Māori War Effort Organisation

Page 4 – An uneasy compromise

Policy on Maori Affairs under scrutiny

Minister of Native Affairs Rex Mason, wanting to curb the Maori War Effort Organisation's expansion or entrenchment, in 1944 initiated moves to introduce to the Native Department a system of welfare officers. He also drafted a bill to revive Maori councils, most of which had lapsed or been incorporated into the MWEO. The bill was rejected by the MWEO's representatives and the Maori MPs. They recommended the establishment of a new Department of Maori Welfare (or Administration) that would incorporate Maori from the senior administrative level to grass-roots tribal committees. The aim was to retain a degree of Maori autonomy, and to use government resources more effectively for accelerated Maori development.

The triumph of the Native Department

The Native Department opposed the plan. The Prime Minister, though sympathetic to Maori aspirations for controlling their affairs, wanted to avoid a rise of Maori nationalism, and preferred a reformed Native Department. Mason was left to finalise the necessary legislation and was influenced by Apirana Ngata (still influential after losing his eastern Maori seat in 1943) who also feared the political potential of the MWEO).

The Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945 left the structure of the Board and Department of Native Affairs intact. The tribal and executive committees were incorporated into the department's structure, but there was no specific provision for Maori leadership.

An uneasy compromise

The act was a compromise that satisfied no one. Maori were generally doubtful about its prospects of successful implementation and Native Department staff viewed it merely as a means of absorbing the MWEO's personnel into their ranks.

As Minister of Maori Affairs for the last three years of the first Labour government, Fraser pushed for the act's speedy implementation, but progress was slow. Rangi Royal was appointed Chief Welfare Officer and a number of welfare officers took up posts. Kuini Te Tau and Rumatiki Wright were two early appointees. By March 1948, eighty-five per cent of the Maori population was organised in the areas gazetted under the act.

Opportunity lost?

Fraser had high hopes for the new structure. He believed that Maori spirit and energies, demonstrated in the war effort, could be harnessed for peacetime development. He wanted the tribal committees to take the initiative in generating plans and proposals for Maori advancement and to approach government agencies for assistance.

But, given the terms of the act, Fraser's expectation that Maori might consider the tribal committee structure to be a measure of self-government was unrealistic. Firmly under departmental control, the committees were to work only at local level on useful projects that were subsidised. Tribal power was divorced from responsibility for development of any sound economic base for Maori advancement. And there was no provision for the committees to play a role at the national level, as the MWEO had hoped.

Established and accorded special powers because of war needs, the Maori War Effort Organisation had fulfilled its role. Paternalistic patterns of government policy-making and decision-taking were reasserted.