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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XXI — Some Bones of Contention

page 258

Chapter XXI
Some Bones of Contention

Now who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
Ten who in ears and eyes
Match me; we all surmise,
They this thing, and I that; whom shall my soul believe?

During the ten years beginning in 1879 New Zealand finance was little more than a series of attempts to avert deficits. In their endeavours to raise the revenue required for interest payments on the still swelling public debt, and the inevitably growing departmental expenditure, various Treasurers turned to the Customs. In raising money by duties they received support both from those who wished to protect local industries and from those who wished to postpone the putting of heavy taxation upon land. Sir Harry Atkinson, the Treasurer who carried the chief protectionist duties, used to disclaim being either a Protectionist or a Free Trader. The net result of various conflicts has been a tariff which is protectionist, but not highly protectionist. The duties levied on New Zealand imports represent about twenty per cent. of the declared value of the goods. But the highest duties, those on spirits, wine, beer, sugar, tea, and tobacco, are not intentionally protectionist; they are simply revenue duties, though that on beer has undoubtedly helped large and profitable colonial breweries to be established. English free-traders accept as an axiom that Customs duties cannot produce increased revenue and at the same time stimulate local manufactures. Nevertheless, under the kind of compromise by which duties of fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five per cent. are levied on so many articles, it does come about that the page 259 Dominion's treasurer gets his revenue while, sheltered by the fiscal hedge, certain colonial manufactures steadily grow up. The Dominion factories now employ some 70,000 hands, and their annual output is estimated at 80 millions sterling. Much of this would, of course, have come had the ports been free; but the factories engaged in the woollen, printing, clothing, iron and steel, tanning, boot, furniture, brewing, jam-making, and brick and tile-making industries owe their existence in the main to the duties. Nor would it be fair to regard New Zealand's Protection as simply a gigantic job managed by the more or less debasing influence of powerful companies and firms. It was adopted before such influences and interests were. It could not have come about, still less could it last, were there not an honest and widespread belief that without duties the variety of industries needful to make a civilized and prosperous nation could not be attained in young countries where nascent enterprises are almost certain to be undercut and undersold by the giant capitalists and cheaper labour of the Old World. Its Protection, such as it is, was the outcome of compromises, stands frankly as a compromise, and is likely for the present to remain as that.

Imperial Preference has always been a principle of the New Zealand Customs tariff, but it took a more definite form through the passing of Mr. Seddon's Preferential and Reciprocal Trade Act in 1903, which is more fully dealt with in a later chapter. In revising the tariff in 1922 the Government still further extended the system of preference to British goods, and in the same year entered into a reciprocal tariff agreement with Australia.

So long as the Provinces lasted the General Assembly had little or nothing to do with land laws. When, after abolition, the management of the public estate came into the hands of the central authority the regulations affecting it were a bewildering host. Some fifty-four statutes and ordinances had to be repealed. Nor could uniformity be substituted at once, inasmuch as land was occupied under a dozen different systems in as many different provincial districts. Only very gradually could these be assimilated, and it was not until the year 1892 that one Land Act could be said to contain the law on the subject, and to be equally applicable to all New Zealand. In page 260 the meantime the statute-books of 1877, 1878, 1883, 1885, and 1887 bore elaborate evidence of the complexity of the agrarian question, and the importance attached to it. On it more than on any other difference party divisions were based. Over it feelings were stirred up which were not merely personal, local, or sectional. It became, and over an average of years remained, the matter of chief moment in the Dominion's politics. Finance, liquor reform, labour Acts, franchise extension might take first place in this or that session, but the land question, in one or other of its branches, was always second. The discussions on it roused an enduring interest in Parliament given to no other subject. The Minister of Lands ranked with the Premier and the Treasurer as one of the leaders in every Cabinet. Well might he do so. Many millions of acres and many thousands of tenants are comprised in the Crown leases alone. Outside these come the constant land sales, the purchases from the Maori tribes, and the buying back of estates from private owners, and the settlement thereof. These form most, though not all, of the business of the Minister of Lands, his officers, and the administrative district boards attached to his department. If there had been no land question in New Zealand, there might have been no Liberal Party. It was the transfer of the land from the Provinces to the central Parliament in 1876 which chiefly helped Grey and his lieutenants to get together a democratic following.

Slowly but surely the undying agrarian controversy passed with the Dominion's progress into new stages. In the early days we have seen the battle between the “sufficient price” of Gibbon Wakefield and the cheap land of Grey, the good and evil wrought by the former, the wide and lasting mischief brought about by the latter. By 1876 price had ceased to be the main point at issue. It was agreed on all hands that town and suburban lands parted with by the Crown should be sold by auction at fairly high upset prices; and that rural agricultural land should be divided into classes—first, second, and third—and should not be sold by auction, but applied for by would-be occupants prepared to pay from £2 10s. an acre, according to quality. More and more the land laws of the Dominion were altered so as to favour occupation by small farmers, who were not compelled to purchase their land for page 261 cash, but permitted to remain State tenants at low rentals, or allowed to buy the freehold by gradual instalments, termed deferred payments. Even the great pastoral leaseholds were to some extent sub-divided as the leases fell in. The efforts of the land reformers were for many years devoted to limiting the acreage which any one person could buy or lease, and to ensuring that any person acquiring land should himself live thereon, and should use and improve it, and not leave it lying idle until the spread of population enabled him to sell it at a profit to some monopolist or, more often, some genuine farmer. As early as 1856 Otago had set the example of insisting on an outlay of 30s. an acre in improvement by each purchaser of public land. Gradually the limiting laws were made more and more stringent, and were partly applied even to pastoral leases. No person can nowadays select more than 666 acres of first-class, 2,000 acres of second-class land, or 5,000 acres of third-class land, including any land he is already holding. In other words, no considerable landowner can legally acquire public land. Pastoral “runs”—-i.e. grazing leases—must not be larger than 20,000 acres, and no one can hold more than one run. The attempts often ingeniously made in the past to evade these restrictions by getting land in the names of relatives, servants, or agents were called “dummyism,” and are still punishable by imprisonment—never inflicted—by fines, and by forfeiture of the land “dummied.”

The political battles over the land laws of New Zealand during the latter part of last century did not, however, centre round the limitation of the right of purchase, or insistence on improvements, so much as round the respective advantages of freehold and perpetual leasehold, and round the compulsory repurchase of private land for settlement. Roughly speaking, the political party which had taken the name of Liberal urged on the adoption of the perpetual lease as the main or sole tenure under which State lands should in the future be acquired. As a rule the party which the Liberals called Conservative advocated that would-be settlers should be allowed to choose their tenure for themselves, and to be leaseholders or freeholders as they pleased. Then there arose, too, important questions affecting the perpetual lease itself. Should the perpetual leaseholders retain the right of converting page 262 at any time their leasehold into a freehold by paying down the cash value of their farm, or should the State always retain the fee simple? Next, if the State should retain this, ought there to be periodical revisions of the rent, so as to reserve the unearned increment for the public? Fierce were the debates and curious the compromises arrived at concerning these debatable points. The first consolidated legislation in 1892 provided for the lease of Crown lands for 999 years at a rent of four per cent. on the prairie value of the land at the time of leasing. Purchase of the freehold, though not prohibited, was much discouraged, and it was not until 1908 that modifications in this respect were made. One of the first changes carried out in 1912 by the Reform Party —the old Conservative Opposition—was the granting of the right of acquisition of the freehold, and to-day Crown lands may be taken up on freehold tenure for cash on occupation licence with right of purchase for twenty-five years or on renewable lease for sixty-six years with no right of purchase. There are also other tenures in the case of special classes of land.

Quite as keen was the fighting over the principle of State repurchase of private lands with or without the owner's consent. It was a favourite project of Sir George Grey's; but it did not become law until he had left public life, when it was carried by the most successful and determined of the Liberal Ministers of Lands, John McKenzie, who administered it in a way which will leave an enduring mark on the face of the Dominion. The principle was followed vigorously by the Liberal-Labour Government until their fall in 1911, and as keenly by their successors, the Reform (or Conservative) Party at present in power. Under this law £13,000,000 has been spent in buying six hundred estates, or portions of estates, for close settlement. The area bought is nearly two million acres. A few of these have, at the time of writing, not yet been thrown open for settlement; on the rest some 8,000 settlers are already living. Even taking into account interest on the purchase money of land not yet taken up, a margin remains in favour of the Treasury. As a rule there is no difficulty in buying by friendly arrangement between Government and proprietor. The latter is commonly as ready to sell page 263 as the former to buy. The price is usually settled by bargaining of longer or shorter duration. Where a few negotiations have failed the matter has been laid before the Supreme Court, which has statutory power to fix the price when the parties fail to agree. It must be remembered that as a rule large holdings of land mean something quite different in New Zealand from anything they signify to the English mind. In England a great estate is peopled by a more or less numerous tenantry. When the Act was passed in New Zealand large estates were, as a rule, not peopled at all. Sheep roamed over grassy leagues, cared for by a manager and a few shepherds. Natural and proper as this might be on the wilder hills and poorer soils, it is easy to see how unnatural and intolerable it appeared in fertile and accessible districts. In 1891 there were nearly twelve and a half million acres held in freehold. Of these rather more than seven millions were in the hands of 584 owners, none of whom held less than five thousand acres. There are still some 220 estates of 20,000 acres or more, but most of these are in mountainous and inaccessible regions and carry only a sheep to several acres.

One of the largest of the estates purchased by the Government came into their hands in an odd way, and not under the Act just described. The Cheviot property was an excellent example of what the old cheap-land regulations led to. It was a fine tract of 84,000 acres of land, on which up to 1893 some eighty human beings and about 80,000 sheep were to be found. Hilly but not mountainous, grassy, fertile, and lying against the sea-shore, it was exactly suited for fairly close settlement. Under the provisions of the land-tax, a landowner who thinks the assessors have over-valued his property may call upon the Government to buy it at his own lower valuation. A difference of £50,000 between the estimate of the trustees who held the Cheviot estate and that of the official valuers caused the former to give the Government of the day the choice between reducing the assessment or buying the estate. Mr. McKenzie, however, was just the man to pick up the gauntlet thus thrown down. He had the Cheviot bought, cut up, and opened by roads. A portion was sold, but most leased; and within a year of purchase a thriving yeomanry, numbering nearly nine hundred souls and owning page 264 74,000 sheep, 1,500 cattle, and 500 horses, were at work in the erstwhile empty tract. Prosperous years added to their numbers, and the rent they paid more than recouped the Treasury for the interest on its outlay in the purchase and settlement.

In 1886, John Ballance, then Minister of Lands, made a courageous endeavour to place a number of workmen out of employment on the soil in what were known as village settlements. In various parts of the Dominion blocks of Crown land were taken and divided into allotments of from twenty to fifty acres. These were let to the village settlers on perpetual lease at a rental equal to five per cent. on the prairie value of the land. Once in a generation there was to be a revision of the rental. The settlers, many of whom were quite destitute, were helped at first not only by two years' postponement of their rent, but by small advances to each to enable them to buy seed, tools, food, and building material. Ballance was fiercely attacked in 1887 for his experiment, and his opponents triumphantly pointed to the collapse of certain of his settlements. Others, however, turned out to be successes, and, as more prosperous conditions obtained in the Dominion after Ballance's time, most of those who took up land under the Village Settlements scheme were able afterwards to acquire the freehold. The Land-for-Settlements policy of the country has so developed of late years that the requirements of those wishing to take up land are now usually met in other ways, and village settlements have rather fallen into desuetude.

It should be mentioned here that New Zealand has made more than generous provision for settling her discharged soldiers on the land, and considerably over a million acres have been proclaimed under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act. Financial assistance is also given to enable the ex-soldiers to improve their lands, build houses for themselves on their holdings and buy stock, and more than £26,000,000 has been authorized for these purposes.

Sir John McKenzie, mentioned above, is one of the very few instances in New Zealand of a Minister who makes a more than ordinary reputation without becoming Premier. As a rule no Minister but the Premier counts for much: he gets most of the credit for anything that his colleagues do: outside the page 265 country only his name is heard of. But with McKenzie it was different at once within the Dominion. His devotion to the Land Question and his beloved Department of Agriculture was so absolute, his battle against monopoly and to put the people on the land was so sternly waged, so spectacular and so important, that he became and remained a popular hero not yet forgotten. A working farmer, he had the details of his subject at his fingers' end. So to a grim but quite single-minded zeal for agrarian reform he joined the practical knowledge which prevented him from wasting money on fantastic experiments. The tall, heavy, bronzed, hard-featured Highlander became the idol of the small farmers for whom he did so much. He liberalized the settlement laws, stamped out “dummying,” reduced the size of the area alloted to each Crown tenant or purchaser, and, above all, initiated and carried through a huge system of repurchasing and sub-dividing the immense, almost empty estates. So long as he lived, the system was carefully and prudently worked. In after years, after land values had soared, prices much too high were often paid to landowners, and a State repurchase was ultimately made—perhaps unconsciously—an instrument to intensify land speculation. McKenzie's only serious mistake was his abandonment of his design to dispose of Crown lands under the system of perpetual lease with periodical revaluations—that which Rolleston had favoured. In its place he put the very unsatisfactory “eternal lease” with a light, fixed rent. Nor did he stop the sale of lands in freehold, though he discouraged it. Both these mistakes played afterwards into the hands of land speculation. Both were partly due to a section of his own party, never entirely sound on land reform. McKenzie's Department of Agriculture should alone be enough to keep his name in remembrance. So long as he lived he held what was virtually a separate command. Ballance—for whom he had a real attachment—alone dared to differ from him. Had Ballance lived ten years longer, the Liberal land policy, good as it was, would, in my belief, have been better and in particular the number of peasant proprietors would have been much larger than it is now. Land in New Zealand is still in too few hands.

The Liquor Question has held for many years a more page 266 important place than Land in the public interest. It has introduced an element of picturesque enthusiasm and, here and there, a passion of hatred rarely seen before in New Zealand politics. It brought division into the Liberal Party in 1893, at the moment when the Progressive movement seemed to have reached its high-water mark, and the feeling it roused was found typified in the curious five years' duel between Mr. Seddon and Sir Robert Stout, which began in 1893 and ended only with Sir Robert's retirement at the beginning of the year 1898. It has strangely complicated New Zealand politics, is still doing so, and is the key to much political manœuvring with which it might seem to have nothing whatever to do.

In 1882 a mild form of local option went on to the statute-book, while the granting of licences was handed over to boards elected by ratepayers. For the next ten years no marked result roused attention. Then, almost suddenly, the Prohibition movement was seen to be advancing by leaps and bounds. Two clergymen, the Rev. Leonard Isitt and the Rev. Edward Walker, were respectively the voice and the hand of the Prohibitionists. An able young propagandist, Mr. T. E. Taylor—popularly and inevitably known as “Tea Taylor”—forced the pace of the party. As speakers he and Mr. Isitt might have been the better for a less liberal use of the bludgeon, but remarkable energy and force on the platform, and bold and thorough sincerity, made them a power in the land. Mr. Walker had much to do with securing tangible results for the force which Mr. Isitt's harangues aroused, and in which the Liberal Party was to a large extent enrolled. In 1893 the temperance leaders thought themselves strong enough to make sweeping demands of Parliament. Ballance, the Liberal Premier, had just died; his party was by many believed to be disorganized. In Sir Robert Stout, the Brougham of New Zealand public life, the Prohibitionists had a spokesman whose boundless energy and uncommon hitting power exactly expressed their temper. He tabled a Bill briefly embodying their complete demands, and it was read a second time. Old parliamentary hands knew full well that the introduction of so controversial and absorbing a measure in the last session before a General Election meant the sacrifice for that page 267 year, at least, of most of the policy Bills on labour, land, and other matters. But, whether it would or would not have been better to postpone Licensing Reform to a Parliament elected to deal with it, as matters came to stand, there was no choice. The Ministry tried to deal with the question on progressive, yet not unreasonable lines. A Local Option Bill was passed, therefore, and nearly every other important policy measure, except the Female Franchise Bill, went by the board —blocked or killed in one Chamber or the other. The hurried Government licensing measure of 1893 had of course to be expanded and amended in 1895 and 1896. Though it failed to satisfy the more thorough-going Prohibitionists, it embraced a complete and elaborate system of local option. Except under certain extraordinary conditions, the existing number of licences could not be increased. The licensing districts were coterminous with the parliamentary electorates. Every adult male and female resident might vote: (1) to retain all existing licences; or (2) to reduce the number of licences, and (3) to abolish all licences within the district. To carry No. 3 a majority of three to two was requisite. No compensation was granted to any licensed house thus closed. The first poll resulted in the closing of some seventy houses and the carrying of a total prohibition of retail liquor sales in the district of Clutha. The second general Licensing Poll was held in December 1896. Then for the first time it was taken on the same day as the parliamentary elections. In consequence the Prohibitionist vote nearly doubled. But the Moderate vote more than trebled, and the attacking abstainers were repulsed all along the line, though they, on their side, defeated an attempt to recapture Clutha.

A later poll brought about local prohibition in Southland and in other smaller districts, and there are now in all thirteen no-licence districts in the Dominion. Never, however, has the enthusiasm of the Prohibition Party waned, nor the vigilance and organized defence of the “Trade” weakened. One excellent result of this continuous contest has been the real zeal displayed by the hotel-proprietors in the strict observance of the licensing laws, for general opinion has ever been critical, and only by conducting their premises on most careful lines have the publicans been able to prevent the tide page 268 of public feeling setting overwhelmingly against them. Every triennial contest finds the forces of the opposing parties preparing vigorously for the campaign, and it is the custom for the newspapers throughout the country to open their columns freely for the battle royal. Had a bare majority only been required originally instead of a three to two vote, Prohibition might, and very possibly would, have been carried long ago. In 1919 the Prohibition Party had their chance, for an amendment of the Licensing Act was passed in 1918 which provided that a Referendum should be taken in the following year on the question of National Prohibition. Two polls were provided for, the issues in the first poll being between National Prohibition, with compensation to those engaged in the “Trade,” on the one hand, and National Continuance of the sale of liquor on the other. If Prohibition were not carried in the first poll, the issues to be submitted in the second poll were (i) National Continuance, (ii) National Prohibition without compensation, and (iii) State Purchase and Control. In order that Prohibition or State Purchase should be carried at either poll, the Act provided that the votes in favour of these respective proposals should amount to more than one-half of the total votes recorded; otherwise Continuance would win the day. As there were only two issues in the first poll, it followed that, had the Prohibition Party secured a bare majority of votes, no further poll would have been necessary, and New Zealand would to-day have been a no-licence country. Continuance was, however, carried by the small margin of a little over ten thousand votes out of a total of nearly 520,000 votes cast. The poll was taken before the soldiers serving in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force had got back to their homes, and though every care was taken to ensure that they should have an opportunity of recording their votes, whether on land or at sea on transports, they very openly expressed their resentment at what they conceived to be the undue haste of the Government in forcing the issue before they returned to the Dominion. The voting of the soldiers not in the country when the poll was taken was about 80 per cent. in favour of Continuance, and, as it happened, this proved to be the deciding factor in the result. In the second poll taken in December 1919 the votes in page 269 favour of Prohibition (without compensation) came within 3,500 of the other two issues taken together, but as the necessary quota was not forthcoming Continuance was again declared carried. The effect under the Act of these decisions in favour of continuance of the sale of liquor was that thereafter no questions relating to local option should be submitted, but that at every future triennial licensing poll the three issues should be Continuance, National Prohibition without Compensation, and State Purchase and Control. At the last poll, taken in December 1922, the result was again, and more decisively, in favour of Continuance, so Prohibition would appear to have had rather a severe set-back in the Dominion. The margin in favour of Continuance is, however, still very small. Doubtless many people who on previous occasions had voted in favour of no-licence felt that financial and economic difficulties made the time inopportune for the country to face the loss of such an important source of revenue. The Prohibition Party shows no sign of slackening its efforts, nor is it likely to do so. Moreover, it is generally conceded that sooner or later some effectual reform of the Licensing laws must be carried. Indeed, a new movement has lately been set afoot by people who, while not believing in total prohibition, are firmly convinced that some form of control of the trade is necessary. A scheme of “Corporate Control” by a statutory corporation has been suggested as a modification of the present issue of “State Purchase and Control.” An association called the New Zealand Licensing Reform Association has been formed to promote this new movement, and it is probable that an endeavour will be made to introduce legislation to give effect to its proposals.