. But, as an embattled Prime Minister at a time when Labour was losing political ground to both right and left, he page 237had little time or energy to intervene, beyond occasional guideline pronouncements.

In any case, Fraser's public attitude was somewhat disingenuous. While it does seem that he was genuinely frustrated that the welfare organisation constituted little more than 'merely another branch' of the department, this amounted to being hoist with his own petard. It was his own government's choice to support departmentally inspired legislation, rather than opt for the 'compromise' produced by the Maori MPs and their supporters. Moreover, he had been at the political head of the process which gave the existing bureaucracy the opportunity to reshape the former MWEO system into an approximation of its own image. This had not been an accidental development. The fact was that the Prime Minister's idea of the appropriate role for Maori in relation to the state fell far short of the rangatiratanga sought by most tangata whenua, including his own Maori MPs.

Yet from the government's point of view, departmental control of the subordinate levels of the welfare organisation came to pose problems. In particular, Fraser and some ministers came to regret the opportunities for paid officials to be highly interventionist and prescriptive. One consequence was that the processes established by and under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act did not prove an effective way for the political executive to hear the views of the flax-roots. Some politicians and officials, at least, realised that it was important for the politico-bureaucratic centre to know what Maori in the communities were thinking, if only to anticipate future difficulties. Other appreciated that Maori should handle their own affairs, albeit 'with assistance from government officials to back them up when required'. The Education Department's Superintendent of Child Welfare had noted during the war years that 'the Maoris themselves must be given a large share in the responsibility of providing for the betterment of families'. The system did not encourage this. And the lack of higher representative bodies in the welfare organisation meant that Maori views were usually interpreted to central government, if at all, through briefings by departmental officers. Many of these had preconceived institutional and cultural perspectives, or career imperatives, which precluded them from being able or willing to pass on critical or autonomist views from within Maoridom.119