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The Life and Times of Sir George Grey, K.C.B.

Land Tax

Land Tax.

During his Premiership in 1877-78, Sir George had established a Land Tax, which his opponents, on succeeding to office, had converted to a Property Tax. To both sides it was clearly apparent that while a Land Tax, especially upon large estates, might, and under the pressure of growing public burdens probably would, be increased from time to time, a Property Tax, which was practically paid Try the masses of the people, would not he so likely to be enlarged in amount.

During the ten years between 1880 and 1890, Sir George Grey's efforts were unremitting to re-establish the Land Tax. There was another active motor in his mind urging him strongly in this direction.

He had, for many years, been convinced that that increase of value in land which John Stuart Mill, in consultation with himself, had termed the "unearned increment" belonged not to the individual owner of the particular piece of land itself, but to the community whose presence and labour had given to the land such increased value. Upon a modified scale, therefore, he was conducting a warfare against the monopoly of land values, similar to that which was commenced by Gournay and Quesney under Louis XV. in France; and carried on by Mr. Wallace in England, and to a still greater extent by Henry George in America.

The landed and financial interests were too strong for him to overcome. But he uttered many eloquent vindications of the principle for which he contended, and without doubt sowed the seed of a future beneficial harvest for the people of New Zealand.

In the debates which took place at the time of his imposition of a land tax, Sir George Grey fiercely attacked that abuse of public influence by which some of the leading provincial politicians had perverted the trust of the public lands confided to them, into machinery for appropriating to themselves great estates in fraud of the people. Upon two methods by which this was accomplished he was especially severe. These were known by the names of "gridironing" and "spotting" It was in. allusion to the system of page 420"gridironing" that in his speech in the House of Representatives, on October 3rd, 1878, on the Land Tax Bill, Sir George thus spoke: "I believe that the system of administering the land which we propose will be admitted by the country to be just and beneficial. Consider, by the way of contrast, the system of land administration which has proceeded in Canterbury. How eminently unjust was that! The Government was practically saying while that existed: 'Come here, all men. In this favoured province you shall roam where you pleass. Pick out any spot which is fitted for your purposes, which is pleasing to your eyes, and you may become the owners by paying £2 per acre for it. The whole country lies open to you.' Then for the convenience of their surveys they say to the intending purchaser, 'You must not take a less extent of land than twenty acres, because the cost of the survey is very great.'

"How did people who wished to acquire large tracts of land interpret that? They took a road-line, and for some distance behind that line they had long sections laid out parallel to the road, and then they divided the country-side between the road and the long sections parallel to it into sections, one of twenty acres, then one of nineteen acres and so on. Then when the poor man who had saved a little money to buy a small farm, went out to select his land and chose a section he longed for, and came back to the Land Office and said: 'I will take that section'; he was told, 'You cannot select it, for it is less than twenty acres.'

"Again, perhaps, he went, his loss of time and Ms toil in like manner to be lost, and himself made ridiculous. Then he was perhaps told that these nineteen-acre sections might be put up to auction. How poor his chance in competition at auction with a wealthy land owner who owned the land on three sides of the section the man of small means wished to acquire!"

Sir George Grey was displeased and astonished at the fact, that men holding great public positions, should use those positions for their own aggrandisement. One of the deepest and strongest causes of the enmity with which he was regarded by many of his political opponents was found in the persistent denunciations which he uttered against the wrong-doing of themselves and their friends in this way. If it should be thought that Sir George Grey was mistaken, either in his facts or in the necessary deductions therefrom, page 421it is sufficient to show that other men of position and influence, and not disposed to view such transactions from the same standpoint as Sir George Grey, admitted the facts upon which he had reasoned. An appropriate illustration of this may be given in the following extract from "Lectures on a Visit to the Canterbury Colony,"* by Lord Lyttleton:—

"Nominally anyone might come in and buy any of these lands over the squatter's head, but besides that in these remote places it would not be worth buying, the early squatters had what was called `a pre-emptive right' to buy at a fixed price of £2 per acre such parts of the land as they had made improvements upon. They used to 'spot,' as it was called, these improvements on different parts of the run—the effect being that the intermediate parts were valueless without them, and these they thus secured."

To one, who through his long course of public power, had deemed it improper to acquire an acre of land in a colony where his presence and authority might be supposed to afford him exceptional opportunities, and whose first principle in regard to the lives of public men was that their hands should be absolutely clean, such conduct was naturally abhorrent. And the fierceness of his attacks against individuals and political parties, believed by him to be guilty of such practices, drew forth storms of anger which were never laid to rest.