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The Māori Conference of October 1944

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Lachy Paterson
22 August, 2020

In 18-20 October 1944, over 400 delegates from iwi across the country assembled together in the Ngati-Poneke Hall in Wellington.  They met at the invitation of the Māori parliamentary committee, consisting of the Māori parliamentarians, headed by Eruera T. Tirikātene, MP for Southern Maori, and at that time “Member of the Executive Council Representing the Native Race”.  But what was the purpose of this “Maori Conference”, and what was its significance to the Māori Home Front?

Despite the Māori MPs’ involvement, the Native Department were at pains to distance themselves from the event, telling one enquirer “The Conference is not an official gathering but has been convened by the Maori members of Parliament under the Presidency of Hon. E.T.Tirikatene.”[1]

In addition to iwi leaders, Tirikātene invited church leaders, the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers.  In his letter to the Native Minister, Rex Mason, he explained that the planned conference “will be non-party and non-sectarian” and “has been called in response to repeated and urgent requests from the various Maori tribes throughout New Zealand”.  The hui would be future focussed, looking at “Lands, Claims, Education, Vocational Training, Health, Housing, Social Security and Rehabilitation, the proposed Maori Councils Bill” noting that “the future role of the Maori War Effort Organisation will undoubtedly loom large in the minds of the representatives”.[2]   

The Wellington conference was the most important of four hui called by the Māori MPs, first at Ōpoutama (near Mahia) and Rātana Pā, in January 1944 with 72 and 45 delegates respectively.[3]  There was also a smaller follow up conference held at Rotorua in January 1945. 

Other scholars, such as Ngatata Love and Claudia Orange, have (rightly) looked at the 1944 conference as part of the wider struggle between the Native Department and the Maori War Effort Organisation.[4]  Historically Māori had not been served well by the Department, believing that it was more interested in Māori land and finances rather than the welfare of the people.  While the first Labour government (1935-49) was more sympathetic to Māori concerns, and was rewarded with increasing numbers of MPs, Māori, including their MPs, were still concerned about the lack of coordination between the various departments that looked after Māori interests, and that the Native Department was still largely run by Pākehā.[5]

The Second World War presented opportunities for Māori leadership.  The four elected Māori MPs and Rangi Mawhete, a Member of the Legislative Council, formed a committee to progress Māori recruitment; at a time when more troops were needed, Paraire Paikea (Northern Maori) was then appointed to cabinet in 1940, to further stimulate recruitment.[6]  From this position Paikea put forward in 1942 “a scheme for a nation-wide network, operated and controlled by Maori, which would deal not only with recruiting but with all war-related activities”.[7]  In June 1942, the cabinet approved the scheme, and the Maori War Effort Organisation came into being, under the Māori parliamentarians with Paikea as Minister-in-Charge.[8]  [See the earlier story: “Paikea’s Men”]

The Organisation was increadibly effective, overseeing recruitment of Māori into the armed forces and essential industry, as well as promoting agricultural production.  It grew into a network of 41 executive committees within 21 zones, and 315 tribal committees at the flax-roots level.[9] As young women shifted into towns, the MWEO appointed welfare officers to look after their interests.  As Orange states, “the organisation constituted a vital bridge for many Maori between rural and urban life”.[10]

Although the MWEO was meant only to operate for six months, it was so successful that Paikea managed to get its mandate extended twice, and after he died in April 1943, it continued to the end of the war with Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister, as the figure-head, but Tirikātene effectively as the principal leader.[11]  From the perspective of Tirikātene and the Māori parliamentarians, as well as the Māori community more generally, the MWEO was meeting the needs of the Māori people far better than the Native Department, in particular because it was run by Māori themselves.  As the end of the war was approaching, they believed they had proven themselves and wanted to maintain this momentum into peacetime.[12]

The Native Department was resentful of the MWEO’s success, and what it saw as the encroachment on its own activities.  Love, who interviewed Rex Mason for his thesis, stated that he “had had little contact with Maoris in the community”, and “viewed his portfolio in purely administrative terms and seemed unable to accept or understand the special needs Maoris felt necessary for the development of Maori society”.[13]  Together with the Treasury, the Department argued in January 1944 that the Organisation be terminated forthwith. When this proved unsuccessful, the Department then sought to resurrect the old and ineffective Māori Councils as an alternative to the MWEO’s vision for the future, much to the disquiet of the tribal committees around the country.[14]

It was in the context of the Māori wanting to maintain an efficient and effective Māori-run organisation after the war’s end that the Māori MPs called the conference in October 1944.  According to Love, “their idea was to provide a show of force regarding the desires of the Maoris and to have a continuing level of independence in their own administration.”[15]  The conference discussed a number of pertinent issues, but the central theme was one of Māori control of government business relating to Māori.

After the opening pōwhiri and mihi, Peter Fraser gave the initial address.  The speech focused on the need to move forward in a positive manner, in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.  He also declared that, as Prime Minister, “he was charged with the duty of parenthood of the Maori people; that he was to a very real extent the guardian, advocate and the father of the Maori race.”[16] Despite assuring the delegates that the government would “give earnest . . . friendly and sympathetic consideration” to the conference’s recommendations, he was clear that “The Native Department is to be retained as the medium by which Government assistance is to be given to the Maori people in land settlement and the social organization”.[17]

Rex Mason, the Native Minister, rubbed salt into the wounds with his speech to the assembly. He asserted “The Native Department has not the idea, sometimes circulated, that it is the land that comes first and the man second. Not at all.” He went on to detail all that the Native Department did for Māori.  Although he did not say it, much of this had come about in response to the activities of the MWEO.  He discussed the resurrection of the Maori Councils, suggesting “Where-ever people want it the Maori War Effort organisation can be fitted in.”[18]

This was obviously not what the Māori MPs wanted to hear. Nor the iwi leaders.  In general discussions on land, the conference notes attribute short phrases to what may have been impassioned speeches. “Give the Maori the Mana Motuhake. Absolute right to the Maori.” to Hone Hiki [Hone Heke Rankin?] and “(1) Absolute right of the Maori to decide his own destiny (2) Home Rule for the Maori” to Hēnare Tāwhai, both of Ngāpuhi.  One can only imagine the speech of Rangi Mawhete, a Labour member of the Legislative Council, which was reduced to:

Mana Motuhake – 1852 or 1840

Confederation of tribes

Treaty of Waitangi

Native Dept, is the Boss

Not the Maori.”[19] 

When discussing the MWEO, delegates were in favour of keeping it.  Hone Heke Rankin stated “Don’t destroy the War Effort, it is an organisation to keep the Maori united.”  Waka Clarke: “The soul and spirit of the Maori was re-born through M.W.E.” and “Fundamental principle Maori only can interpret the mind of the Maori.” Kelly Harris: “Opportunity to have a voice in our own affairs.”  Capt. Love: “M.W.E. has given the Maori the first say in his own affairs.”  Capt. Werohia: “Don’t let Party Politics – divide us and destroy us” and “Don’t let the Pakehas separate us.”[20]

The conference resolution on the MWEO was telling.  Based on “the freedom and privileges vouchsafed upon us”, that is, both customary and civil rights, and by “the great work which has been performed, and is still being performed by the Maori War Effort Organisation” the conference not only recommended its continued existence, but that it gain statutory recognition, and that it be adequatedly funded.[21]  They also recommended that Mason’s Maori Councils Bill be put off, at least until the end of the war.

Of course, other issues were discussed.  Individual tribes had their own land grievances, and the conference recommended a “competant tribunal” (similar in many ways to today’s Waitangi Tribunal) such as a Royal Commission of Enquiry, and the speedy settlement of claims.  It also sought to remedy the parlous state of Māori housing, for hostels to be built at towns and near hospitals, more and better education and health care.  The report ended with an apology that “on account of paper restrictions that this Report has, of necessity, had to be abridged, and in English only.”[22]

The iwi delegates were remarkably unanimous in nearly all their resolutions.  They liked the autonomy of the MWEO and wanted its structure to continue after the war.  They also expected the government to meet its obligations on the social front. 

The conference’s Rights and Privileges Committee claimed insufficient time to report to the conference, but it is possible that there was disagreement over liquor laws. Certainly some delegates were vocal in demanding the removal of discriminatory restrictions on Māori accessing alcohol, on the principle of equality – that as full citizens, Māori should have the same rights as other ethnicities. 

The churches tended to be hostile to such calls, with the Waiapu Church Gazette quoting from an anonymous Māori that “The Maori is not in all things of age, and should not therefore be declared an adult in all things because of equal ability with the pakeha in some if not most things”, fearing “the gravest consequences” from any liberalisation.[23]  The issue again arose at the Rotorua conference, at which a liberalising resolution was passed.  This was attacked by Matthew Cowley, the Mormon leader, who argued that, despite decrying “the treatment the Maori has received at the hands of the Pakeha during the past one hundred years”, “Is it not rather a perverted sense of values to suggest that the license to consume liquor is the criterion of racial equality without due consideration being given to the relative destructive effects of alcohol on the two races?” “Abstinence, not licence”, he argued, “is the criterion of racial superiority”.[24]

Overall the iwi leaders, whatever their personal political leanings, had backed the Māori MPs at the conference in their push to retain some Māori autonomy over their own affairs, but this was largely in vain.  Although the tribal committees formalised under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945 gave some local authority, communities were placed firmly under the Native Minister and his department.[25]  As Love asserts, “the Government effectively destroyed the incentive and initiative of a large measure of self-determination which had been the motivating factor behind the Tribal Committees during the time of the Maori War Effort Organisation.”[26] 

The October 1944 conference was yet another example of the many lost opportunities in history of Māori-Crown relationships. Who knows what may have eventuated if the government had fully built on the proven track record of the Maori War Effort Organisation in the years following the war.

Images: S P Andrew Ltd, “Head and shoulders portrait of Henry Greathead Rex Mason”. Ref: PAColl-4415-05. /records/22911897; S P Andrew Ltd,  “Eruera Tihema Te Aika Tirikatene”. Ref: PAColl-5547-078. /records/22917675.  Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 


[1] Letter, Under-Secretary, Native Affairs to Secretary, Crippled Children’s Society, 16 October 1944.  Ref: 19/1/35, MA1 Box 378, Archives New Zealand.

[2] Letter, E.T. Tirikātene to H.G.R. Mason, 11 October 1944.  Ref: 19/1/35, MA1 Box 378, Archives New Zealand.

[3] “Maori Conferences”, Gisborne Herald, 3 February 1944, p.4.

[4] Ngatata Love, “Policies of Frustration: The Growth of Maori Politics; The Ratana/Labour Era”, PhD (Political Science, Victoria), 1977, pp.378-384; Claudia J. Orange, “A Kind of Equality: Labour and the Maori People 1935-1949, MA (History, Auckland), 1977, p.146; Claudia Orange, “An Exercise in Maori Autonomy: The Rise and Demise of the Maori War Effort Organisation”, New Zealand Journal of History, 21, 1 (1987): 165. 

[5] Orange, “An Exercise”, pp.156-7; G.V. Butterworth and H.R. Young, Maori Affairs: Nga Take Maori, Wellington: Iwi Transition Agency, GP Books, 1990, p.79.

[6] Orange, “An Exercise”, p.158.

[7] Orange, “An Exercise”, p.158.

[8] Orange, “An Exercise”, p.159.

[9] Love, pp.357-8

[10] Orange, “An Exercise”, p.161.

[11] Orange, “An Exercise”, pp.161-2.

[12] Orange, “A Kind of Equality”, p.145.

[13] Love, p.388.

[14] Orange, “An Exercise”, pp.163, 167; Love, p.378.

[15] Love, p.381.

[16] “Maori Leaders Acclaim Prime Minister”, Standard, 26 October 1944. Ref: 19/1/35, MA1 Box 378, Archives New Zealand.

[17] Quoted in Kelly Harris, “Maori Conference”, Te Karere, December 1944, p.310.

[18] Speech of H.G.R. Mason, Native Minister, 20 October 1944.  Ref: 19/1/35, MA1 Box 378, Archives New Zealand.

[19] Notes of the Maori Conference, Wellington, 18 October 1944. Ref: 19/1/35, MA1 Box 378, Archives New Zealand.

[20] Ibid, 19 October 1944.

[21] Report of the Maori Conference held at Ngati-Poneke Hall,Wellington, 18th to 20th October 1944. Ref: 19/1/35, MA1 Box 378, Archives New Zealand.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Licensing Law Equality”, Waiapu Church Gazette, 1 December 1944, p.18.

[24] Matthew Cowley, “The President’s Page”, Te Karere, May 1945, pp.109, 111.

[25] Butterworth and Young, pp.87-88; Love, pp.396-401; Orange. “An Exercise”, pp.167-168.

[26] Love, p.400.

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