The formation of the Liberal Party government in 1891 began a period of social democratic reform which attracted the interest of progressives in the western world. Some visited specifically to report on the measures. Their judgements were influenced by concerns from their homelands. The most important of these visitors were:
- Henry Demarest Lloyd from the United States
- Albert Métin and André Siegfried from France
- Sidney and Beatrice Webb from England.
Henry Demarest Lloyd concluded: ‘The tactful portrait painter would not say that the New Zealanders were the most civilised, the most happy, the most prosperous people in the world, but they certainly are the least uncivilised, the least unhappy, the least disinherited … and for New Zealand it may be claimed that its government and people are the “least bad” this side of Mars.’1
Henry Demarest Lloyd
Lloyd was a Chicago journalist, involved in campaigns against monopolies and associated with populist and progressive social movements. He visited New Zealand in 1899, and wrote two books about what he had discovered: A country without strikes, which focused on conciliation and arbitration, and Newest England, a broader survey.
Lloyd shared many views of earlier travellers – he praised the scenery and the advanced state of Māori – but the political measures were his focus. He was impressed by publicly owned railways and the government’s acquisition of large landholdings in order to divide them into smaller farms. Influenced by the American reformer Henry George and his ideas of a single tax, Lloyd praised progressive land taxes. Aware of the devastation caused by industrial conflict, he was enthusiastic about the New Zealand system of conciliation and arbitration, and the legislation over hours of work and factory conditions.
He praised old-age pensions, the Public Trustee (a state-supported trust set up to protect the assets of vulnerable people), Government Life (a government-owned life insurance provider), and financial advances to settlers – which he saw, in populist terms, as smashing a ‘money ring’. In sum the ‘New Zealand revolution’, as Lloyd dubbed it, was a model for the world. Under his influence other reformers such as Frank Parsons set about ‘New Zealandising’ the United States.
The whole world’s watching
André Siegfried believed New Zealanders had an overwhelming sense of their own importance to the world. ‘Many New Zealanders are honestly convinced that the attention of the whole world is concentrated upon them, waiting with curiosity and even with anxiety to see what they will say and do next … they have been so accustomed to being taken seriously that they have become conscious of a mission to humanity … Like provincial celebrities who, coming to Paris, feel that everyone is looking at them, the New Zealanders, in their distant isolation, think that they fill a great place in the world.’2
Métin and Siegfried
Albert Métin and André Siegfried were young French academics. Métin won a scholarship to study social and labour legislation in Australasia. He visited in 1899 and his book surveyed progressive legislation, especially labour laws, in both Australia and New Zealand. Siegfried, who also wrote books about Canada, the US and Britain, visited in 1904 and wrote a comprehensive outline of New Zealand and its reforms.
Coming from a French political world where class conflict and socialist debates were current, both men suggested that New Zealand reforms were pragmatic solutions, devoid of theoretical input. Métin called his book Socialism without doctrine, and Siegfried considered New Zealand politicians men of action with a contempt for ideas. Both noted the absence of classes and praised the labour laws.
Siegfried thought New Zealand was very English and that New Zealanders worshipped England, which they ‘endowed with a halo of romance’.3 He also noted the strict observance of the Sabbath.
Sidney and Beatrice Webb were Fabian socialists who visited New Zealand in 1898 and recorded their views in a diary. Like the other socialist visitors, the Webbs were impressed by the reforms and particularly praised the industrial arbitration system. They also approved of the ‘independent’ manner of the working class and the fact that there were neither millionaires nor slums. They found New Zealand in general ‘delightfully British’,4 but as well-educated people they thought the country lacked intellectual life. They bemoaned the absence of public libraries and thought that (despite his undoubted political achievements) Premier Richard Seddon was gross, uneducated and rough.
The impact of such visitors was to confirm in the minds of New Zealanders that their country was the ‘social laboratory of the world’.