What new is there to tell? Miles Fairburn

Lands for the People? The Highland Clearances and the Colonisation of New Zealand: a Biography of John McKenzie
Tom Brooking
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 877133 21 3

There have been three reformist governments in New Zealand history. The first, the Liberal government, ruled from 1891 to 1912; the second, the first Labour government, operated from 1935 to1949; the third, which threw over the principles of the other two, the administration dominated by Sir Roger Douglas from 1984 to 1991.

Of the three the Liberal government was perhaps the most significant since it set the stage for the other two, creating expectations and institutions that Labour extended from 1935 to 1949 and Douglas in large measure subsequently destroyed. The Liberals expanded the powers of the state in a fashion that was unusually radical by the standards of other democraticising societies. They legislated to protect the vulnerable, to conserve and build up publicly owned assets, to generate social opportunities, to control and attack privilege, maintain order and stability, foster economic development and the family farm and modernise agriculture. The reforms, moreover, were associated with one of most sustained and problem-free periods of economic growth  has ever experienced here. In electoral terms they were brilliantly successful — from 1890 to 1911 the Liberals won seven general elections in a row, a feat never surpassed.

Not surprisingly, the Liberals and their era have attracted more scholarly attention than perhaps any other subject in our history. The list of book-length biographies on leading Liberals is larger than that for any other comparable body of public figures. There have been two scholarly biographies on Seddon (Premier and “uncrowned king of New Zealand” from 1893 to 1906) and one each on William Pember Reeves (the brilliant architect of the labour reforms), John Ballance (the first Liberal leader and Premier who died in 1893), Joseph Ward (the government’s rather shady “financial wizard”) and Edward Tregear (the founding head of the Labour Department, formed in 1891). The latest biography, Tom Brooking’s Lands for the People?, deals with John McKenzie (1839-1901), the Minister of Lands and Agriculture, the most popular and powerful figure in the government apart from Seddon and the man behind its most radical interventions, most notably those concerned with the redistribution of landed wealth.

Brooking’s key difficulty was finding something new to say about McKenzie’s reforms. The subject has been picked over so minutely by other historians that it has given rise to two competing but equally powerful interpretative traditions.

The older tradition — the “classical” interpretation — was established by three of the most formative works in New Zealand historiography. Two of these, The Long White Cloud (1898) and State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand (1902), were written by Reeves a few years after he resigned from the government. The other, more objective, work, New Zealand in the Making (1936) was by an internationally renowned economic historian, J B Condliffe. According to this tradition, McKenzie’s reforms achieved all they intended. They played a crucial role in the breakup of New Zealand’s latifundia — its much hated and debt-ridden large estates — and greatly facilitated the rise of the new dairying and meat industries.

The other tradition — the sceptical interpretation — was established from the 1950s to the 1970s by many researchers in a series of learned articles and unpublished theses, some of them regional case-studies. According to this tradition, the reforms were much less effective than the classical interpretation had made out. McKenzie’s interventions not only played a minimal part in the break-up of the large estates, which was happening rapidly anyway, but lined the pockets of their wealthy owners.

A related difficulty for Brooking was finding something fresh to say about Liberal politics and government. A large group of historians has already worked over this subject, most notably David Hamer in his definitive The New Zealand Liberals (1988). As a consequence Brooking has been left with little, if any, scope to add to our knowledge on all the big questions such as the rise of the Liberals in the late 1880s, the reasons for their extraordinary political success, their political crises (numerous and severe in their first two terms), their ideology, the struggle within their ranks over the liquor and land tenure issues, their relationship to the climate of opinion in the period, the mechanics of their electoral and party organisation (nearly always weak), the elements in the electorate they appealed to and their decline following McKenzie’s resignation through illness in 1900 and Seddon’s death in 1906.

Moreover, as a relative newcomer to the large academic industry on the Liberals, Brooking has had to fit his views on McKenzie to a big and intricate historiographical debate about how the Liberals should be seen. Were they ideologues? Were the influences upon them exogenous or indigenous? In whose interests did they mostly act? What New Zealand values did they essentially represent?

At least six major positions have been staked out on these questions. Condliffe’s view was that the Liberals were typical colonial pragmatists who were responding to a range of specific and immediate problems in the late colonial period. Sir Keith Sinclair’s opposing view, influenced by Reeves’ insider accounts, was that the Liberals must be seen as radical ideologues, who embraced overseas doctrines of redistribution and class conflict as a reaction against the indigenous growth of inequalities during the 1880s long depression. The most romantic view, R M Burdon’s, was that the Liberals were the expression of Seddon’s political genius and big-hearted humanitarianism. W H Oliver’s position was that the Liberals are best seen not as redistributionists nor as humanitarians but as a loose movement of technocrats whose overriding concerns were the modernisation of the economy and the imposition of order and discipline. A more recent theory advanced by Hamer is that the Liberals had no coherent ideology but were populists and nationalists who extended the powers of the state in order to balance competing interest groups and to prevent the emergence of old world problems. The boldest and most recent argument, put forward by Erik Olssen in Building the New World, is that the Liberals had core values of mutuality, individual independence and security which they derived from the imported traditions of skilled workers engaged in the craftshops of the colony’s main centres.

The nastiest of all of Brooking’s problems, however, is that he has had access to the scantiest possible sources of information about McKenzie himself. McKenzie’s private life, his day-to-day handling of his ministerial duties and his role in the inner world of the Liberal government were very poorly documented. Almost none of his personal papers and little of his official and political correspondence have survived. Records of the Liberal cabinet’s decisions were not kept. And in contrast with his more literate colleagues (notably Ballance and Reeves), he published nothing, partly because his education did not go beyond the rudiments and partly because English was his second language (Gaelic being the first). The only information we have about his thoughts comes from his public speeches which are obviously very unreliable sources.

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How well has Brooking dealt with these difficulties? In effect, his biography is in three parts. The first (and shortest) tells us the story of McKenzie’s early life in Scotland; the second, the story of his career in New Zealand before he became Minister of Lands and Agriculture in 1891; and in the third (and longest) part, McKenzie the man tends to drop out of sight, supplanted by Brooking the historian’s analysis of McKenzie’s ministerial actions.

The first two parts are the most novel. Despite the lack of documentation on McKenzie’s life, Brooking’s assiduous research has led him to find much new material on the young McKenzie and this is used to sustain the book’s leitmotif. As Brooking has it, the dominant influences behind McKenzie’s reforms came not from his contact with any doctrines nor from his particular knowledge of New Zealand conditions but from two kinds of early experiences in EasterRoss, the region in the Scottish north-east Highlands where he was born and raised. The first were the Highland clearances, the traumatic process by which a large peasant population was evicted from its plots by improving landlords. These instilled in him a permanent hatred of privilege and landlordism. Although his immediate family was comparatively well-off and avoided the process, his mother’s side of the family suffered from it, as did the family of some friends who followed him to New Zealand. More important, he as a child in 1845 had a first-hand encounter with its miseries when he came across a group of despairing victims squatting miserably in the graveyard of a nearby village.

The second formative influence came from his father’s circumstances. A successful, innovative, large tenant farmer, with secure tenure, a representative of a new breed of modern and prospering agriculturists in the region, his example taught McKenzie that up-to-date, large-scale farming for the market, on secure tenure, was far preferrable to subsistence production epitomised by the backward ways of the traditional Highlands’ crofter.

As the second son of a tenant farmer, however, McKenzie lacked prospects and it was this that primarily led him to emigrate to Otago in 1860 (Brooking also reveals that McKenzie left behind an illegimate baby daughter but insists that he did not emigrate to escape his parental obligations). As a skilful shepherd, McKenzie commanded high wages, enabling him by 1865 to buy his own small farm in north Otago. However, he struggled at farming for years, especially from 1874 when he imprudently bought a larger but barren property at excessive prices and, despite drawing heavily and exclusively on the labour services of his wife and children, had to be rescued from bankruptcy by his friends.

McKenzie’s financial woes did not stop him from entering local body politics where he learnt the art of committee work and of compromise; improved his English; built a power base consisting of Scotch Presbyterian small-to-medium landholders like himself; and won a reputation as a vigorous advocate of local rural interests and as an opponent of land aggregation, a major Otago issue.

Although Brooking does not give an adequate explanation, McKenzie’s ambitions then turned to national politics. After winning a seat in 1881, he decided, shrewdly, that the best way for a rough-hewn farmer member like himself to make his way in a House dominated by educated gentlemen, was to specialise in land issues, particularly the problems of land aggregation, on which, like on most controversial questions of the day, he avoided taking extreme and doctrinaire positions. The strategy paid quick dividends. It brought him popular acclaim in Otago. It also secured him the position of junior whip in the Stout-Vogel government of 1884-1887 where he acted as the loyal understudy to John Ballance, the radical Minister of Lands and future Liberal leader. After leading the criticism of the Atkinson government’s land policies in the late 1880s, McKenzie was rewarded with the key lands portfolio in the Ballance government formed in 1891 — a somewhat surprising elevation, Brooking claims, given that his parliamentary career had not been illustrious and given his lack of sympathy with urban radicalism, then the dominant ideology of the Liberals.

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In the third part of Brooking’s account, the analysis of McKenzie’s period in office, Brooking pursues two explicitly related themes, McKenzie’s subdivision and settlement of the large estates and his role in the wholescale purchase of Maori land for European settlement in the North Island.

The argument of the first theme is strongly aligned to the “classical” tradition. Brooking claims that the break-up of the large estates was on every level a model of successful agrarian reform. Crucial to its economic success was that, mindful of his personal experiences of Scottish Highland land use and land tenure, McKenzie ensured that most of the subdivided plots were large enough for market operations (and not just subsistence production); that the selectors had secure tenure (mostly on the 999-year lease); that they had adequate farming experience; and that the break-up was accompanied with other vital measures such as adequate roading of the subdivisions, cheap state credit to settlers and the imposition by the state of strict quality controls over the products of the new meat and dairying industries.

The second major theme is the tragedy brought by the wholesale purchase of Maori land. Along with McKenzie’s failure to grant Maoris access to credit for land development, the “great land grab” prevented Maoris from sharing in the farming revolution, turning them into landless proletarians. Hence, Brooking says, the central irony of McKenzie’s Maori land policies was that they were the New Zealand version of the Highland clearances which McKenzie so deplored. Accordingly, the questionmark in the title of Brooking’s book is intended to remind us that to give social justice to pakeha Peter, McKenzie robbed Maori Paul.

Historians have long known about the gross disparities in the ways the Liberals treated Europeans and Maoris. Although not new in broad outline, Brooking’s vigorous handling of the two themes has much to offer. It fills many gaps, brings together a large amount of information scattered across a wide variety of sources, a lot of it unpublished and relatively inaccessible, and has some very good touches.

Social historians will learn much from the systematic data he presents on the background of the selectors of several of the large estates. There are thoughtful comparisons between New Zealand and other societies in terms of their land tenure patterns and experiences with land reform. He makes the arresting observation that at this time the New Zealand state’s regulatory functions did more to develop farming than its role in transferring technology and in agricultural education. He provides the best attempt I have seen to put the public debate over land — the biggest issues of the period — in the context of late Victorian ideas and popular values and beliefs. Indeed, what he says should be obligatory reading for all those who insist that the European desire for land was driven by nothing more than greed. A comprehensive study of the views within the Liberal caucus on the disposal by the state of its land demonstrates just how diverse these views were (the debate had strong parallels with the controversy over the disposal of state assets in the 1990s).

Brooking’s way of dealing with two difficult subjects — Liberal politics and the big historiographical debate over the Liberals — is largely to avoid them. Perhaps this was wise but it makes for imbalanced coverage, given that an entire chapter is devoted to what McKenzie did in his retirement and what happened at his funeral (which, although not without sociological interest, should have been put in another publication). Furthermore, the avoidance prevents Brooking from exploiting the possibilities inherent in much of his own material.

Thus he says interesting things but not in nearly enough detail about McKenzie’s innovative use of executive powers and his ability to win support for his measures inside Parliament and out. Although Brooking is emphatic that the farmer stood at the top of the Liberal pantheon of folk-heroes, he not only fails to document this intriguing claim but does nothing to reconcile it with Olssen’s argument that the Liberals drew their values from inner-city artisans or Hamer’s thesis that Liberal electoral support came primarily from the self-promoting small-town newspapermen and storekeepers. A tantalising comment, that the myriads of inspectors of pests appointed by the Agricultural Department acted as “a kind of rural police”, should have been underpinned with data about how often the inspectors poked their noses around the average farm.

There are fascinating snippets about the remarkably close relationship between Ward, McKenzie and Seddon which was cemented by much interfamilial visiting and a code of extreme loyalty (when the ageing Ward returned to office in 1928 16 years after he lost it, he went to great lengths to build a new public memorial for his old friend). But Brooking misses the chance to spell out the implications that this close relationship had for the extraordinary longevity of the Liberal government and its eventual demise.

Inevitably, a forcefully argued book such as this raises questions. Its claim that the Liberals were wholly responsible for Maori land loss is oversimple. It overlooks the cultural factors affecting Maori, including their lack of business experience and animal husbandry skills, which recent research by Graham Butterworth shows were perhaps as important as anything else in impeding Maori entry into modern farming. Furthermore, my own information indicates that many of Brooking’s claims about the social composition of the settlers on the subdivided large estates are not true of the much larger group of settlers whom the Lands Department put on former Maori land. Indeed, a curious feature of the book is that it tells us so much about the settlement of the subdivided large estates but nothing about the settlement of subdivided Maori land.

Last, his assessments of the reforms needed to be put in a broader picture. Certainly, McKenzie considerably expanded the population of Crown tenants and during his time the number of rural and urban freeholders also increased. But the number of opportunity hunters — adult males — rose ever faster. The consequence was that by 1902, despite everything McKenzie had done, the proportion of adult males who held land from the Crown and on the freehold was lower than it was in 1888.

Miles Fairburn is reader in history at Victoria University. Amongst his publications are The Ideal Society and its Enemies; the Foundations of Modern New Zealand Society 1850-1900, 1989; and Nearly Out of Heart & Hope: the Puzzle of a Colonial Labourer’s Diary, 1995.

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