The New Zealand economy has evolved in two distinct phases:
Once the new population had settled in, around the 15th century, Māori ceased to deplete natural resources such as forests, and technological innovation was slow. Capital accumulation such as clearing land and building houses was probably just enough to cover population growth. It seems likely that there was little overall per-capita economic growth. Shocks from the weather, such as droughts, hurricanes and floods, and from natural disasters, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, set back some regions for a time. Inter-tribal warfare in the 18th century may have had some effect; the construction of fortifications would have absorbed energy, and there was some destruction of capital and stores as a consequence of fighting.
New Zealand entered the European imagination at almost the same time that the father of economics, Adam Smith, published his famous work The wealth of nations in 1776. James Cook had reached New Zealand in 1769. Smith pointed out that people’s pursuit of economic self-interest frequently led by an ‘invisible hand’ to social good. The book became the founding text of modern economics.
The arrival of Europeans brought new peoples (and diseases), materials, plants and animals, technologies and ideas, together with new sources of capital and opportunities to trade. The Māori response to the challenges these brought was not simply a matter of imitation. To succeed the response had to be creative and appropriate to local conditions.
New Zealand became a more specialised economy, both within the country, where the distinction between household and business became common, and in the world economy, as a specialist provider of food and fibre. Greater division of labour required a market economy, in which private initiative and capital were critical. Central government – an institution inconceivable in New Zealand before the end of the 18th century – was always closely involved in development and sometimes the leader.
From the end of the 18th century New Zealand faced the tension of benefiting from trading with the rest of the world, but losing its autonomy as a consequence – the main determinant of the course of the New Zealand economy has been the world economy. New Zealand’s responses to this external environment have determined the degree to which the economy has prospered.
The first people in New Zealand engaged in economic activity, producing and consuming for their own needs. Neither Māori nor their Polynesian ancestors practised commercial market transactions. They were involved in gift exchanges, where the people who were transacting were more important than the goods being exchanged. There were some barter transactions, exchanges made without the use of money. The basic Māori economic unit – the hapū – was largely self-sufficient. There was specialisation of activity (division of labour) inside the hapū.
Māori lived in a subsistence economy, but they were not generally poor, and they used their surplus time for leisure, sport and warfare, and for making elaborate artefacts. We cannot measure their output, but their life expectation was similar to that of Western Europeans in the 16th century, and it seems likely their real incomes – the resources they were able to exploit – were similar too.
Early Māori plundered some natural resources, such as moa and seals. Over time they adopted more sustainable practices.
Māori were adept at bartering with the first Europeans. They quickly developed commercial relations, as they were eager for European goods such as guns and metal tools. Many early European settlements initially depended on Māori for food, and tribes supplied visiting traders with provisions for their ships, and timber and flax for export.
Traders were crucial intermediaries between tribes and the European commercial world. A number of early traders cemented their relationships with local Māori by marrying the chief’s daughter. In Kāwhia in 1828 John Rodolphus Kent married Tiria, daughter of the powerful Waikato chief Te Wherowhero, and for the next few years took cargoes of the tribe’s flax, pork, potatoes and spars across the Tasman. Similarly in the Coromandel the American William Webster married the daughter of Te Horetā of Ngāti Whanaunga, and embarked on a career trading tobacco and spirits for maize and preserved pork.
By the 1850s there were Māori commercial enterprises, often with their own boats for transporting produce to urban markets. They were less successful from the 1860s. This was partly because the European towns became more self-sufficient – some say the settlers deliberately discouraged Māori supply – and also because of confiscation of fertile lands. In addition some stocks were fished out, the fertility of the land was eroded, and weeds took over the fields.
Māori found it difficult to participate in the wool economy which was the staple of the late 19th century, in part because they lost land, but also because most Māori lived north of Lake Taupō where sheep farming was not successful, except on the East Cape.
The first European commercial activity in New Zealand exploited natural resources in an unsustainable manner. People harvested timber, and also seals and whales, often to near extinction. In the 1860s there were gold rushes, and in the last decades of the 19th century native timber, gold from quartz, other minerals and kauri gum were all taken.
Quarrying gave a temporary boost to the economy, but when the resources were depleted the exploiters moved on. Local settlements benefited temporarily. There were also long-term benefits from the development of infrastructure such as roads, and the emergence of a merchant-capitalist class who reinvested their capital in sustainable activities such as farming, manufacturing and commerce.
Dunedin was the richest city in New Zealand by the 1880s, largely on the back of investments from the gold rush.
This ‘quarrying’ phase of economic development was largely exhausted by the end of the century, although it remained important in some localities, for example on the West Coast, up till the end of the 20th century. Taranaki became a new quarry economy following gas and oil discoveries from 1958. Early quarries were usually depleted in a few years. But in the early 2000s resources were often depleted slowly enough to sustain decades of economic activity, though some fish stocks declined rapidly.
Quarrying for gold led to the quick emergence of settlements which have subsequently disappeared. In Central Otago, Bendigo was a thriving gold-quartz mining community with four stores and seven hotels by 1870. Today there is nothing more than a few stone ruins amid the vineyards. In the 1890s the mining community of Lyell in the Buller Gorge had a bank, a post office, a weekly newspaper, a court house and a police station. Today only the cemetery headstones can be found in the bush.
The first European settlements relied on the capital they brought with them, including their baggage, or they borrowed to sustain economic activity. Grain production, the initial economic hope, often proved expensive to establish and gave poor returns. Settlements flourished in association with temporary quarrying of limited resources, or were sustained by further borrowing. In Wellington in the 1850s and Auckland in the 1860s capital was acquired through externally funded warfare with Māori.
In order to survive, settlements had to find a staple product which would generate export revenue to pay for imports, and service their borrowing. The first great staple was wool, which began to be exported from the Wellington settlement as revenue from whaling was exhausted in the late 1850s.
The production of staples – raw materials exported overseas with a minimum of processing – shaped the structure of the New Zealand economy, set the pace of economic growth, and influenced the political and social organisations of the community.
The economist and historian W. B. Sutch described New Zealand’s dominant staples for much of the 19th and 20th centuries as ‘processed grass’. Except for a brief period during the gold rushes of the 1860s, wool, meat and dairy products were by far the highest proportion of New Zealand exports by value, from the 1850s, when statistics were first collected, until the 1970s, when there was a great diversification.
The importance of sheep to the New Zealand economy may be seen in the fact that a fleece appears in the coats of arms of New Zealand, of the cities of Christchurch and Wellington, of the University of Canterbury and, interestingly, of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. The city of Dunedin includes a ram’s head and Invercargill has a wool bale.
Initially the staple was wool, because unrefrigerated meat or dairy products could only be exported as far as Australia. The rest of the sheep was boiled up for tallow which was used for candles and soap. The first large commercial flocks were in the Wairarapa, a rural extension of the Wellington settlement. Sheep farming spread up and down the east coast of New Zealand from Southland to the East Cape, as soon as land was alienated or leased from Māori, and there was transport infrastructure.
Sheep numbers grew quickly from importing and breeding. There were a million sheep by the mid-1850s and 10 million by the early 1870s. Total numbers peaked at 70 million in the early 1980s.
Sheep provided a profitable average return but there was much income uncertainty from weather (drought or snowstorms), disease (scab and footrot) and pests such as rabbits and gorse. Farmers had to adapt northern-hemisphere and Australian ways to local New Zealand conditions. They also had to adapt their product as the English woollen mills changed their fibre requirements.
The boom of the 1870s was the result of a public borrowing programme instituted by Julius Vogel, colonial treasurer and on occasion premier between 1869 and 1876. There were also private capital inflows.
Vogel thought that by investing in immigrants, infrastructure like roads, rail and bridges, and land development, the economy would enter a sustained phase of economic prosperity.
There was some economic growth, but it was more a reflection of population growth than increased output per head. Before a sustainable boom could happen, overseas borrowing was cut off by an international financial crisis. The New Zealand economy lapsed into a long depression in which borrowing and an associated debt burden (especially on land) became a weight on the economy.
Vogel’s dreams were fulfilled in the 1890s when New Zealand entered a long boom. However, while he envisaged the role of wool in the expansion, he did not foresee the crucial contribution of refrigerated products.
The long depression from the late 1870s through to the early 1890s was an accident waiting to happen. Some argue that the depression began earlier, in the late 1860s, as the quarrying of limited resources and the war economy ran out, but that the underlying sluggishness of the 1870s was obscured by unsustainable borrowing.
The slump was precipitated by the collapse of the City Bank of Glasgow in 1878. This led to a credit contraction in the City of London, then the centre of the world’s financial system, which reduced the credit available to New Zealand. With many activities dependent upon credit and landowners heavily over-borrowed, a credit shortage compounded the effects of a falling wool price.
There was much hardship, with ‘sweating’ (exploitative labour conditions) in the factories, a lack of jobs for rural workers, and farmers going bankrupt. Harry Atkinson, the dominant colonial treasurer during these years, got a reputation for cutting government expenditure. However he had little choice but to retrench because he could not easily borrow when revenue was less than planned spending.
Atkinson’s careful management of the national finances set the economy up for the long boom, which began in the mid-1890s. Prices fell during these years, so for people with jobs their ability to purchase goods improved.
Until the main trunk railway line was completed in 1908 Auckland was not well connected to the south, so Auckland was not dependent on the wool economy. It relied on hard-rock mining of Coromandel gold, native timber exports to booming Australia, and kauri gum – all finite resources. It was reasonably prosperous during much of the 1880s, but when Australia went into depression towards the end of the decade, Auckland slumped too.
Although the first shipment to Britain of frozen meat was in 1882 it took almost two decades for meat to become an important export. Farmers experimented with better sheep breeds for meat such as the Corriedale and the New Zealand Romney. They replaced native tussocks with imported grasses and developed new pasture-management techniques to maximise their returns.
Farming sheep for wool usually involved land-extensive farming – one sheep to 2 acres (0.8 hectares) was common. Farming for meat as well as wool was more land-intensive, and sheep stations were subdivided. This ‘bursting’ (an 1890s expression) is often portrayed as the government imposing on the farmers, but many farmers were pleased to have public funding to unlock the productive potential of their land. Smaller farms were less self-sufficient than the great sheep stations, and rural servicing towns flourished.
Dairy farming proved especially viable in lands which had not been found suitable for sheep, particularly in Northland, the Waikato and Taranaki. This was a major factor in relocating economic activity north from its South Island base of the 19th century. Keeping cows had initially been only for town milk supply, but refrigeration made the export of butter and cheese a thriving industry.
Because refrigerated products require post-farm-gate processing, dairy factories sprang up near farms and freezing works near ports. As transport became cheaper, the factories were consolidated to benefit from economies of scale, and freezing works moved out of the cities to be nearer farms. There was some post-farm-gate processing of wool, including scouring and the manufacture of woollen garments (which began in the 1870s), but not much.
The first person to install a freezing machine in a butter factory was the Eltham entrepreneur Chew Chong. Born in Canton, he had established his name exporting Jew’s ear fungus (Auricularia cornea), known as ‘Taranaki wool’, in the 1870s and 1880s. In the late 1880s he owned several butter factories, and four creameries, and won the prize for the best half-ton of export butter at the 1889–90 Dunedin exhibition. He flew the Chinese flag over the exhibit.
The North Atlantic economies moved out of depression in the mid-1890s. Refrigerated exports became significant as the British seized on the new high-quality foods New Zealand farmers produced. Under a Liberal government New Zealand went into a boom which lasted until about 1920. As hard-rock gold, native timber and kauri gum became depleted, pastoral-farming products became an even larger share of exports – over 90% in the mid-20th century.
Just as Māori had found it difficult to get into sheep farming, they also faced obstacles entering capital-intensive dairy farming, because of their lack of access to commercial capital, together with the alienation of much Māori land.
Immediately after the First World War New Zealand suffered a deep but short depression when import prices lifted rather sharply, signalling the end of the Liberal boom. The 1920s were a period of slow growth propped up by offshore borrowing.
The great depression began internationally with the Wall Street sharemarket collapse of October 1929, although the subsequent downturn was complicated by poor monetary and economic policies in the major financial centres.
As in the long depression of the 1870s to 1890s, New Zealand was hit by being unable to borrow offshore, and by a collapse in the price for its exports. Economic activity declined – gross domestic product (GDP) is thought to have been only 75% of capacity in the 1932/33 year and the unemployment rate may have been over 20%. Again there was much hardship.
Despite the suffering of the depression, there were some who enjoyed new ‘mod cons’ during these years. Electrical water-heating and stoves spread among the houses of the wealthy in the early 1930s. Those who had jobs or savings benefited from lower prices and new technologies.
During the depression there was much criticism of economic policy, which restricted government spending, devalued the currency, cut nominal wages and reduced interest rates and the value of mortgages. Subsequent assessments view these measures as broadly necessary, but suggest that the burden of adjustment could have been more fairly shared. The government was unable to prime the economy through deficit financing because monetary conditions were determined offshore. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand was established in 1934 in order to make a more independent monetary policy possible.
Just as Harry Atkinson had laid the foundations for the boom after the long depression, Gordon Coates, the minister of finance in 1933–35, laid the foundations for a later boom. While the Labour government elected in 1935 was thought to have saved New Zealand from the great depression, the domestic and world recovery was under way before it took office. The new government built on the foundations laid by Coates. It introduced new policies to strengthen economic growth, reduced (but did not eliminate) the vulnerability of New Zealand to external economic events, and increased the social security of New Zealanders.
From the 1850s until the end of the 1960s the majority of New Zealand’s exports – often more than 80% – went directly to Britain, except for a brief period in the 1860s when New Zealand supplied the Australian goldfields, and shipped indirectly to Britain through Sydney. While import sources were more diversified, Britain was the largest. Britain’s economic dominance arose in part because of political, cultural and kinship links, but also because after the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846, the British food market was open to world suppliers. Most other potential markets protected their farmers from outside competition.
The Ottawa Agreement, signed in 1932 during the depths of the great depression, continued access for New Zealand exports to Britain, in exchange for preferential access to the local market by British imports.
The 1930s depression drew attention to New Zealand’s economic vulnerability. Specialisation in a few export products and one main market made the economy vulnerable to international fluctuations. This led to the promotion of local manufacturing as an alternative to imports, although often New Zealand production depended on imports of materials and components. The government had made some efforts to encourage manufacturing in the 19th century, but the introduction of import controls from 1938 was a more drastic step to privilege domestic production over imports. By the early 1960s people were even suggesting that there was potential for some industrial exports.
New Zealand’s earliest factories were in the quarries of greenstone and argillite, where Māori workers shaped stone for tools and ornaments. The first European factories were on whaling ships, although onshore preparation of whale oil soon proved more efficient. Later, people made clothes or wooden objects at home, or in establishments too small to be formally considered factories.
The structure of New Zealand manufacturing was different from that in Western Europe and North America. As a general rule New Zealand factories were small.
However the pastoral processing plants which began from 1882 as a part of refrigerated exporting were exceptions. New Zealand’s dairy factories and freezing works were large in international terms.
The processing of resources – including aluminium based on electricity, the exploitation of hydrocarbons, steel based on iron sands, and wood products – also involved larger-scale manufacture. Most processing was established after 1945 and was not large in international terms. The biggest industrial plant produced pulp and paper at Kawerau.
Government support for industry began to be withdrawn from the 1970s, and was almost all terminated by 1990. This is one reason the proportion of the population employed in manufacturing declined at the end of the 20th century. The increasing demand for services was another reason. In 2009 a larger share of manufacturing was related to resource-based industries than 30 years before.
The most sustained boom in New Zealand’s economic history began with the recovery from the great depression in 1935, and very strong production during the Second World War, as people worked long hours and women worked outside the home as a part of the war effort.
Growth slowed during the period of post-war adjustment. Strong growth took up again from 1950 to 1966. Inflation was often the greatest worry, although there always had been a tendency for the economy to demand more imports than it could pay for from exports. This was a major reason for government encouragement of import-competing industrialisation – even so there was some borrowing.
The boom was sustained by favourable prices (high terms of trade) for pastoral exports, while manufacturing absorbed a growing labour force. Unemployment was very low, and there was much personal investment in new homes, and in consumer goods such as whiteware.
The New Zealand economy remained largely a ‘monoculture’, exporting (almost only) ‘processed grass’ – meat, wool and dairy products – mainly to the British market.
There were isolated local resource-based or quarry booms. The hydrocarbon resources found around Taranaki from 1958, and especially the giant Māui gas field found in 1968, lifted that region’s economic activity. The Chatham Islands had a short boom in the 1960s when crayfish were fished intensively.
At the end of 1966 the auction price of cross-bred wool fell dramatically by around 40% – only ever to recover for a brief period during the 1971–72 commodity boom – as synthetic fibre replaced wool. Fine wools from Merinos were still profitable, but while wool was once New Zealand’s number one export, in 2008 it was under 2% of New Zealand’s exports by value. The entire sheep industry was undermined, and farmers sought to diversify – as did the whole economy.
From the early 1930s it was clear that Britain could not take unlimited quantities of New Zealand’s pastoral exports. During and after the war, Britain subsidised its own farmers. By the early 1960s it was expected to join what is now the European Union, which was much more protectionist towards agriculture. Facing the loss of unrestricted access to its traditional market, New Zealand intensified the search for alternatives.
The collapse of the wool price in 1966 and the general weakening of dairy and meat prices accelerated diversification of markets, adding strong price incentives to the public policy objectives. New Zealand went through the strongest export diversification of any OECD economy between 1965 and 1980 by product and destination (the OECD is a group of 30 developed economies).
In 2008 more was exported in value to (in order) Australia, the United States, Japan, and China than to Britain. Exports to all other European countries were more than twice those to the British market. In terms of imports Britain was 12th, behind Australia, China, the United States, Japan, Singapore, Germany, Malaysia, Qatar, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia.
In 2008 Qatar, which most New Zealanders have not visited and know little about, sent New Zealand $1,523 million of trade; the United Kingdom sent about two-thirds of that – $1,084 million. Almost all the Qatar imports were oil. Qatar is an oil-rich Arab emirate with under two million people and has one of the highest per capita gross domestic products (GDP) in the world.
Up to the 1960s pastoral products such as meat, butter, cheese and wool were over 90% of merchandise exports. In 2008 the single biggest generator of foreign exchange was tourism, and the entire service sector generated a quarter of total export revenue. Merchandise exports were led by dairy products and meat, while returns from base metals, fishing, forestry, horticulture, and general manufacturing all exceeded wool.
There was diversification within traditional categories. By the early 2000s meat exports were more likely to be cuts rather than carcasses. Exports of milk powders exceeded the combined value of the traditional butter and cheese. Pharmaceuticals derived from milk fractions and offal were another form of diversification. Some fine wool was exported as garments.
By the early 2000s there were about 5 million dairy cows and 4 million beef cattle. Following the extension of irrigation at the end of the 20th century, dairying moved south, and in 2007 Canterbury had the second largest dairy herd, as well as the largest sheep flock.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s ‘Think Big’ industrial plants using electricity surpluses and Taranaki gas were established, with the aim of reducing New Zealand’s dependence on hydrocarbon imports, and exporting some energy-intensive products. However the initiatives did not prove as successful as hoped, partly because of the fall in world oil prices in the mid-1980s.
The British colonial government arrived in New Zealand before all but a handful of European settlers, and people turned to it whenever they were in need. The new government was more interventionist than the British government on which it was based.
Central government had more borrowing power than the private sector. It purchased land from Māori, and carried out the New Zealand wars. It built and owned much of the transport network, often after private enterprise had failed to deliver. It began to provide for the poor and others in need, for there were few private charities. Later it would restrain the monopolies inevitable in a small country, including enabling farmers to sell their produce overseas collectively.
Depressions accelerated government involvement. The Liberal government, elected in 1890 during the long depression, extended the economic authority of the government in a market context, with the major exception of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894. The first Labour government, elected in 1935, took a more ‘anti-market’ stance in its interventions, reflecting the distrust of the market which the great depression engendered.
The expansion of government bureaucracies in the first half of the 20th century was part of the growing service sector in the economy.
In the long run government interventions tended to be inflexible. The great depression demonstrated that markets could be ruthless if technological or other changes made processes obsolete. Those whose interests are damaged often appeal to government to protect them from changes, even at the cost of the rest of the economy.
From 1949, following the election of a National government, there was some cautious market liberalisation. The external diversification of the 1970s reinforced the view that the government’s interventions were inhibiting the export effort; for example, some exporters were forced to source an input from a high-cost domestic supplier, while their overseas competitors did not.
The complexity of the post-war economy and the external diversification of the 1970s made market liberalisation increasingly necessary. Politicians and public servants could not control the entire economy. However politicians were reluctant to liberalise because they saw markets as disrupting people’s lives. Robert Muldoon, prime minister and minister of finance from 1975 to 1984, used controls to try to repress inflation. Controls had been effective during the Second World War, but conditions had changed.
The new Labour government elected in 1984, more confident with market mechanisms, commenced a radical programme of market liberalisation. The National government which followed it in 1990 at first reinforced the process, but by the mid-1990s was proceeding more cautiously.
One consequence of the economic reforms was the ‘Rogernomics’ (or long) recession. Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) fell or stagnated in every year between 1986/87 and 1993/94, the longest recession in the post-war era. At its bottom, economic activity was 9% below trend – unemployment rose to 11.1% of the labour force in March 1992.
‘Rogernomics’ was the term used to describe the liberal reforms of the post-1984 Labour government. The name refers to the minister of finance, Roger Douglas, who initiated the liberalisation, although other ministers followed him. It echoes ‘Reaganomics’, the liberalisation of the American economy by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and ‘Thatchernomics’, the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain at the same time.
There is no agreement as to the cause of this recession. It was not the 1987 international sharemarket crash, because other countries that had a crash did not stagnate like New Zealand. The world economy flourished, and New Zealand faced neither major external borrowing pressures nor falls in its relative export prices. The recession seems to have been a domestically generated slowdown. A common explanation is that the economic liberalisation was badly managed, especially by over-valuing the exchange rate, which stalled the export engine of the economy.
There is debate on the success of the liberalisation. Some argue that all reforms were necessary, and more should have been made. Others believe that the measures caused unnecessary hardship – they speak of the conversion of ‘fiscal deficit’ into a social deficit.
The middle view is that many of the liberalisation measures were necessary, but not always well implemented, while others were extreme and inefficient. That was the view of the Labour-led administration elected in 1999, which reversed or modified many of the extreme measures, but broadly continued with the liberal market economy its predecessor Labour government had initiated.
The New Zealand economy which entered the 21st century was very different from that which had entered the 19th century, or even the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1975 the economy was still heavily regulated by the government, and the export sector remained dependent upon pastoral exports to the British market. Many saw the economy as inflexible, prone to inflation and slow to respond to technological opportunities. It was also growing more slowly.
Some conclude that by 2000 many of these weaknesses had been addressed. Economic growth accelerated from about that time. Critics say that was due to an increasing number of workers rather than greater productivity. This was a time of world economic growth, and domestic economic growth was in part the result of heavy overseas borrowing.
As the world economy entered a major recession in 2008 New Zealand was once more confronted with the fact that its success depended on activities offshore over which it had little control. In that respect things had hardly changed over 200 years.
In the early 2000s the New Zealand economy faced a question over sustainability. This was a theme which ran through its history. Past economic growth had depended upon quarrying of limited resources like gold and oil. Even the success of pastoral farming in the 20th century depended on offshore quarries to provide phosphate and other minerals for fertiliser, and oil for energy. Neither was available in unlimited quantities.
Local production had degraded the quality of water, land or air, and contributed to global warming. Such reductions in environmental quality are not included in conventional measures of output, such as gross domestic product (GDP).
More attention was paid to environmental issues in the first years of the 21st century than at any previous time; and some remediation occurred. The change may have been because the environmental challenges were more urgent, or it may have been that affluence enabled greater concern with non-economic issues.
During the 20th century real incomes and spending power had risen about eightfold. People were healthier and lived longer, had more consumer power and life choices, better education, and better working conditions with shorter hours and greater security. All were palpable gains, but some people questioned whether the objective of economic policy and the measure of economic performance should be just more production and consumption.
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