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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 30

Chapter VI. Results of Victorian Land Legislation

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Chapter VI. Results of Victorian Land Legislation.

A general review of the operation and results of Land Legislation in Victoria will be of some service in drawing attention to salient points which require a separate conspectus in a complicated narrative of events extending over fifty years of memorable history. The land question has been the great battle ground of parties in Victoria ever since the foundation of the colony, and will continue to be so for all time. In this country, as in others, it is the one grand and enduring political problem which periodically reappears and asserts its importance. Superficial politicians occasionally express the wish that the whole difficulty were settled by the sale of the last acre. Those who think the question will be laid to rest for ever in the colony of Victoria by the sale of the last acre must have either not studied the history of the human race at all or studied its lessons in vain. The history of revolutions has been the history of land tenure.

The sale of Victorian soil began under Imperial Land Acts which continued in force until the colony secured responsible Government. The system established by that legislation was sale of land in fee simple by auction at an upset price, beginning at 5s. per acre, then advancing to 12s. per acre, ultimately the minimum upset price being established at £1 per acre. One half of the proceeds of the sale of land was devoted to assisted emigration, and the balance was applied to public works. Assisted emigration was adopted as a counter-poise to the inducements offered by the sale of land at a cheaper rate in Canada and the United States. The result was to draw to these shores the out-pouring of British workhouses, multitudes of the poor, the needy, and the destitute, who became a burden and a curse to the struggling young community and the servile dependents of those who acquired land by free gift or at cheap rates. Hundreds of enterprising emigrants who came here to seek their fortunes, and well able to become good colonists, were compelled to leave because of the difficulties thrown in the way of page 96 settlement, by cliques of monopolists aided and abetted by corrupt and incapable Government officials. The squatters were in possession of nearly the whole of the territory. It was their interest to discourage settlement, and they succeeded in doing so, until the discovery of gold. Then came the social revolution. Thousands of able and sagacious emigrants arrived in Victoria, and the cry "unlock the land" was raised in tones too emphatic to be resisted. After a long struggle the Nicholson Land Act was passed in 1860. At that time 3,944,237 acres of the pick of Victorian soil had been sold by auction. The system of sale by auction, as it then existed, was an easy method of handing over vast blocks of land to wealthy buyers, against whom small and struggling adventurers had no chance. A loud outcry was raised against it, and free selection at an uniform price with deferred payments was demanded by a landless population. The Nicholson Land Act pretended to give this so called liberal land law, but it was a delusion and a snare. It allowed a man to take up 640 acres at £1 per acre, and if he could not pay the whole of the purchase money at once, he could lease a moiety of the allotment for pastoral purposes only, at Is. per acre per annum. If more than one person applied for the same allotment it was sold by auction, at which only applicants could compete. This was called "limited auction." It did not favor settlement more than sale by auction in open market, because bona fide applicants were out-numbered and out-bidden by capitalists. The size of the allotments open to selection made the squatters more eager to absorb and save their runs. Capital was overwhelming, and destroyed the good intentions of the framers of the Act. Some slight settlement, however, took place under an obscure clause, which gave the Land minister power to issue occupation licenses. These licenses presented a most satisfactory solution of the land question but they were declared illegal by the Supreme Court. The break-down of the Nicholson Act led to the passage of the Duffy Act, which granted to squatters nine years licenses, and introduced a system of determining priority of selection by lot; fixed the size of allotments at 640 acres; prescribed certain improvements to be carried out; gave the selector the option of paying the whole of the purchase money at once, or purchasing a moiety, and leasing a moiety for 8 years, at a rent of 2s. 6d. per acre, the rent to go towards the purchase money. No person could select more than one allotment of 640 acres in one year. This Act marked the inauguration of dummyism in its most repulsive form. It collapsed ignominiously after about 1,000,000 acres of good land had filtered through it into the hands of large landed proprietors. It failed to effect substantial settlement, and facilitated dummyism; because it did not enforce personal application; because personal residence was not required as a test of bona fides; because the condition of im- page 97 provement did not run with the land, but was personal to the selector, and worst of all because the selector could transfer the land as soon as he took it up. Next came the Land Act of 1365. Its fundamental principles were that allotments of 640 acres could be leased for seven years at a rent of 2s. per acre; the order of application to be determined by lot; conditions—rent to be paid half-yearly in advance; non-assignment for three years, residence for three years, and improvements, to the extent of £1 per acre, within two years. On fulfilling the conditions of residence and improvement the selector could buy the allotment without competition at £1 per acre. At the end of three years, if the selector had improved the land to the extent of £1 per acre, he could have the land sold by auction with a valuation in his favor. Even by this Act residence was not made an inexorably necessary condition precedent. The extensive power of sale by auction of unselected and forfeited allotments, dummyism, and evasion of covenants helped to swell the large estates, and defeat the policy of the Legislature, whilst the necessity of improvements within a short period, the payment of high rent, which did not go towards the purchase money, and the obligation to pay the purchase money in a lump sum, pressed heavily on selectors. The only part of this Act which operated with undoubtedly successful results was the 42nd clause, founded on the model of the occupation licenses. The Land Act of 1869 embodied the leading principle of the occupation licensing, and 42nd clause system. It reduced the area of selections to 320 acres; required residence upon the allotment; cultivation of one acre in ten; fencing and improvements to the extent of £1 per acre during a probationary period of occupation under license at 2s. per acre, which went towards the purchase money; and if at the end of that term the licensee occupied, fenced, cultivated and improved, as required, to the satisfaction of the Minister, he could either get a crown grant on payment of the remaining 14s. per acre or take a lease for seven years at 2s. per acre, the rent to go towards the purchase money. No person could select either in his own name, or in the name of any other person, more than 320 acres. The squatters' licenses were renewed for ten years. By the Amending Act of 1878 the probationary period was extended to six years, the term of lease to fourteen years, and the rent was reduced to Is. per acre, thus payable over 20 years. page 98 The following table shows the progress of sale and selection, from the earliest times up to 31st December, 1881:—
By Selection. By Auction and other Alienation for cash. Total.
acres. acres. acres.
Under Imperial Act. and Orders in Council 3,944,237 3,944,237
Under Land Act 1860, 1st Nov., 1860 410,600 398,862 809,462
Under Land Act 1862, 18th June, 1865 1,982,658 456,705 2,430,363
Under Land Act 1865, 23rd March, 1865 2,285,993 680,607 2,966,600
Under Land Act 1809-78, 1st February, 1870 8,700,836 949,181 9,650,077
Totals 13,380,147 6,429,592 19,819,739
Total Area of Colony 56,245,760
Area alienated and in course of alienation 19,819,739
Roads 990,987
Lands in Cities, Towns, &c. 302,000
Reserves 689,870
Auriferous Lands 991,978
State Forests 823,750
Timber Reserves 216,500
Total Area Unappropriated 32,410,936

Of this unappropriated area 13,033,371 acres are hold under pastoral license, and 9,262,623 under grazing license.

The settlement of the land question in Victoria was from the earliest times, clogged and embarrassed by several adverse circumstances, principal among which were the squatting interests, the limited extent of our territory, the want of rivers and of an abundant water supply. The squatting interest alone was a formidable obstacle. But for that, Victoria might have had, in 1860; the Land Law of 1878, and with such a system, defective as it is, the history of the colony would have been very different from what it has been. In 1878 the squatting party was almost a party of the past, and a liberal Land Law in favor of settlement and against the aggregation of large estates became possible. The squatters no longer were driven by motives of avarice or self-preservation, to grasp every available inch of public territory. By that time the earth hunger was nearly satisfied; most of the good land previously held on license was turned into freehold; the selectors were driven to the burning plains of the North West, and the impenetrable wilderness of Gippsland. What then has been the real practical out-come of twenty years bitter experience—twenty years struggle to place a prosperous agricultural population upon the soil page 99 Unhappily, it must be admitted that the able legislation of 1869, improved by that of 1878, came too late to promote in a substantial manner the lasting welfare of the colony. Lot us first see what has been done, and contrast it with what might have been done.

From the year 1851, just before the discovery of the gold-fields to end of the first half of the year 1864, when our population was 601,343, Victoria had spent the sum of .£11,000,000 in the importation of bread-stuffs. At that time there were 17,679 agricultural holdings, exceeding one acre in extent, covering 5,554,531 acres sold and in actual occupation for agricultural and pastoral purposes, of which 507,798 acres were cultivated. In the year 1880-1 when our population was 858,850, the value of exports of Victorian produced bread-stuff's, viz., biscuits, flour, and grain was £905,403; in that year the number of agricultural holdings exceeding one acre in extent were 49,637 covering 18,141,124 acres sold and in actual occupation for agricultural and pastoral' purposes, of which 1,997,943 acres were cultivated, and 194,140 acres were in fallow. The cultivated area included land applied to the growth of all kinds of crop—wheat, oats, barley, maize, potatoes, turnips, onions, beet, carrots, cabbages, hay, green-forage, tobacco, vines and other fruit trees. The value of grain and pulse exported in 1875, was £7,623, and in 1881, £668,234; flour exported 1875; £15,011, 1881, £206,932. These figures are significant as showing the great increase in agricultural production which took place subsequent to the land legislation of 1869.

Although there has thus been a very substantial and prosperous increase in the agricultural productions of the colony, the results are by no means so satisfactory as might have been expected. Undoubtedly, a great amount of profitable settlement took place under the Act of 1869, notwithstanding the inferiority of the land available compared with that sold under previous Acts. This suggests what might have happened had the same class of industrious farmers been able to obtain land at an earlier period. Still, of the nine or ten million acres disposed of, or in course of alienation, by virtue of the provisions of the law now in force, it is to be feared that large numbers of holdings are passing away from their original holders. The evidence which justifies this apprehension is to be found in the official statistics of the colony. According to the Government Statist, Mr. Hayter, there were in 1870, "when the Land Act of 1869 came into force, 31,842 agricultural holdings, exceeding one acre in extent, and including 9,530,638 acres; in 1881, the number of holdings had increased to 49,637, covering 18,141,124 acres, showing an increase of only 17,795 holdings. But the departmental statistics show that during the period between 1870 and 1881, 70,371 selections were granted. It thus appears that fully 50,000 of these selections, are not accounted for page 100 in the official returns; what became of them? The number of holdings has not increased proportionately with the number of seleotions granted, and the number of acres selected. The calculation may be carried backward with still more disquieting] results. The total number of selections taken up under the three Acts of 1860, 1862 and 1865, was 39,631, embracing an area of 4,679,251 acres. This number added to that of the applications for allotments, granted under the Act of 1869, should have made the total number of agricultural holdings in the colony, in the year 1881, about 109,631. Instead of that, according to Mr. Hayter, there are only 49,637 agricultural holdings of over one acre in size. The Lands department has no record of transfers under the Acts of 1860, 1862 and 1865, with the exception of holdings under the 42nd section of the last mentioned Act. There could, however, be no legal assignments, or transfers of leaseholds, under the Act of 1869, without the consent of the Minister of Lands. The number of transfers of leaseholds, registered up to the 30th September, 1882, was 9,932, embracing 1,673,561 acres; up to the same time, 3,396 Grown grants were transferred, including 374,482 acres. This makes a total of 2,048,043 acres selected under the Land Act of 1869, which are actually registered as having passed from the original holders. The rest of the unaccounted for holdings, must have been either abandoned or forfeited, or transferred to large landed proprietors, subsequent to the issue of the Crown grants. Of the rapid increase of large estates in Victoria, owing to the unscrupulous abuse of liberal land laws, there is an abundance of evidence. There are 951 estates of the average size of 7,238 acres. These estates which include 6,882,815 acres, are owned by 833 proprietors, whilst their total capital value is about, £12,000,000. Another item of testimony that the aggregation of estates has been increasing more rapidly than the number of holdings, is the fact that in 1860, when the first land Act was passed, there were 13,653 holdings, covering 3,517,033½ acres, in agricultural and pastoral occupation, whilst in 1880, there were 49,637 holders, and the number of acres in agricultural and pastoral occupation was, 18,141,124; during that period, therefore the number of holdings was considerably diminished in proportion to the number of acres sold.

We are now in a position to notice the defective character of our land systems, and the various insidious influences which operated against bona fide cultivation of the soil. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the dream of the Land Convention has not been realized. The very laws which were designed to establish an extensive peasant propriety in Victoria have assisted to consolidate gigantic properties. Free selection at an uniform price, with deferred payments, has been resorted to more freely and more effect- page 101 ually by capitalists than by the artisans and working men of the colony. The state has sold nearly 20,000,000 acres, and instead of the country being crowded with farms and orchards, it can only boast of a cultivated area of 1,997,943 acres. Capital has been triumphant everywhere. It was successful under the limited auction system of the Nicholson Land Act; and it was still more successful, with dummyism as a potent ally, under the lot system of the Duffy Land Act. After that, a new and unforeseen danger appeared on the scene. The people, in whose favor Parliament legislated became traitors to their own cause. The demoralization and immorality of the land racket became universally contagious. Thousands of persons with little energy and limited resources took up land on speculation, and afterwards sold out to those who were only too eager to buy. The high price of land, caused by the great demand for it, facilitated this species .of speculation, and men who got their land from the state at £1 per acre, readily bartered it away at a profit, after formal compliance with the requirements of the law. Selectors, the class intended to be benefitted, and upon whom was conferred the bountiful liberality of the nation, sold for a mess of pottage the birthright which belonged to them and their children. The prodigality of the state in parting so extravagantly and incautiously with the common inheritance of all, has been only surpassed by the profligacy and the ingratitude of those who were the objects of the paternal care and anxiety of Parliament.

These statements can be proved, not only by the evidence of friends of the free-selection system, but by that of those organs of the press whose proclaimed policy for many years has been to favor free-trade in land. The Argus of 11th November, 1881, thus describes the results of our land legislation:—"But we know that the attempt to create a yeomanry on a large scale has only been partially successful. Selectors struggle on until they can get a title, and then in too many instances their holdings, which they have been granted on easy terms, in the hope they would be attached to the soil, go to swell the estates of the large land owners. Then with a sum of money in their pockets, which they have acquired in a great measure at the expense of the general body of the Victorian taxpayers, they take their departure for the neighbouring provinces, where the capital with which we have furnished them can command greater advantages." The Sydney Morning Herald of 24th February, 1882, gave the following testimony that Victorian selectors wore selling out and settling in New South Wales with money realized by the sale of Victorian land:—"All those men who transferred their holdings in Victoria had no chance to select again. The law prohibited such a process. It was necessary for them to seek another colony, and the great majority were drawn page 102 across the Murray by the superior inducements of the land and land law of New South "Wales. Immigrants to Victoria, having in Victoria acquired capital by selling out, came to us with their earnings and their energies and their experience as land speculators. Five years ago we felt their influence in a new flush of prosperity, especially in our south-western district. While Victoria was mourning their departure, our land and customs and railway returns were rapidly increasing; our free and comparatively illimitable land reserves were acting as a sponge, and we were becoming moist at our neighbours' expense. To some extent, the same conditions still exist. They might be perfectly satisfactory if only the present were to be considered; but it must be recognised that surely as Victoria has met her reckoning day so are we advancing on ours. Land monopoly is not unknown in New South Wales. Dummyism is a very familiar word in our vernacular; the process begun across the border is continued here; land is going for a fraction of its value to incorporated companies and non-resident landlords. The lesser matters of continuous strife between selector and squatter, and consequent waste of energy, might be forgotten could it be shown that we have in any degree learned the lesson Victorian history teaches, or that our selectors were as a body honest home-makers and tillers of the soil, and not merely birds of passage and transferrors." The reckoning day of Victoria has arrived. The land laws of the past have been examined, and reason enlightened by a sad experience has found them wanting.

A careful study of the history of Victoria leads me to the conclusion that the unfavorable results, which all deplore, and the transparent vices, which all detest, are inherently associated with the principle of absolute sale, on which all those laws were based, It has been found that dummyism was less rampant, and speculative selection less resorted to, the more the control of the state over its land was increased, and the longer the period of probation was extended. Much more, then, would those evils have been mitigated and destroyed, had the state retained an inalienable control over the land that belonged to it. The more one reflects on the question the more does the conclusion appear inevitable, that the policy of alienating the land, in fee simple, has been not only a fearful mistake, but a crime and an injustice, to a large portion of the people of the colony. "What right" Mr. Harker asked on 30th September, 1873, a "had we, as legislators, to alienate any part of that which belonged to the whole community for the benefit of a small portion of the community?" The right to the use of the earth, subject to co-ordinate right of others, is as Mr. Herbert Spencer demonstrates, as much a natural and inalienable right as the right to the free use of the atmosphere and the sea. True, it

a Hansard, vol. 17, p. 1074.

page 103 was the policy of the country to settle an agricultural population upon the soil, but effect could have been given to that policy without sacrificing the public territory, without giving away the land for ever, unrepresented by any adequate consideration. The land could have been leased or sold for farms; the state would then have had the reversion. Virtually, the free selectors and those squatters who availed themselves of free selection, through the agency of dummies, have been buying the land for nothing. The allotments which, under the Act of 1862, were paid for in instalments of 2s. 6d. per acre per annum were worth that much in rent for all time, and now, more extravagant still, a selector is permitted to acquire his absolute freehold in 20 years by paying Is. per acre per annum. Even this sacrifice would hardly be begrudged, if the persons intended to be benefitted were not guilty of wholesale embezzlement of the estates entrusted to them.

The advantages of a judicious system of leasing the public lands would have been very great. The state would have retained the national domain as a lasting and un-assailable, unpledgable asset, which would have gone on increasing in value from year to year. Instead of a few individuals being enriched by the gradual increase of the value of land, the whole community would have been benefitted. The rent of land would have been a permanent source of revenue. The vast sum of money sunk in the purchase of freeholds would have been available for the employment of labor, and the improvement of waste lands. The state would have remained landlord of the soil, and could have applied every acre of it to the best purposes, compatible with national interest and national prosperity. The wealthy lower orders would not then have been able to plunder the working classes of their birthright, by the despicable aid of fraud, perjury and subornation of perjury. There would not then have been periodical confiscations and sales of commonages; and the abolition of reserves for travelling stocks, followed by their absorption into neighbouring squattages. Under such a system the people would still have left for their use and enjoyment the frontages of the few creeks and rivers that exist in Victoria. Mountain scenery, the charm and gift of nature, such as Macedon and the Hanging Rock, would not then have become private property, so that the owners thereof could warn off tourists and excursionists, or charge for permission to view the wonders of creation. What a monstrous and barbaric law must that be, under which the splendid land between Melbourne and Sunbury, and between Melbourne and Geelong, capable of giving homes and existence to a teeming population, is locked up in pastoral solitudes, whilst the farmers have to seek a precarious livelihood in the hot and rainless regions of the north-western plains! Would it not have been better to grow sheep in the remote parts of the colony, and encourage page 104 agriculture near the sea board, and adjacent to large centres of population 1 It is impossible to contemplate such enormities and anomalies as these, without agreeing with Mr Higinbotham "that the dictum of the French writer, that property is robbery is absolutely true in regard to land" a.

The stereotyped reply to any argument, that Parliament should stop the further sale of land is, that the land is nearly all sold already; that it is new too late to change the system, and that it is best to settle the question once and for ever, by selling the balance of the land. There are 32,000,000 acres at present unappropriated, of which it is said that 9,000,000 acres are tit for selection. Surely the destiny of such a large quantity of land as this, is a subject well worthy of the anxious attention of the tax-payers of this country. It must be remembered that when the last acre is gone, the land problem will by no means be then settled; it will then merely enter upon a new phase, and in that form it will be handed down to coming generations. The landless portion of the population will, in the distant future, begin to enquire here, as they are now enquiring in England, Ireland and Scotland, by what title those in possession of land, obtained that possession. Unless the sale of land be suspended, and the further integration of large estates be prevented, either by taxation, or by a law prohibiting the ownership or transmission of land beyond a limited area and value, the time will sooner or later come when the working classes of Victoria will awake to an unpleasant sense of their perilous situation. It is a notorious fact, proved by the history of the world, that oppression and poverty accompany the concentration of wealth and the amassing of grand properties in the hands of monopolists. Landlordism is the curse and ruin of every country in which it becomes predominant. The owner of land can dictate terms to his tenantry, and evict them if they refuse to accept those terms; they must have land or starve. This is the cause of anarchy and murder in Ireland. The landlords of Scotland have expelled their tenant peasantry from their ancient glens in the Highlands, and the homes and haunts of human beings have been converted into sheep runs and deer forests. The pauperism, misery, drunkeness and crime, which abounds in England, is traceable to the despotism of land monopoly, and the appropriation by landlords of land, which in former times belonged to the labouring classes. No political truth is so grim and startling in the uniformity with which it appears from age to age as this—that landlordism and tenancy are ever associated with the pauperism and degradation of an entire population. And this is the condition towards which our free and glorious colony of Victoria will drift, unless its advance in that direction be arrested, by the courage and wisdom of her statesmen, assisted by the patriotism

a Hansard, vol. 17, p. 2050.

page 105 and foresight of her inhabitants. Let it not then be said, that it is too late to save the remainder, or a portion of the public estate. It may be premature to discuss the question of resumption, except to a limited degree, and in special cases, but stern and determined steps should be adopted to suspend the present process of legalized robbery and confiscation of the land of the whole people.

From a revenue point of view the pastoral occupation of the soil has been proportionately more profitable to the State than the sale of lands in fee simple. This seems a startling assertion, and yet it is an unquestionable truth. The revenue derived from the pastoral tenants of the Crown from the year 1840, to the end of the year 1881, amounted to £4,850,165. The revenue derived from the absolute sale of Crown Lands from the year 1830 to the end of the year 1881, was £20,192,791. This sum includes the amount paid on lands purchased on deferred payments, of which the payments were completed up to the year 1881, although the payments extended over a series of years. The area selected of which the purchase was not completed in 1881, amounted to 7,144,362 acres. Deducting 7,145,362 from 19,819,739 the number of acres sold, selected and in course of alienation, it appears that 12,674,377 acres have been sold out-right, yielding £20,192,791. The land sold, and the upset value of' selected land in course of alienation by deferred payment represents a total of £27,338,153 as the results of 45 years land sales, against £4,850,165 realized for the use of public grass during a period of 41 years. In round numbers twenty million acres has been parted with for ever for twenty seven million sterling; whilst the grass alone of forty million acres produced during the progress of alienation nearly five million sterling. If we sell our remaining acres what will be done when the land revenue is absorbed? What inducement to immigration shall we have hereafter to offer to the people of the old world? And what security for new loans shall we be able to offer to the money-lenders of London? The land policy of the future should therefore be one strictly of conservation. Nothing will be lost, and we have everything to gain by preserving the state domain from the further grasp of land sharks, and dummy-mongers. Selection of country lands should be stopped for the present, and leases for long terms at easy rents with a valuation of improvements in favor of the occupying tenant substituted. Town lands should be let on long building leases. As a compromise to this sweeping abolition of old usages, and old expressions, the free-hold of town lands might be sold for terms ranging from 20 to 30 years, full compensation for improvements being secured. And with regard to country lands the state might give intending settlers the option of selecting or leasing, reserving to itself the right of pre-emption. Meanwhile every reserve, common and river frontage should be religiously protected, and per- page 106 manently secured for the lasting use of the people. Steps should also be taken to resume possession of some of the frontages to rivers, which were extensively, and greedily bought up in former years by the squatters for the purpose of making the back country useless for selection by cutting it off from access to water. In justice to the State this extraordinary device to secure the monopoly of vast areas of land at a nominal rent should be defeated. The law which enables the Government to take possession at a stipulated price of private land for the construction of railways or high roads should be brought into operation here, Reserves of ten chains wide and about two miles apart, leading from the back country clown to the river, should be taken possession of by the Goverment at a fair price, and opened up as roadways through those river-side private lands, to enable the stock travelling from the back country to have access to the river. The improved value and enlarged settlement of the back country resulting from this step, would more than compensate tenfold the cost of the private land resumed, whilst the right of the State to deal with its own lands without being liable to be checkmated by the overreaching schemes of individuals would be vindicated a.


J. G. Edwards, Bendigo Independent Office, Sandhurst.

a See report of Land Commissioners, 1879