McKENZIE, Sir John, K.C.M.G.
Minister of Lands, 1891–1900.
A new biography of McKenzie, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
John McKenzie was born on Ardross estate, Ross-shire, Scotland, in 1838, the second of 10 children of John McKenzie, a tenant farmer, and of Catherine, née Munro. He was reared in a strict Presbyterian atmosphere, attending a tiny parish school on the estate. McKenzie was deeply moved by the misery he witnessed among tenants from the neighbourhood, caused by Highland landlords' consolidating their holdings in large estates. Some of his near relatives suffered in this way and were forced to emigrate to Canada and the United States. Many years later McKenzie related how, when once walking home with his father, he came upon a number of dispossessed tenant farmers who had been forced to camp in the local cemetery because there was nowhere else to go. This brought home to him, for the first time, the evils of uncontrolled landlordism. It was a lesson never forgotten.
Economic necessity associated with his father's large family obliged him, at an early age, to seek work away from home, and he became a shepherd on a nearby estate. At last, despairing of making a living in Scotland, he decided to emigrate to Otago, the recently formed Scottish settlement in New Zealand. On 23 May 1860, the day his ship, the Henrietta, sailed from Glasgow, he married Annie Munro, the daughter of a Ross-shire tenant farmer. He arrived in Dunedin, where he secured employment as station manager on Johnny Jones's Puketapu Station in the Shag Valley.
The Otago Provincial Government then had a scheme whereby special districts required for close settlement could be proclaimed as “hundreds” and the land put up for sale in small lots. Part of the Palmerston district was so proclaimed in 1865, and McKenzie put his savings into 80 acres which he began to farm on his own account. In the same year he embarked on his public career, becoming clerk and treasurer of the Bushey Road Board, and secretary of the local school committee. McKenzie felt the Otago “hundreds” system, well intentioned though it was, was liable to considerable abuse. This led him to contest the Waikouaiti seat for the Provincial Council in 1868 and, although he was unsuccessful, his forthright exposition of the “lands for the people” principle made his views widely known. He contested Waihemo against John Douglas in 1871, when he was returned and held the seat until the abolition of provincial government in 1876. In the Provincial Council he stoutly championed Donald Reid's stand on the land question against the Superintendent, Macandrew. He was a member of the Waikouaiti County Council, and while there strongly advocated the formation of Waihemo County, of which he subsequently became first chairman. He also sat on the Otago Education Board (1883–92) and on the Land Board.
McKenzie's known opposition to the Otago Province's land policy, and his stinging denunciations of “dummying” in the Otago wastelands, led to his election, on 9 December 1881, as an independent for Moeraki in the House of Representatives, and he continued to represent this area until his retirement. In the House, McKenzie remained almost a silent member until the debate on the Land Bill, when he delivered a maiden speech which for sincerity and forcefulness has scarcely been equalled in parliamentary annals. He served as whip to the Stout-Vogel combination in 1884, and his grasp on all phases of the land question so impressed John Ballance, himself a former Minister of Lands, that when he formed his Ministry on 24 January 1891, he entrusted to McKenzie the Lands and Agricultural Portfolios. The land question confronting the new Minister was very grave. Most attractive lands near the populous centres were included in large estates, owned by wealthy settlers, land companies, speculators, or absentee landlords. The dearth of suitable lands for small settlement meant that intending small farmers must either select holdings at considerable distance from their markets, or move to colonies where conditions were more attractive. Usually they chose the latter, and it was estimated that in 1890 new settlers were leaving New Zealand at the rate of 1,000 a month. Loopholes in existing legislation served to perpetuate land aggregation through such devices as “dummyism” and “rigged ballots”. Inflated land values forced prospective smallholders to use most of their capital to buy land, with the result that little was left for stocking and improvements. Capital was available to the smallholder, but this was controlled by finance companies and moneylenders, who charged exorbitant interest for their services, so that the poor settler stood in imminent peril of losing his all.
McKenzie brought several preconceived notions to his post. New Zealand was a country for small farmers. Land ought not to be alienated in large holdings by private owners; instead, the State should retain ownership and permit all who wished to use it. The State must prevent financiers from exploiting needy farmers. Finally (his greatest article of faith) the Government was morally bound to use whatever means it could devise to encompass these ends. McKenzie tackled his problems with characteristic energy. In 1892 he forced his first Lands for Settlement Act through Parliament against bitter opposition. This opened rural Crown lands on an optional tenure, the selector choosing either to buy his holding for cash (with seven years to pay), or to take up a licence which permitted “occupation with right of purchase” on generous conditions, or to accept the “lease in perpetuity” (the famous 999 years' lease), at an annual rental of 4 per cent of the capital value of the land at the date of selection. In all cases strict conditions were set as to residence and minimum improvements. Crown lands were classified, and the size of holdings of each class fixed, as also were the form of holdings permitted in each class. Lessee's rights were protected by concession of the absolute right to renewal when the lease expired. These provisions effectively prevented absentee landlordism and land aggregation, but did not affect existing holdings. To meet the demand for land, land boards were empowered to report upon private holdings suitable for subdivision, and owners were then given an opportunity to offer the land, or be persuaded to sell. If the estate were large, the latter arrangement invariably involved the unwilling owner in an all night argument smoothed by a bottle of whisky, with the Minister of Lands, which ended, equally invariably, with McKenzie's departure near dawn with a duly signed “voluntary” offer to sell. But the system did not bring in sufficient land; consequently, after the successful Cheviot subdivision in 1893, McKenzie obtained power to compel owners to sell. Thereafter progress was easier and, by 1900, 324,167 acres, at a total purchase price of £1,523,926, had been subdivided under the Act. In 1894 he introduced his Government Advances to Settlers Act, which was designed to meet farmers' capital needs, by making loans available, on security, at reasonable interest rates. The scheme was financed by a £3,000,000 Government loan on London, and this money was lent to farmers for approved purposes. It proved an immediate success, and had the effect of reducing interest rates charged by local lenders. The Government Advances to Settlers Office services were so much in demand that, by 1900, 7,448 individual loans totalling £2,179,440 had been granted.
McKenzie created the important Agriculture Portfolio as we know it today. Through it he encouraged scientific methods and the dissemination of information on all aspects of agriculture. With this in mind, he appointed lecturers and specialists to encourage farmers to apply the new techniques.
In 1899 McKenzie's health broke down and it became known that he had an incurable cancer. He resigned his portfolios and seat in the House of Representatives on 27 June 1900. He accepted a nomination to the Legislative Council on 17 May 1901, but was unable to take his seat. The Government recommended him for knighthood during the Duke of Cornwall and York's visit to New Zealand in 1901. The Royal Train stopped between Oamaru and Dunedin, opposite McKenzie's homestead. McKenzie, a dying man, entered the Royal Carriage where the Duke conferred upon him the accolade of K.C.M.G. Sir John died on 6 August 1901, at Shag Point, and was buried at Palmerston, Otago.
“Hon. Jock”, or “Red McKenzie”, as he was affectionately known to colleagues, opponents, and people alike, was one of the most popular men of his era. His philosophy, gathered in the hard school of experience, was simple and is perhaps best summed up in the closing couplets of a poem he quoted before the crucial division on the Lands for Settlement Bill 1894:
“Yet millions of hands want acres,
And millions of acres want hands.”
In his youth he had witnessed the misery caused by the Highland enclosures, and all through life he strove to prevent similar conditions arising in New Zealand. It is to him in large measure that we owe the fact that New Zealand is not a land of great landowners and peasant tenant farmers.
A quiet and unassuming man, McKenzie revealed hidden fire when called upon to defend his beloved land policies, and many a critic retired shamefaced before “Hon. Jock's” uncanny knack of making criticism rebound against the critic. Steadfast in all his views, McKenzie threatened to resign in 1897 when he felt the moral rights of innocent Maori owners were being imperilled by the involved and unjust litigation about the Horowhenua Block. Even though his land laws have often been amended in detail, their broad outline survives to this day, an enduring tribute to Sir John McKenzie who was probably the greatest Minister of Lands and Agriculture to enter public office in New Zealand.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- New Zealand Notables – second series, Burdon, R. M. (1945)
- History of Land Legislation and Settlement in New Zealand, Jourdain, W. R. (1925)
- Evening Star (Dunedin), 1 Nov 1893, 7 Aug 1901 (Obit)
- The Times (London) 7 Aug 1901 (Obit).