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

Chapter LIII. — Principal Legislative Reforms Advocated By Sir George Grey, M.H.R

page 417

Chapter LIII.
Principal Legislative Reforms Advocated By Sir George Grey, M.H.R.

"Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit till his Lord is crucified.

The principal points to which Sir G. Grey has attempted to direct legislation during the last ten years have all tended to widen the power of the democracy, and to destroy monopoly. Two of his attempts have become embodied in Acts passed by the Legislature.

Throwing Open The Entrance To The Profession Of The Law,

The legal profession in New Zealand was only nominally divided into the two well-known branches, barristers and solicitors. Solicitors were entitled by law to practise at the bar, and barristers had the option of practising as solicitors also. Admission as a solicitor was only to be obtained after many years' service under articles, as in England. To entitle a student to be called to the bar, he must have spent three years in the necessary studies, in imitation of keeping terms and eating dinners at one of the Inns of Court.

The legal profession, therefore, was, as in England, a close monopoly. Sir George felt that in a young colony greater facilities should be given, as in the United States, and as in the olden days of Athens and Rome, to those who were naturally capable of assuming the page 418position of an advocate. He perceived that many young men of industry and talent were shut out from the advantages offered by the liberal profession of the law, and that such men were thus hindered from pursuing an honourable career, and the community was debarred from the benefits arising from their ability.

After continuous effort during several years Sit George managed at length to pass a "Law Practitioners Act," which threw open the practice of both branches of the profession to every man of good reputation who could pass the necessary examinations, and so the law remains. An honourable ambition has spurred many young men to extra and arduous work, and the gates to a brilliant career in life have been opened to all who choose to enter.

The Franchise.

The franchise was conferred upon all male adults of good character within the colony. There were, however, different qualifications —residential and freehold. The bulk of the voters were so by virtue of their manhood and residential qualifications; but there were many owners of property who claimed under the freehold franchise.

The elector whose franchise was residential could be but on one electoral roll, that for the district in which he resided; while the freeholder might possess land in a dozen different districts and have his name on as many electoral rolls. During a general election this state of things enabled landed proprietors to vote on the same day in many districts, and not infrequently elections were turned by this system of plural voting.

After many arduous conflicts Sir George Grey succeeded in altering the law, so that at a general election one voter should have but one vote. Thus, although the name of an elector may still remain upon numerous electoral rolls, he must choose one district in which to vote. That one vote having been recorded, a vote given by him in another district would be a breach of the law making him amenable to fine and imprisonment as well as dis franchisement.

Elective Governors.

In other matters of legislation equally desired by Sir George Grey he was unable to gain success. It had long been his belief that the Governors of the great colonies should be elected by the people. In this, however, Sir George was not able to secure a sufficient follow-page 419ing, although year by year the number of adherents to the principle of elective governors increased.

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.

Income Tax.

The property tax, as framed and sustained by his political opponents, did not touch the yearly income of those whose revenue arose either from their own personal exertions, or from any other cause. It was assessed upon the value of property, irrespective of whether the property yielded an income or not.

Sir George Grey contended that all persons who derived an income in any way from the colony of New Zealand should bear an equitable and just proportion of its public burdens. As this would have levied taxation upon many within the colony who escaped, and would also have called upon all those who, living in other lands, derived a revenue either from the public purse of New Zealand, or from private investments, it provoked stormy and bitter discussions, in which he was constantly accused of advocating a policy which was page 422both dishonourable and inexpedient. But eventually the arguments used by Sir George Grey must prevail, because they are founded upon truth.

And Sir George perceived that there was contained in the assertion of this principle of taxation a deeper and yet more important meaning than the mere levying of taxation for the public purposes of the colony. He saw that there could be no true federation of the Kmpire unless its different parts were placed upon an equal footing, nor until there was a common bond of advantage and liability uniting the different members of this great family of nations.

And if the English creditor and investor in New Zealand were to occupy the position of a resident in the colony, participating in its advantages and helping to bear its burdens, then, and then only, would the web be firmly woven which bound the whole of the different parts together.

Thus to his mind justice and expediency both pointed to the propriety of the course which he proposed, And although he failed to carry his measures in this direction, he was confident that the public mind was sufficiently enlightened and determined to ensure the success of his plans within a moderate period of time.

Land Settlement.

Recognising the fact that the welfare of a new country depends upon the profitable settlement of its lands, especially by a class of small yeomanry, he was always in favour of peasant and small farm holdings. Year after year he attempted to bring forward in the House of Representatives his "Land for Settlement Bill," which provided among other things for the purchase of large estates from private owners for the purpose of cutting them up into smaller holdings, and for giving assistance by the advance of Government debentures, secured upon such lands, to bona fide settlers, thus utilising the public credit towards the productive settlement of the country, and the absorption of surplus population upon the land.

Nationalising The Coal Mines.

Sir George Grey believed that the State might with advantage resume the possession and keep the control of all the coalfields and mines in the colony; that then, producing coal at the cheapest page 423
Sir George Grey's Study, Kawau.

Sir George Grey's Study, Kawau.

page 424possible rate, it would foster manufactures and increase all facilities for commerce. In this, as in other directions, he believed that a co-operative system of industry, adopted and supported by the Government, would be of incalculable advantage, and would possibly prepare the way for a wiser and better economy than that provided by the intense individualism and competition, which, while they have pushed our modern civilisation rapidly forward, have brought in their train the menacing host of labour difficulties which threaten the existence of society. And in this belief he was strengthened by his own personal observation of the circumstances attending the Australasian strike in 1890.

* Simpkin, Marshall and Co., London, 1868, p. 31.