Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 1 (Winter 1952)
– 21 –

of Maori Self government

In 1900 the idea was first broached in Parliament that it would be desirable for the Maori people to have some form of local self-government, similar to that of borough or county councils. Sir James Carroll, then Native Minister, and the young Maori Party which also encouraged the measure, felt that such local self-government would be of especially great help in raising Maori morale and in conserving in some way the rights of the Maori people to rule themselves in their own organisation.

Thus the Maori Councils were established by the Maori Councils Act, 1900. This legislation authorised the Maori people ‘to frame for themselves such rules and Regulations on matters of local concernment, or relating to their social economy as may appear best adapted to their own special ones’. Power was given to the Council to make by-laws for the following purposes:


Providing for the healthy and personal convenience of the inhabitants of any Maori village.


Enforcing the cleansing of houses and other buildings in dirty and unwholesome state.


The suppression of common nuisances.


The prevention of drunkenness and sly grog selling.

The Act also regulated the proceedings of tohungas. Provision was also made for the proper registration of dogs, the branding of cattle, suppression of gambling, matters affecting oyster-beds, water-supply, schools, sanitation and general social matters.

In 1911, representatives of Maori Councils throughout New Zealand were called to a conference at Wellington. At this conference it was decided to continue the Councils, as it appeared that they had many beneficial effects on the Maoris, especially in the improvement of housing and sanitation conditions and the restriction of various abuses. The influence of self-government on morale might have contributed to the spirit of hope evident in the Maori people at the time through rise in population, school attendance and industry generally.

However, the grave problem facing the

– 22 –

conference was that of finance. The only income of the Maori Councils was derived from fines and dog taxes. This being hopelessly insufficient, the conference proposed the institution of various additional taxes. It seems, however, that in practice it was impossible to levy any of them satisfactorily.

It is, indeed, remarkable that the Maori Councils were able to keep alive as long as they did with practically no money. In 1930, some new life was infused into them when they were empowered by a Health Act to carry out sanitary works and to enforce by-laws relating to health and sanitation. Control over the Councils was taken over by the Health Department and a Director of Maori Hygiene appointed. Sir Peter Buck was the first Director.

Even so the difficulties of finance and the inability to enforce the by-laws prevented the Maori Councils from being healthy institutions. A new large Maori Councils conference was held at Ngaruawahia in 1929. Here a letter to the Native Minister was unanimously approved, expressing the opinion ‘that the Act did not supply that authority which was necessary to enable the several Councils to carry out the full intention of Parliament’. The conference recommended consolidating the Maori Councils Act and by-laws and supplying finance by means of subsidy. As a result of these recommendations the by-laws were in fact revived, but nothing further happened until 1940. According to the Health Department the position of the Maori Councils in 1945 (the date of their abolition) was as follows:

Number of Councils 26
Inactive operation 6
Village Committees appointed (representing 12 Councils only) 149
Inactive operation (including Tribal Committees acting as Village Committees) 84

War Years

During the war years the importance of the Maori Councils suddenly became obvious to all. Perhaps the reason was the much closer contact between Government and population. As Maoris were not registered in any way the only possible contact could be through Maori local bodies.

The Army had to make use of the Tribal organisations for its recruiting. At the same time the Health Department became concerned at the inactivity of many of the Councils, not only due to lack of financial support and inability to enforce by-laws, but also in some cases to the personnel of the Councils which was sometimes unsuitable. The various Health schemes inaugurated by the Department required the efficiency of the Councils. Accordingly, the Director General wrote to the Native Department, as it was then called, proposing that a small grant should be made to Maori Councils providing they were doing satisfactory work. Simultaneously, the Maori Affairs Department received requests from many quarters to revive the Maori Councils,

The effect was that the Maori Affairs Department prepared a Bill submitted to the Minister on the 27th January, 1941. The threat to New Zealand in the Pacific postponed the consideration of this Bill till late in 1942, when it was considered by the Law Draughting Office and interested Departments. The Bill was to come into operation as the Maori Councils Act, 1943, and was discussed fully at the conference of Maori delegates convened by the War Effort Organization. However, Maori opinion did not agree with some parts of the Bill which was accordingly not passed. In particular, this early Bill still desired to confer statutory powers on the Maori Councils, while in fact Maori administration in 1943 was already beginning to be conducted through Tribal Executives.

While the Government was attempting to revive the Maori Councils in this way an entirely new movement, the Maori War Effort Organisation, had grown up in the Maori world. The origin of this movement was to be found in the voluntary recruiting done by local Maori groups in the early days of the war. These groups were responsible for very efficient recruiting in certain parts of the country.

Towards the end of 1941 it became, however, apparent that some Maori districts were lagging behind in the supply of manpower for the battalion while the drain on other districts had almost reached the point of exhaustion. At one stage, the War Cabinet felt inclined to introduce conscription for Maoris, but these plans were dropped when the Hon. P. K. Paikea proposed the founding of his War Effort Organisation. In July, 1942, when the Maori War Effort Organisation was begun, the recruitment totalled approximately 6,000 men in the Armed Forces, and 7,500 in the Home Guard. In addition, approximately 8,000 Maoris had been drafted into the essential industries.

By the 9th of March, 1943, according to the Organisation Statistics, an additional

– 23 –

1,300 men had been enlisted for the Services and 2,700 for the Home Guard. 3,600 Maoris had entered the essential industries. If these figures are correctly recorded there could not be many more Maoris capable of being recruited and registered for the various Services. After this time, recruiting therefore began to lose importance and the Maori War Effort Organisation began to serve much wider purposes than that of recruiting. The Organisation resembled the Maori Councils in certain ways except that it had no statutory authority of any kind, and therefore had no by-laws, and could not, enforce any rules in its own right. As, however, the administration of by-laws under the Maori Councils Act had always been a rather doubtful affair, it can be said that the Maori Councils were largely superseded in the early war years by the new Organisation.

The Tribal Committees and Executives working under the Maori War Effort Organisation were not provided with finance, but they were highly successful in the collection of money which was, to a large extent, used for social amenities and Christmas Cheer for Maori servicemen, and for investment in war bonds.

The ‘liaison officers’ of the Maori War Effort Organisation, however, were salaried out of War Expenses Account. This was the first time in New Zealand that an organ of Maori self-government was financed by public money.

While recruiting lost its importance, the emphasis now began to be laid on food production and utilization of Maori manpower. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Maori War Effort Organisation was the help in supplying New Zealand with labour at moments of crisis. In addition, a good deal of welfare work was taken up by the Organisation, and the Tribal Committees assumed the powers of the Maori Councils and Village Committees in a number of districts with considerable success and efficiency.

In this nation-wide Organisation it was possible to read the signs of the unification of the Maori people and at least partial fading out of the distinction of tribalism. It is, however, questionable whether it was entirely the Maori War Effort Organisation which united them. After all both the Ngati Porous and the Waikato Tribes remained at a certain distance from the Organisation. Yet is can not be denied that the Maori war effort has been the means of fanning the flame of patriotism in many districts and has made possible a more even distribution of the load of the War Effort among the Maori people.

There was strong feeling in the Maori world that the Maori War Effort Organisation should not disappear altogether as soon as the war ended. The Maori Councils Bill, 1943, did not provide for such continuation. A compromise had, therefore, to be found combining the purposes of this Bill, which were undoubtedly desirable, with the existing Tribal Organisations. Two schools of thought developed. Some of the leaders contended that a Minister of Maori Social and Economic Reconstruction should be created to stand independently of the Ministry for Maori Affairs, and which was ‘to provide machinery for the local self-government of the Maori race and to make better provision for their social, physical and economic wellbeing’. The idea was that such a department would act as a liaison organisation linking up the various social services with the Maori Tribal committee and executive.

Others, however, objected that in that case there would be two departments administering Maori affairs, which might have resulted in a rather inefficient administration.

The problem was finally solved by incorporating the Tribal Committees and Executives as they in fact existed in the Maori Councils Act.


Thus the Maori Social and Economic Advancement act was passed in 1945. Outwardly this Bill is much like the earlier one; it confers a limited measure of self-government upon organised Maori communities. However, there is a great difference between the Maori councils and the committees which are now given statutory powers.

First of all the tribal executive is no longer primarily a local body, like the councils, it is no more than an administrative unit, instituted for the sake of convenience. Many of the tribal committees, in towns and cities, are also mainly administrative, as Pakeha and Maori have intermingled to such an extent that many Maoris no longer live in the Maori villages. This means that the broader aspects of social and economic advancement are likely to interest a tribal committee, or executive, more than they did a Maori Council, which was primarily concerned with local body problems.

The most important advance in the new Act is, of course, that subsidies are now granted and travelling expenses of members

(Continued on page 46)


50 Years of Maori Self Government

(continued from page 23)

paid for. The amount of subsidies paid out has risen steeply the last few years; this year £65,000 was allowed for this purpose in the Estimates. If the availability of this subsidy money leads to the collecting of another £65,000 from Maori sources for marae and other amenities, a considerable rate of development is possible which was not possible before.

The problem of seeing that the tribal executive by-laws are observed is a difficult one which is only beginning to be tackled. The greater confidence of the Maori of today should be an advantage in solving this problem, but nothing effective can be done until legally correct by-laws are drawn up. Free assistance in this task is available from the Maori Affairs Department.

Another danger to the tribal organisation might lie in the continuing individualisation of the Maori, and the breakdown in the communal way of living. However, it seems at present that a large percentage of the Maoris who have entirely taken up the pakeha way of life are still anxious to take part in the life of the tribal committees. There is no reason to think that this will change in the near future. It may be more correct to say that the old communal spirit, still existent in the Maori Councils period which was mainly based on living together in the same village, is gradually disappearing, but that a new, and equally important, communal spirit has sprung up in the Tribal Committees. What brings the Maoris together now is a unity of destiny. They are the same race, have the same ancestry, and they have the same problems in a Pakeha world. When they live interspersed among the Pakehas in a town or city, they still have a need to form a close community. When they live in a Maori village, the old community spirit still survives to a good extent. The Tribal Committee life, like everything else, is at present in a state of rapid transition.