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

Politics, autonomy and welfare

page 238

Politics, autonomy and welfare

While Fraser's stated wishes for a degree of self-determination for Maori were thwarted by the legislation and its implementation, his Maori caucus continued to work assiduously for rangatiratanga. With the wartime emergency over, Ratanaism might have been expected to revert to non-tribal operation. Its formal and centralised institutions (Te Komiti Kura for education, Te Komiti a Iwi/The People's Committee, and Te Komiti Marae for local organisation) were already constituted on that basis. However, the movement appreciated that the vigour needed to get things done lay at the local level – which often meant, in reality, a strong tribally based infusion. The self-supporting and autonomous Ratanaist committees at community level resembled those which had underpinned the MWEO (and now, to some extent, the welfare organisation), with their strong tribal resonance. There was often co-operation and overlap between Ratana and official committees. More broadly, the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act had taken, via the Maori MPs' wordings at drafting stage, some of its operating principles from practices on Ratana marae, helping lock the movement's political leadership into its structures and processes.

Ratanaism's flax-roots activities formed a non-official mass base for the movement's centralised attempts to strategise and co-ordinate action on issues pertaining to 'Maori progress'. The Ratana–Labour caucus in Parliament continued to push for a special Maori co-ordinating department of state, to focus now on fully exploring all possibilities in implementing the 1945 legislation. It would report to Tirikatene, who, however marginalised he might be in governing circles, had retained his membership of the Executive Council and the designation 'Minister Representing the Maori Race'. The Ratana–Labour MPs continued to stress to their own government that Maori harboured 'antagonistic feelings' towards a Department of Maori Affairs whose institutional culture was antithetical to community autonomy. In the absence of any official body with an overarching role to co-ordinate all Maori issues, moreover, the welfare organisation, or at least the ideals that supposedly characterised it, would remain sidelined. In short, the MPs reflected a general Maori page 239perspective that the new organisation could never flourish inside a mainstream department that remained, however broad its welfarist scope, committed to the land-oriented and controlling gaze of pre-war officialdom. Tirikatene was blunt: 'the Maori world is moving away from the Department as quickly as it is possible for them, the Maori people, to do so'.

The Maori MPs took their case to Labour's parliamentary caucus in May 1947. At this time the Ratana movement was re-examining its compact with Labour after experiencing well over a decade of its governance. Reflecting this, its MPs questioned the Fraser ministry's commitment to what, in the final analysis, Maori sought. In doing so they went considerably beyond their usual attack on the implementation of the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act. At the macro-policy level, they noted that, whatever Labour had claimed at the elections, its Maori policy had been characterised by an 'equality' that homogenised and pakehaised rather than by the politics of self-determination. The members of the Maori caucus reminded their pakeha colleagues that, if they were pushed too far, they could turn the mythical 'Maori mandate' into a reality and bring down the government. They asked the assembled pakeha Labour MPs: 'have you enquired as to whether you are giving the Maori crumbs from the Pakeha's table, when the Maori is asking for nothing from your table, but is yearning to get his feet under his own table for a change?' The party caucus, worried at the ramifications of such disaffection, endorsed the concerns of its Maori members.120

The government was also, however, mindful of potential pakeha backlash. Ministers knew, too, that Maoridom would not welcome its political representatives toppling a government that, at the very least, provided more crumbs from the pakeha's table than promised to be the case with the conservative opposition. Fraser exhibited some flexibility, but essentially called the Maori MPs' bluff. His immediately proffered concessions were not great: boosting Tirikatene's role and status, for example, or placing Maori representatives (Tirikatene and fellow MP Tiaki Omana) on the Board of Maori Affairs for the first time. As a measure of the significance or otherwise of these moves, it is sufficient to note that the latter did not prevent the board from continuing to operate page 240mostly as a rubber stamp for departmental policy. Yet Cabinet had been shaken by the strong Ratanaist stand, and a series of small but ongoing concessions eventuated. The Prime Minister himself, for example, encouraged the easing of urban adjustment problems by supporting the idea of community centres to help retain Maori cultural identity in cities, and preparations began in 1948 for one in Auckland's Freemans Bay.

While the Maori caucus had no real choice but to stay with Labour, it continued to put up a sustained fight on behalf of its people. The MP for Western Maori, Matiu Ratana, would sometimes defy the party whip to symbolise the frustration of the Maori politicians. Outside Parliament, the party's Maori Organiser (and Secretary of the Maori Advisory Council), Oriwa Haddon, resigned from Labour and helped form an independent Maori party on a self-determination platform. This and other such efforts, however, were abortive. Most Maori members and supporters of Labour decided to stay on in the party and retain at least some capacity to influence government policy. Drip-fed concessions had made the Maori caucus, in particular, more determined to get greater gains. But it had to put on hold its 'prime objective', placing Maori matters in Maori hands, co-ordinated by a Maori minister presiding over a more amenable bureaucracy.

Fraser worked hard to persuade Maori to give priority to Labour's plans for a more equal society. In particular, he sought to enlist the welfare organisation's assistance in procuring a Maori focus on socio-economic 'uplift', thus marginalising its pursuit of politico-cultural matters that were unique to Maoridom. He urged that the 'Tribal Committees, the Tribal Executives and the Welfare Officers must think out proposals and plans for the advancement of the Maori people in all directions'. Once the committee system had assisted the state in its general goal of raising the living standards of all disadvantaged New Zealanders, he implied, then Maori institutions might be able to evolve towards certain types of self-management. This did not involve rethinking of the long-term Crown project of full assimilation. Rather, it implied a state view that further developments in the exercise of rangatiratanga were premature, and that when they did occur they would have to be in sanitised form. In any case, it was believed, even mild forms of autonomy would not page 241ultimately endure in the face of socio-economic and hegemonic forces.

Such issues were involved in the Prime Minister's early announcement that there was a quid pro quo for that degree of Crown support of Maoridom which existed. In its ongoing endeavours, the welfare organisation – and by extension future approved Maori institutions – must not become a drain on the state. The Maori Welfare Organisation should be to 'a very large extent independent and self reliant' in its resourcing. Not only would this assure the Crown that it would not have to bear an undue welfare burden, but also Maori would see the organisation as their 'own' institution and, therefore, the state's assistance to it would not be 'wasted'. This was conceptually difficult territory, given the assimilationist agenda. So Fraser did not couch his formulations of possible future autonomist developments in terms of tribal identity and resourcing. Instead, there was a clear implication of the temporary nature of the existing tribally based institutions; and a future was posed in which Maori might gain local government powers by dint of their tendency to live in proximity to each other, in whatever circumstances that might involve.

The welfare organisation, then, could evolve into or give way to an institution which Maori 'could control locally' rather than tribally – 'a form of local expression, direction and control'. Indeed, he opined, the committee system could, 'up to a point', lead to 'a measure of local government in matters affecting the living conditions, housing, health and the general welfare of the Maori people'. Even if the state's willingness to foster such a possibility was believed, the question was whether it was a sufficient goal, in terms of indigenous aspirations for self-determination, to encourage enough Maori to work within the welfare organisation to make state support worthwhile.

The beginnings had not been auspicious. Given its superseding of the MWEO, at first mostly members of iwi with a history of strong loyalty to the Crown had considered coming under the scheme, and only a minority of those (such as Ngati Porou) had opted in quickly. When Fraser assumed ministerial control he instructed his bureaucrats to proselytise among iwi and hapu likely to be persuadable. The Ratana– Labour MPs and other Maori leaders complemented these efforts: a second-best route towards recognition of rangatiratanga it might be, but page 242it was the only one the Crown would travel. Moreover, a committee system flourishing under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act could bring considerable influence to bear on the Department of Maori Affairs from within the public sector. And there could be concrete benefits from gaining easier access to various policy and operations divisions of the bureaucracy. After the initial hiatus, membership of the welfare organisation rapidly increased.

Some of the communities which opted in felt that while opportunities for autonomous development through the organisation would be slight, they would sign up to pursue lesser advantages; others believed that doing so might be a way of preserving some of the collective gains they had made during the war. But some were determined to use the welfare organisation's institutions to move towards re-establishment and state recognition of rangatiratanga, emphasising the need to take advantage of all opportunities presented by the system. Tribal executives could purchase land, for example, and so those able to raise funds could work towards recreating tribal resource bases.

Whatever the motives and conceptual and other difficulties, early results in some of the regions that opted in surprised many people, Maori and pakeha. These sometimes reflected the fact that tribal committees, especially those MWEO committees which had seamlessly transferred to the new system, quickly became adept at undertaking a range of activities not envisaged by the Act. It was soon being noted, in fact, that if they were determined enough they could gain a local mandate that was, in a later assessment, 'as wide as they chose to make it'. And where state resources could be procured, it was noted, communities would often thrive: 'social security offices observed healthy children' in areas which had made the committee system work for them. At community level, committee membership often reflected the pre-existing authority of traditional leaders, their work enhanced by access to state personnel and resources. The thriving of some of the pioneering welfare organisation's institutions indicated to initially cautious tribal leaders that the new system, whatever its shortcomings, could be used to pursue welfarist and other policies of benefit to the people.

Successful functioning of tribal executives and tribal committees often page 243coincided with efforts to pursue traditional tribally based rangatiratanga agendas. Whatever the Crown's ultimate intentions, in fact, the new structures were quickly able to produce considerable gains for autonomist causes as well as for 'approved' work. Some rural marae were able to revive their politico-cultural identity on the basis of official help, through the committees, for extending and improving management and productivity of local farming. Such autonomist developments did not concern the authorities too much, because of the 'public good' aspect that was involved. Pakeha had long been vocal about 'idle' Maori-owned land, a campaign renewed in the context of post-war resource scarcity. Independently, pressure for better land use was mounted from within Maoridom after 1947, when an official survey revealed that the area of land farmed by Maori remained small.

Pakeha elements in the welfare organisation structure worked alongside Maori on the land issue. They sought systemised ways of ensuring Maori use of lands that had been 'locked up' through such problems as multiple and absentee ownership and the fact that so much Maori-owned land was farmed by pakeha who were often only loosely controlled by the land management regimes (many of which were deemed to be far from efficient). They shared the widespread assumption that people farming their own land would have greater production incentive. This belief meshed well with the importance to tangata whenua of turangawaewae, although Maoridom's preferred methods of ownership and farming differed from those of the pakeha farming lobby. All considered that urgent action was needed to improve farming productivity by extending it to land that was currently being under-utilised or 'wasted'. In 1949 the Crown, and Maori working within the welfare organisation structure, finalised plans for using the system to expand farming by Maori. Rural Maori leaders looked forward to reaping political and cultural as well as economic benefits for tribal collectivities.

Because of the various perceived benefits from official assistance, tribal opting in to the welfare organisation's committee structure escalated remarkably. In terms of declared boundaries, by 31 March 1948 over 85 per cent of the Maori population had come formally under its coverage. A year later, the welfare organisation comprised 381 tribal committees page 244and 63 tribal executives. By this time the leaders of Waikato–Tainui, the last tribal area to hold out, were continuing reconciliation with the state after settlement of their historical claims. At mid-century, all areas of the country had been officially gazetted under the 1945 Act. While this formal coverage of all Maoridom by the new institutions did not reflect universally whole-hearted support, or even support at all in some areas, it represented a general Maori take-up, without illusions, of the best that the Crown had on offer at that time.

Committees able to get state funding for specific, approved projects in fields such as welfare and farming could provide considerable help to their people. But there were many problems, partly because access to official resources required processes that were often long, complex and time-consuming. Frequently, in the event, they had to find funding and personnel from within their own communities, and so the amount, extent and value of their activities reflected the availability of time, expertise and fund-raising capacity. Securing basic funding and time was not necessarily a great problem at flax-roots committee level, but getting sufficient resources to make a difference in people's lives was a different matter. Access to appropriate expertise could be difficult where traditional leadership had reasserted itself in the face of an educated 'new rangatira' stratum which had previously been gaining ground (as a result of such factors as the secret ballot and wartime experience). The work of tribal executives particularly suffered from resourcing constraints, and as a consequence some became dominated by paid officials – especially the welfare officers.

The tribal executives could in theory meet together at district level but there were no means or encouragement to do so. In the absence of vigorous representation and adequate funding for tribal executives, and of any higher representational institutions, the welfare officers (whose official tasks included advising, helping and steering the committees) were the major intermediaries between the communities and the Wellington-based decision makers. Although this was not necessarily of their making, for they were obliged to take instructions from the controller at Maori Affairs head office, the flow was often in one direction – downwards. Such a high professional bureaucratic profile in the welfare page 245organisation's committee system might have been seen by some communities as a relatively small price to pay if the system had achieved fundamental socio-economic progress. Certainly, successes continued to be reported beyond the first flush of enthusiasm among those iwi which had opted in early on. But, although all state departments were supposed to have a Maori component in their activities and goals, the welfare officers found it difficult to get a number of them to co-operate. This was not helped by a continued lack of will at Maori Affairs to divert itself from its core business to give any great priority to the work of the welfare organisation.

Although the marae-based committees, in particular, could operate successfully in some areas and endeavours, the 1945 Act and its institutions had not, by mid-century, achieved dramatic or across-the-board changes in Maoridom. So pronounced was this that Ngata could declare the Act to be a 'botch' from the perspective of seriously forwarding Maori aims – even those of attaining socio-economic improvement, let alone rangatiratanga. The fundamental problem was that, in essence, the welfare organisation existed to do the Crown's bidding, rather than to find out what Maori wanted and how to implement this in conjunctiom with them. The state's definition of goals and methods that were good for Maori differed, according to the statements of many Maori leaders, from that of the Maori people. Through the welfare organisation, then, the Crown worked to bring Maori into line with what was perceived to be best for them. Ropiha inadvertently acknowledged this in 1949 when assessing that, after a great deal of official guidance, the tribal committees were 'settling down to a better appreciation of their functions'.

The 1950 annual Department of Maori Affairs report talked of the goal of its welfare organisation as achieving tangible, state-desired objectives. When it had succeeded in this, it could then move on to more 'abstract' matters. Such talk had given hope to some welfare organisation participants that real self-government, even some form of self-determination, might be in the Crown's mind. But statements about future goals reflected other Crown agendas, such as appropriate, assimilatory education of Maori children. The overarching policies of the welfare organisation, reflecting the lines of official control, continued page 246to be dictated from the pakeha-dominated centre. Despite some relatively minor devolution to tribal and sub-tribal level, they lay generally within the assimilationist paradigm. In the struggle between the representatives of two 'diametrically opposed philosophical bases', it was the Crown that remained in control.121