The 1890 election was a victory for the Liberals, who were supported by urban wage-earners, people living in provincial towns and, above all, small farmers (or those who aspired to be). John McKenzie became minister of lands, and promoted farming for export rather than to supplement wage-earners’ incomes. Liberal land policy was to buy freehold estates for subdivision, mostly in the South Island, and purchase extensive tracts of Māori land in the North Island.
Subdividing the great estates
The government increased land taxes on large estates to encourage owners to subdivide. In 1894 Parliament passed the Land for Settlements Act, giving the government powers to acquire land when offered it by its owner, or compulsorily. However, compulsory acquisition was rare. Many landowners subdivided and sold land on the private market, especially after a growth in the prices for meat and dairy products after 1895 made farming for export more profitable. Others chose to sell to the government because it saved time and uncertainty. Most vendors kept part of their estate for themselves.
Between 1891 and 1912 the Liberal government purchased 223 estates – a total of nearly 1.3 million acres (520,000 hectares) – at a cost of £5.95 million. Their land policy had its greatest impact in Canterbury (307,984 acres), Auckland (279,405 acres), Otago (204,087 acres) and Hawke’s Bay (193,558 acres). Applicants for land had to prove they had capital and experience.
The number of small farms (less than 320 acres) and large farms (over 1,000 acres) became fewer, while medium-sized farms (320–1,000 acres) increased considerably. One exception was leasehold sheep runs, which increased in average size from 9,219 to 15,889 acres because extensive pastoralism was more practical in areas where the climate could not sustain intensive farming.
The Liberals and Māori land
A justification for the transfer of millions of acres of Māori land to settlers was that Māori did not use their land for productive purposes and therefore it was wasted. In a speech in Parliament John McKenzie argued that Māori ‘should endeavour to … derive the same benefit from [land] as Europeans. When Europeans got land it was immediately turned to good account. The Europeans cultivated it, improved it, and endeavoured to make something out of it to keep themselves and their families.’ 1
Buying Māori land
The government, as sole purchaser of Māori land, bought large areas for a small price. McKenzie oversaw the purchase of 2.3 million acres (931,000 hectares) from North Island Māori at an average price of four shillings an acre. Previously, the Liberals had spent 10 times this much for half the area under the Land for Settlements Act (although this land was better developed). These purchases reflect the view of European settlers that Māori were unable to effectively farm their lands collectively, and that leasing from Māori was undesirable.
McKenzie’s land policies
As in the past, the state tried to limit the size of landholdings so more people could own land. Under the Land Act 1892 a prospective farmer had three choices:
- cash purchase of land, which required the buyer to improve the property to receive a certificate of title
- occupation with right of purchase – a 25-year lease with the right to purchase after 10 years
- a lease in perpetuity for 999 years – this replaced the earlier perpetual lease.
A leaser or purchaser could hold no more than 640 acres (259 hectares) of first-class land or 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of second-class land.
In these ways McKenzie's land policy aimed to uphold the ideal of the small, independent farmer.