Monday, August 15, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“ACKNOWLEDGE NO FRONTIER – The Creation and Decline of New Zealand’s Provinces, 1853-76” by Andre Brett (Otago University Press, $45)

Why is it that English-speaking Canada, Australia and the United States all developed as federal systems, with separate legislatures in each state (or province), while New Zealand did not? Why is it that New Zealand’s first formal constitution did set up separate and self-legislating provinces, but these provinces were abolished a mere 23 years later? New Zealand became a unitary state. There is central government, there are local and municipal governments, but there are no provincial (or state) governments. We might occasionally wax sentimental over the old provinces, especially when provincial sports teams are battling it out. We still celebrate separate anniversary days in Auckland and Canterbury and so forth. But while there is some provincial sentiment in New Zealand, provinces were only briefly a political reality.
Like most people who have delved into New Zealand history at some time, I thought the answer was obvious. It was a matter of simple geography. In sheer geographical size, most Australian states (and all Canadian provinces) could contain all of New Zealand many times over. Their physical scale justifies provincial or state governments. While communication between one part of New Zealand and another was difficult in the earliest days of Pakeha settlement, the development of railways ironed this problem our fairly rapidly. Provinces were not needed once central government was able to deal with all legislation concerning regional development and management.
That, at any rate, was what I thought the simple answer was, but Andre Brett’s Acknowledge No Frontier suggests that this is only a small part of the answer.
Acknowledge No Frontier is a developed version of Brett’s doctoral thesis and (let’s be quite clear about this), concentrating so rigorously on the “creation and demise” of New Zealand’s provinces, it is not the easiest of reads. It is academic political and developmental history. Stated clearly in his introduction is Brett’s essential argument. He believes that the provinces faded out of public favour, and were abolished, because of their failure to open up and develop their hinterlands for settlers – a task that was readily taken over by central government.
The tale he tells goes thus:
New Zealand after 1840 was a “province” of Australia (remember Lieutenant-Governor Hobson was subordinate to the governor of New South Wales). There was a very short-lived attempt to create three “provinces” out of the North and South Islands and Stewart Island (New Ulster, New Leinster, New Munster), but this came to nothing. With the seat of government so far away in Auckland, the settlements of Wellington and Nelson in particular clamoured for provincial governments.
Under the Constitution Act in the 1850s, greatly influenced by Governor Sir George Grey, the North and South Islands were each divided into three provinces – Auckland, Taranaki and Wellington; Nelson, Canterbury and Otago. But Brett notes that at the English Colonial Office was a man with the same name as Governor Grey, but with a very different perspective:
“[Earl] Grey’s foresight that improved communication would reduce or negate the need for provinces meant that the system was founded on a weak basis as a temporary expedient. The means for provincialism’s long-term survival were not provided, even though at their birth they were to be local centres of political association.” (Chapter 2, p.47)
New Zealand’s provinces were quite unlike the separate colonies of Australia, each of which was founded with its own government, and all of which federated only in the early 20th century. In New Zealand:
The provinces were not autonomous entities within a federation; only the central government enjoyed sovereignty and provincial powers were somewhat limited. The degree of provincial self-government lagged behind Canada and that which five of the six Australian colonies soon enjoyed…” (Chapter 2, p.53)
Most importantly, provinces were barely able to handle their own finances.
Despite this, early elections to Provincial Councils were raucous and hotly contested, because in many parts of the country, the Provincial Council was considered to be nearer and more accessible than central government. [While noting this, it is also amusing to observe that in most provinces, only a few hundred men had the right to vote.]
In 1856, three years into the existence of New Zealand’s provinces, a compact was reached, allowing provinces to raise revenue from the sale of land. But this compact benefitted only the three South Island provinces, which had large reserves of pastoral land to sell. At this stage, most of the North Island was still in communal Maori ownership and the three North Island provinces had little land to sell. Worse, inept management of the provinces north of Canterbury led to local secessionist movements. Impatient settlers wanted to open up hinterlands in a way provincial governments couldn’t finance. A New Provinces Act of 1858 allowed Hawkes Bay to break from Wellington, Marlborough from Nelson and Southland from Otago. There were scuffles over when the provincial seat of government should be in Marlborough (Picton or Blenheim?) and the unimaginative name “Southland” was thrust on the southernmost province by outsiders. But just as Southlanders were expecting an era of self-controlled prosperity, gold was discovered in Otago, there was a gold-rush by-passing Southland and the little new province found itself economically dependent on the neighbour from which it had seceded. In short order, Southland faced bankruptcy.
Given this situation, central government passed an amendment to its New Provinces Act, which meant that further secession from existing provinces could be authorised only by central government. That was the end of secession from existing provinces. At about the same time, central government was buying up local telegraph lines, and buying land to establish new lines, planning for a national system of speedy communication.
Then there was the major impact of the wars in the North Island in the 1860s. Taranaki province was increasingly reliant on central government (and imperial troops) to finance defence, and was virtually bankrupted as nearly all its Pakeha population crowded into New Plymouth to escape the fighting and raids. Andre Brett almost agrees with Tony Ballantyne’s verdict that the wars were “an important impetus towards the centralisation of power in New Zealand” (quoted Chapter 8, p.140), but he stresses that the real issue was the inability of the provinces to raise loans independently of central government.
As some North Island provinces faced melt-down, there were the crazy (and never-realised) plans of some people in more-settled Auckland and Otago to completely separate from New Zealand and become independent colonies of Britain, like the separate colonies of Australia. Most of this feeling was quashed in 1864, when the national capital was moved from Auckland to more central Wellington. Even so, the separate provinces continued to be inept in managing public works and the construction of railways was tardy. There was in the late 1860s the brief experiment of having Westland as a separate entity from Canterbury, but it was more in the nature of an autonomous district or large “county” rather than a real province as it had few resources from which it could raise capital. (As an interesting side-issue, Brett notes that the barrier of the Southern Alps meant that Westlanders, until the late 19th century, were more directly connected with Australia than with Christchurch, and there were many business and cultural links with Melbourne.)
In 1867, central government legislated new regulations concerning municipalities and local government, in effect undercutting provincial authority. Brett comments:
Apart from 1875, the year of abolition, 1867 was the most momentous and calamitous year for provincialism. The provinces had accrued vast debts, gaining little but frustrated citizens in the process, and the development of infrastructure had essentially stagnated. The solution to provincial indebtedness was presented in a manner that not only favoured centralism, but also blocked provincial borrowing.” (Chapter 11, p.194)
The 1860s had seen the “confiscation” and sale of vast tracts of hitherto Maori land following the wars. Came the 1870s and the Great Public Works Policy of Julius Vogel essentially spelled the end of provinces. Financed and directed by central government, public works were a national project, superseding provincial attempts at developing the hinterland. The Provincial Public Works Act of 1874 meant that “the provinces had become pensioners” (Chapter 13, p.220). Money for railways, roads and bridges came from central government.
In this climate, Vogel proposed the abolition of provincial governments. At first South Islanders (especially the people of Otago) thought insolvent North Island provinces would be abolished while South Island provinces would continue, especially as Vogel himself originally had the same idea. But in all provinces, the impetus for total abolition grew. Finally, on 31 October 1876, a mere 23 years after they were set up, the provincial governments were abolished and New Zealand became a unitary state. Provinces were henceforth mere geographical labels. Says Brett:
Localism rather than provincialism remained persistent and local identity continues to possess significance in New Zealand, but it no longer relates to sub-national political entities with legislative powers.” (Chapter 14, p.239)
I have emphasised that this is essentially conscientious, solid and stolid academic political history. The text is followed by many pages giving the demographic data on the old provinces. Andre Brett makes the occasional feint at being funky and hip. The book’s title, Acknowledge No Frontier, comes from the Split Enz number “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” and Brett cracks a joke (Chapter 3, p.71) taken from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But the data plods on. Even so, there are lively anecdotal moments. It is fun to read, in Chapter 6, of the mutual billingsgate thrown by the people of Picton and Blenheim as each group lobbied for their settlement to become the provincial capital of Marlborough. In the same chapter there is the woeful but hilarious tale of Southlanders economising by trying to build a railway with wooden rails from Invercargill to the Otago goldfields (the book reproduces a photo of the wooden rails). In Chapter 9 there is the foolish hubris of old James Busby (the pre-Treaty of Waitangi “resident” in the Bay of Islands) campaigning vigorously but fruitlessly to have Auckland separate from the rest of New Zealand as an autonomous crown colony. Acknowledge No Frontier has a number of other such readable moments.
This is by no means a picture-book, but I should acknowledge the decent range of period photographs that are reproduced. One in particular gets to me. On Page 165, there is a photograph of Nelson taken in 1868. Of course it strikes us as a raw and under-developed settler town. But what most impressed me is how very built-up it is – how many buildings there are – when this photograph was taken less than 20 years after Nelson began to be settled. Our Pakeha pioneers were at least industrious.

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