An Equalitarian Society
European immigration during the nineteenth century was instigated by more than one cause, and it took place under a variety of circumstances. Missionaries and a motley crew of adventurers constituted the first arrivals. After annexation came the planned settlements that represented an attempt to put into practice the theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield or a modification thereof. In 1861 gold was first discovered in substantial quantities, and during the next seven years the country's population almost trebled; but the gold prospectors were a wandering people, apt to move on as soon as the goldfields were worked out, and the increase of population caused by their advent was not maintained. A still greater influx of new colonists took place between 1874 and 1878 during the operation of Sir Julius Vogel's immigration policy. The new arrivals were mainly of working-class origin, and their contribution towards the forming of a national character was probably greater than that of any preceding category of immigrants. When the great slump that began in 1879 deprived many of employment, they demanded that the Government, under whose sponsorship they had come to New Zealand, should assume responsibility for their welfare. A growing tendency to recognise this demand as being just and proper had wide implications. Before the century ended, a Liberal Government surpassed all its predecessors in accepting and acting upon the principle that the State is in duty bound to preserve the aged and indigent from destitution. Attempts were also being made by the State to regulate the conditions of labour.
English immigrants alone outnumbered the sum total of those from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, while immigrants from foreign countries, chiefly Germany and Scandinavia, formed an inconsiderable minority. Australians who had settled in New Zealand formed about 4 per cent of the total European population in 1878, but it is probable that they also came in the first place mainly from the British Isles. It may be seen, therefore, that the people who settled in New Zealand during the 50 years succeeding its annexation were to a very large extent homogeneous as regards racial origin; and, indeed, they have so remained ever since, for when the country's formative period came to an end, natural increase took the place of immigration as the principal factor making for growth of population. At the turn of the century, then, we find a cross section of the British people settled in a country where the temperate climate enabled them to resume, with modifications necessarily imposed by environment, their traditional way of life. In the course of doing so they had already acquired certain characteristics, some of which have since become inherent and more pronounced.
Since the earliest days of colonisation the new settlers had set their faces against the establishment of privilege or a privileged class. As time went on, social equality began to be viewed as an ideal that might actually be realised in a country where the influence of vested interests was less firmly established than in the Old World. A dawning conviction that the “deserving poor” had a valid claim upon the community led to the introduction of old age pensions in 1898 – one of the first and most significant steps taken towards building the modern system of social security which, making no distinction between deserving and undeserving, provides the citizen with maintenance in old age and with a medical service at nominal cost throughout his life.
The once cherished belief that without the fear of starvation working men would not be industrious has long since been exploded or at least modified, but it is still claimed that social security tends to destroy initiative, especially among those classes which derive the greatest benefit from it. No doubt there are some grounds for this view, but it is not only the working classes who have been content to trade some of their independence in exchange for security. Inevitably, State intervention has meant the added imposition of restrictions upon the freedom of private enterprise. Somewhat anomalously, increasing interference by the State in affairs formerly regarded as exempt from its control has been accompanied by demands for its further interference by businessmen and farmers who, it would seem, have been constrained by regimentation to abandon the spirit of jealous self-reliance that had been the pride of their forebears.
A contrast to this attitude is presented by the marked capacity shown by New Zealanders both in war and peace for practical improvisation, for self-reliance and self-help in emergencies. Their dexterity may be explained by the fact that from earliest times they have perforce been accustomed to turning their hands to a variety of tasks which, in more populous societies, would be left to members of some special trade. A scarcity of specialists in New Zealand has been responsible for the omnipresence of the “jack of all trades”.