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

The liquor question

The liquor question

Wardens became particularly important in tackling difficulties arising out of Maori migration to towns and cities in the quarter-century after the war, especially after this gained huge magnitude from about 1950. Maori leaders were as worried as the state and 'public opinion' (if not more so) by 'anti-social' behaviour by their people in population centres. Far from their traditional socio-tribal support structures, many (especially young) Maori used heavy alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism, which often led to problems with 'the law'. Migrated Maori who rose to provide leadership of their people in the new environment, often in conjunction with city-based welfare officers as well as with leaders 'back home', began to use the Maori warden system to complement their informal efforts to 'recreate community' in the urban areas and, increasingly, their building of welfare organisation institutions there.

But there were endemic problems. The major role for policing in page 255New Zealand was designed to be preventive, based on a highly visible or accessible patrolbased presence. Policing personnel were distinguished from other citizens in that they possessed at all times and in all circumstances a legally sanctioned power to coerce. The informal, collective social control structures of the villages often minimised any necessity for wardens to employ force. But their intervention in disorderly urban incidents was more likely to be overtly coercive, creating tension. Over and above this, there was some resentment among Maori at what was seen as 'double-policing' of their people.

More broadly, an institutional focus on regulating Maori alcohol consumption had been foreshadowed as a conceptual problem at planning stage. There was a general wartime and post-war mood, among 'progressive' thinkers of both major ethnicities, to eradicate all 'race discrimination'. As the war had progressed, there was increasing demand for legal 'equality' in liquor consumption to be enshrined in legislation, and this campaign escalated at the beginning of post-war reconstruction. Many rank and file Maori supported it, their views spearheaded by returned servicemen whose eyes had recently been opened to new possibilities of social and lifestyle equality. Urban migrants, too, had experienced a 'colour bar' as a result of gaining a more visible profile in what had been largely white towns and cities. Many Maori and pakeha believed that legal discrimination in something as important to New Zealand popular culture as drinking helped to legitimise racist behaviour.

Some Maori, moreover, saw equal access to and control of liquor, freed of special stigma for tangata whenua, as an achievable next step in the struggle to gain recognition of mana from the Crown – and therefore a further base from which to continue the struggle for rangatiratanga. An MWEO-organised conference in Rotorua in 1945 had noted that discriminatory liquor legislation applied exclusively to Maori (not even to other indigenous people who had migrated to New Zealand). The delegates declared that, given the equality of sacrifice in the war effort, removal of discrimination was more necessary than ever for restoring the 'mana of the race'.

In some rural areas especially, however, such a move was regarded by tribal leaders as potentially impeding the quest for rangatiratanga. To page 256them, the struggle for self-determination had been weakened by excessive use of alcohol among their people, who needed 'protection' against its scourge. Kingite leaders such as Koroki (who took a huge delegation to Parliament on the issue) and Te Puea held such views, as did the King Country's tribal executive, the East Coast prohibitionist movement and groups elsewhere in the country. Some leaders, then, had sought retention or strengthening of discriminatory practices as one way of warding off modernising influences that disturbed the tenor of tribal life.

Such a strategy not only tended to discount or ignore some pertinent cultural and migratory factors, but could lead to complications. The right to 'otherness' that Maori leaders were claiming could, for example, gain some strange bedfellows when it included discriminatory liquor regulation – including ethnocentric pakeha conservatives (and even white racists). A witness at the 1946 Royal Commission on Licensing answered his own question as to whether Maori should be 'treated differently to the Pakeha in [alcohol] matters': they should be, he argued, because 'the Maori is different. The Maori has no history, traditions, or ingrained customs, or generally accepted rules of conduct, regarding many commonplaces of European ways of life and habits'.

In short, there were two broad methods of approaching rangatiratanga in relation to the liquor question: in favour of or opposing discrimination in law and policing. In the event, it was almost inevitable that legal 'equalising' should win out in the immediate post-war climate of 'equality'. The Labour Party's philosophical roots emphasised all citizens being of equal status: 'the Maori' was (in Walter Nash's words) 'good enough, strong enough, and able enough to stand on his own feet, and he will not reach the heights we would like to see him reach' through continuing to inhabit a 'protected' position. Increasing numbers of pakeha, in fact, had been coming to the same conclusion. A policeman summed up such perspectives by arguing before the royal commission that 'Maoris should be treated the same as any other citizens' and that anything else was both 'a slur on the Maori at this stage of his history' and a bar to assisting Maori to 'stand on his own feet'.

The commissioners agreed, and after much debate the government page 257too decided in favour of equalisation. Even the long-established prohibition in the King Country would soon disappear, following the commission's recommendation to make the area subject to the same rules as the rest of the country: a regional referendum failed to get the required 60 per cent vote for continuing the no-licence regime. Whatever its origin and evolution, the 'sacred pact' between the Crown and tribal leaders, who had equated it with 'our mana and our rangatiratanga', was overturned.

But the main result of the commission was the 1948 Liquor Licensing Act. Under it, Maori consumers of alcohol were put on an equal legal footing with their pakeha counterparts. Maori women were now allowed to drink in public bars, Maori men were entitled to equal access to liquor away from licensed premises, and several other racially based discriminations regarding consumption were repealed. But the interventionary power of the wardens in effect continued a separate surveillance and enforcement regime for Maori, given that they were especially charged with controlling alcohol intake and suppressing liquor-related disorder. Wardens could, for example, order Maori to leave licensed premises or prevent publicans serving liquor to them. From time to time they received extra powers from the government to pursue its desired goals on such issues. In 1951, for instance, wardens gained greater control over drinking on marae, particularly during hui, a development welcomed by some in rangatiratanga terms and opposed by others promoting the same cause in different ways.

The main liquor-related order problem, however, was increasingly seen to be in the towns and cities. Here it took time for warden policing to make an impact. Meanwhile, greater Maori visibility in urban areas had not only reminded pakeha that full assimilation had not arrived, but led many to depict Maori 'differentness' in derogatory terms – especially because of alcohol-related disorder. It was widely believed that Maori both drank excessively and 'could not hold their liquor' and so special coercive attention was required beyond that of the warden system. In the event, a 'progressive' reaction against such ethnocentric perspectives meant that demands for much greater Crown controls on Maori than on pakeha were not fulfilled. But, along the way, various Maori requests to page 258operate their own control measures independently of the state were also rejected. Deployment of wardens, then, remained as close as Maori leaders and communities were to get in terms of special, officially sanctioned regulatory powers over their own people.123