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The Maori Situation

X—The Native Affairs Commission

page 76

X—The Native Affairs Commission

It is not a little unfortunate that practically all that is publicly known about this constructive effort among the Maori people should have come through unfavourable means. Sir Apirana Ngata, unlike some other Ministers, has always characteristically ignored press publicity for what he was doing, so that in the pakeha world practically nothing was known of his immensely significant work until certain aspects of it came under criticism. This has had the unhappy result of making a fair and balanced view of it, in Parliament, in the Press, and in the general community, practically impossible.

When the Controller and Auditor-General's report on the public accounts was presented to Parliament early in December 1933, it was found to contain, as rumour had freely predicted, a reference to the unsatisfactory condition of the accounts of the Maori land development schemes and of Maori unemployment relief. The Controller and Auditor-General had in his previous report to Parliament drawn attention to this same fact, and now found that not only had there been no improvement but irregularities had become more apparent. Investigations, he said, were still proceeding. Though the report dealt with many other matters, the attention of Parliament was concentrated almost wholly upon this one item, and in its treatment of it the operation of party politics was at once apparent. As Sir Apirana Ngata said much later, it was “good stuff for the Opposition,” certain members of which are still making it a means for the accumulation of political capital.

Sir Apirana Ngata stated that when the contents of the report were made known to him he had addressed a letter to page 77 the Controller and Auditor-General inviting the fullest inquiry and at the same time had verbally placed his resignation in the hands of the Prime Minister. Sir Apirana repeated his desire not only for a full inquiry into specific charges of irregularity, but for an all-round review of the administration of Native affairs and of the whole Maori problem. While doing this he pointed out to the House something which was and is indubitably true, and which has conditioned this whole inquiry and its outcome, namely, that the whole race is more or less suspect. “If,” he said, “we have done nothing else, and I mean myself, the Maori Member in Parliament, and the officers of the Native race who permeate the ranks of the service and who have been putting their shoulders to the wheel during the last four or five years to undertake this tremendous job under the most adverse conditions—this is due to them and to the communities that are behind them; that the position be not misunderstood, that some of this is happening because the whole race is under suspicion as incapable of adjusting themselves to the business conditions imposed by the time.” Had the Department involved been any other than the Native Department the general attitude adopted would very probably have been a different one, though in no other Department would this have mattered in the same way. Here it mattered greatly, as will be shown. The Prime Minister stated that he did not regard the resignation of the Native Minister as necessary or desirable, and after a protracted debate it was agreed to refer the report of the Controller and Auditor-General to the Public Accounts Committee of the House. This Committee took lengthy evidence from a number of persons and reported in part as follows:

“In view of the great importance to the Maori race and to the Dominion of the maintenance of the policy of assisting Maoris to develop and farm their lands, and the danger that may arise at this juncture from a misunderstanding of page 78 the difficulties they labour under, or of their method and customs in relation to the organisation of their labour and activities, and in view also of the disquiet in the minds of the taxpayers of the country, the Committee is of the opinion that the scope of any inquiry should be much wider than those specific issues, and therefore recommends that a Commission be appointed to investigate not only the matters arising out of the reports of the Controller and Auditor-General, but the whole of the administration of Native Affairs, especially in regard to the development of Native land and the administration of the estates of the Maori people.”

Parliament adopted the report, and a Commission, consisting of a Judge of the Supreme Court, a barrister and solicitor, a public accountant and a farmer was appointed in February 1934, and reported in October of the same year. Its inquiries were public and were fully reported in the Press The Maori people were keenly affected by it and felt that they and their leader were on trial, an impression heightened by the legalistic methods adopted by the Commission; the use of opposing counsel to lead evidence and the continual cross-examination of witnesses producing almost a Supreme Court atmosphere. The content and tone of its report made the resignation of Sir Apirana Ngata as Native Minister inevitable, and it was regretfully accepted by the Prime Minister. In the reception of the report by Parliament and by the Press there was little or no recognition of the surely important fact that many of the matters with which it dealt had already been rectified. In 1932, as a result of certain criticisms and recommendations made by the National Expenditure Commission in its survey of the administration of Maori affairs, the exceptional powers given to the Native Minister in connection with land development had been curtailed and a Native Land Settlement Board, consisting of several heads of Government Departments and other appointed page 79 members, was proposed to control the expenditure of moneys in connection with these matters. Though the Board duly came into existence it apparently took a considerable time to exercise its functions. At any rate it was credited with none of the responsibility for what the disclosures of the Commission revealed. At the end of 1933 the Native Department was re-organized, and before the Commission reported methods of accounting such as would satisfy the Audit and Treasury Departments had been put into operation. The Controller and Auditor-General did not think that a Commission was necessary, stating before the Public Accounts Committee that his own officers could make such investigations as were required. Two cases of misappropriation of Maori unemployment funds had been dealt with by the Courts, while another case, the bringing of which was an indication of the general attitude of suspicion and distrust, had failed in the Supreme Court.

It is not to the purpose of the present writer to make a detailed examination of the report of the Commission. Some general impressions may, however, be stated. The report showed clearly that the financial organization of the Native Department had been quite inadequate to meet the demands made upon it by the initiation and rapid extension of the development schemes, and that serious irregularities had in consequence resulted. The Commission fixed the responsibility for this upon the Minister who, it may be noted, in none of his statements had in any way attempted to evade it. The report thus became, in spite of the very general order of reference given to the Commission, largely an indictment of the Minister. Public expectation, newspaper-created, was running high, and in all the circumstances the almost inevitable tendency was to prove a case. The result was that the main point of view of the Commission and its mode of presenting its findings led to the work of Sir Apirana Ngata page 80 being shown well out of perspective. It is true that a certain tribute was paid to his work and to the value for the Maori people of what had been accomplished, but in proportion the major and minor faults, and these were scarcely separated, loom too large. Debit and credit do not seem in the outcome to be fairly balanced. While attention was directed, not without a certain self-righteousness (which one feels throughout), to those circumstances where Sir Apirana Ngata and others occupied positions in which, it is repeatedly said, “their interest conflicted with their duty,” the same emphasis was most certainly not given to the general situation where their interest and duty most conspicuously coincided. It is highly doubtful if the Commission, painstaking as it undoubtedly was, realized the full magnitude of the work done, its peculiar difficulties, saw it sufficiently against its general Maori background, or sensed the full inwardness of the Maori situation. One was astonished to find that though mention was made in the report of the complex human factors in the Maori situation and of certain persisting features of Maori life and mentality, Sir Apirana Ngata's own reports being quoted freely on these matters, the Commission clearly did not realize their implication, see how these things actually affected administrative methods and the course of events, and how they should in consequence temper judgment of events. This was a most lamentable failure of imagination; or perhaps it was that the Commission could not see the wood for the trees; or even that it “knew the Maori” already. One example must suffice. The Minister was more than once charged with favouring his own tribe, the Ngatiporou, in his administration. The Commission, with all that it had before it, should have been able to realize the singular importance of this tribe as a continuous example in present Maori life; the fact that it has led and is leading the other tribes in the renewal and readjustment of the Maori people and that it has gone further page 81 and is at present able to go further than most other tribes can. It was essential, in fact, to “favour” Ngatiporou. These facts if fully realized should have modified the all too easy and obvious charge of partiality in administration due to Sir Apirana Ngata's membership of this people. The taking of the Maori point of view and the ability to exercise a modicum of intuition would have altered other judgments, but in general, while mentioning existing characteristics of Maori life and even stating the need for administration being “patient, sympathetic and friendly” the complete rightness of the pakeha way of looking at things was tacitly and even complacently assumed.

It is clear that it was the exceptionally wide powers originally conferred upon the Native Minister, dispensing as they did with certain safeguards in accounting rigidly applied in other Government Departments, that led to irregularities in the accounts. But, if the unique nature and difficulties of this enterprise be realized and the unique position of Sir Apirana Ngata as the trusted leader of the Maori people be also realized there is much to be said in justification of these special powers having been granted. Sir Apirana was initiating something entirely new, something the circumstances of which he himself alone—it may be truly said—fully understood. He probably, as one can see now, took too much upon himself personally, carrying out a prodigious amount of work much of it of a type usually capable in other Government activities of being left to departmental officers. Students of political science point out that a good Minister knows how to delegate work, but here, from the nature of the case, it could not be delegated. And Sir Apirana was, as he himself admitted, almost obsessed, since it was so real, with the human side of the problem to the exclusion of other considerations. Of the Maori feeling about financial and human values and their relative importance more will be said later. page 82 Looking back Ngata was frank in his admission of failure to establish a system of checks over details of finance such as the departure from the usual routine departmental methods would require. From the first, enthusiastic and energetic, with the opportunity for which he had so long prepared and with his tremendous urge to get things done, he went ahead, as has been said, as though he were fighting a war. Ordinary departmental methods would never have sufficed to initiate the schemes and to push forward with them to meet the demand which quickly arose to have lands brought under development. Sir Apirana was openly defiant of “red tape” and under the circumstances of the staffing of his department the inevitable consequences appeared. It is all too easy to look back now and see that he should have hastened more slowly. Thus so far as the financial irregularities themselves are concerned while little or nothing can be said in justification something can and should be said in extenuation. Work of peculiar difficulty and novelty was rapidly undertaken by a department which was clearly neither adequately nor efficiently staffed to cope with it and the Minister's interest was “in the field” where the real problem lay. In addition there were soon further complications for the inadequate clerical staff caused by the extent of the Maori unemployment problem. It should be clearly realized that Sir Apirana Ngata had to run a business which was continuously and rapidly expanding when the Government was making strenuous efforts to cut down the Civil Service. In more than one instance during his administration the Minister was “let down” by dishonest men. The Commission, it should be noted, did not charge that administration had been in general extravagant, popular belief to the contrary. So far as land purchases are concerned, while two or any number of wrongs do not make a right, one may be permitted to wonder what would have been the report of an equally conscientious page 83 Commission had one been appointed to inquire into the postwar settlement of ex-soldiers on the land, and how many “Iles purchases” it would have disclosed. This, however, is not said to palliate the faults and dishonesty which did exist in the Native Department.

On the whole Parliament received the report as fairly as party exigencies will permit, and probably actual difficulty in reading the report in the form in which it was presented (for it is badly arranged, with little or no separation of the general from the particular) led to its more favourable references being overlooked. Much goodwill towards the Maori people was expressed in the House, though one doubted if in some cases, since it was so vigorously protested, this was more than verbal, and if an attitude of distrust did not really underlie it. Sir Apirana Ngata's attitude was single-minded throughout. From the first mention of the matter in Parliament his real concern had been, not to protect or in any way to justify himself, but rather to prevent harm being done to the Maori situation, through the Maori interpretation of the pakeha attitude toward them. This concern was quite beyond the understanding of some members of the House and quite beyond some newspaper editors. The Maori people react very sensitively to pakeha criticism and are usually not in a position to understand its exact direction and extent. Their self-confidence is just re-emerging. They are not as yet by any means sure of themselves in their new enterprises, and are all too ready to feel inferior and resentful at criticism they do not fully understand. Their leader was in the unique position of having to explain each people to the other, and in a thus uniquely difficult situation, personal and racial, was concerned above everything to use his influence with his people to assure them of the reality and the continuance of pakeha goodwill and hearten them to continue their work. Giving his evidence before the Public Accounts page 84 Committee Sir Apirana had placed the Maori position before the other race. “Whatever else may come out of this investigation, there is one thing that I should like the Committee to consider, one thing that the Government of the country should consider and the people of the country bear in mind—that this body of Maori settlers that were put on to these native lands has been working under a severe strain the last four years; they have only been able to maintain it by the inspiration of the men who have been leading them. No other way. I know that many a time they have been almost at breaking point.” Press comment on the report and on the resignation of the Minister was, with one base exception, in general fair. Where it failed to be fair, this was apparently due to complex political influences. One could wish that the goodwill that was so evident was supplemented by a deeper understanding. In his lengthy and eloquent speech in the debate in Parliament on the Commission's report Sir Apirana replied successfully to certain specific findings, amplifying from his own knowledge and from the Maori point of view the material before the Commission. But the most outstanding features of his speech were his affirmation of his own personal integrity, his right, as he said, to “hold his head up,” his spirited defence of his own tribe in its relations with the Government, his declared intention of wholeheartedly serving his people in all possible ways “until he dropped,” and his plea for a really broadminded and genuinely sympathetic attitude on the part of the pakeha. These were admirable. But though the ex-Minister did all in his power to prevent it, the harm was done. The Maori people, though mostly confused as to the reasons, yet knew that they had been robbed of their leader, of the leader who had inspired them with the new ideal. The result was a hesitancy and a slackening of effort, a tragic loss of heart by some of the Maori tribal leaders, and among the people a feeling of resentment that page 85 the pakeha, as they believed, had so evidently something against them. Up to this point there had been remarkably few failures among those who had undertaken development work. Now the number, for all that Sir Apirana may do in co-operation with the pakeha Native Minister, will almost certainly be greater. His resignation was in its circumstances and effects quite unlike what the resignation of any other Minister would have been, and no one interested in the welfare of the Maori people can fail to regret that the investigation was not carried out and the necessary reforms, beyond those already effected, initiated in a way less damaging to them. The whole thing should have and could have been done in a different way; and, or so one would prefer to believe, it was lack of knowledge of the inwardness of the Maori situation that was the real reason why it was not.

In spite of all that has been disclosed regarding the Ngata land settlement schemes, if there has been in New Zealand in recent years any other constructive human enterprise that can be compared with this one, that has been consciously and imaginatively conceived, prepared for in half a lifetime of effort and experiment, and then untiringly carried forward in the face of the most complex human and material circumstances, then the present writer must admit that he for one has entirely failed to observe it. What pakeha administration may make of it—and one trusts that it will be temporary—will depend on the degree of real knowledge of Maori matters possessed by Minister and officials, on the generosity of mind displayed, and on that real belief in the Maori people which itself helps to create their response. No one could conceivably wish to see such a constructive effort dissipated. It must at all costs be conserved. More intuition and a less prosecuting tone in the report of the Commission on Native Affairs would have done much to conserve it.