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Life of Sir George Grey: Governor, High commissioner, and Premier. An Historical Biography.

The Land Question

The Land Question.

A semi-political, semi-agricultural problem of no less difficulty was more urgent. The land question was, as it is, a standing perplexity. Till 1852-4 the disposal of the waste lands in all the colonies remained in the hands of the Home Government. In these years it was, in one colony after another, definitely handed over to the self-governing colonies as apart of the grand boon of constitutional freedom and representative institutions. High authorities have esteemed it a questionable step. Gibbon Wakefield, who had founded on the colonial land question the edifice of his reputation and, indeed, his career as a coloniser, held that the extensive waste lands in the colonies should be retained by the Crown with the object of promoting emigration from the Motherland and planting settlements in the colonies. Doubtless reflecting Wakefield's sentiments, with which he was well acquainted, John Stuart Mill, a disciple on this theme, advocated the same view. The great renunciation was by no means a "Greek gift," for it was generously intended; it was rather a gift of the Centaur, and it has often proved a shirt of Nessus. A distinction, very flattering to Grey, was made in the case of New Zealand.

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The power to make regulations for the disposal of Crown lands, previously exercised by the Colonial Office in the name of the Crown, was unconditionally conceded to the Governor. He did not undervalue the magnitude of the concession. As he exorbitantly expressed it, he was "endowed with powers which perhaps no single man had before exercised." He forgot the conquerors of Mexico and Peru. He forgot the early Governors of New South Wales, who dealt far more autocratically with far more extensive tracts. He also forgot the fact that such powers were granted only to the Governor-in-Council, but he doubtless made light of that. In fact, he never had been effectually thwarted by his council, and he was not now.

He was not slow to avail himself of the vast powers thus placed in his hands. If his own account may be trusted, he was at heart a democrat from his youth up, and he explored North-West Australia in the hope of discovering tracts of land on which the landless masses of England might be settled. Fortune had brought to him a richer Eldorado than Western Australia was for many a year to prove. In New Zealand, where millions of acres lay expectant, awaiting the advent of the pastoralist and the agriculturalist, he had been kindled to indignation by fanciful schemes of colonisation that barred the door against proletarian settlement. He resolved to make an end of all that. On May 14, 1853, he issued a proclamation embodying a plan of rural administration and land settlement that must have been forgotten by those who describe him as a dreamer and a political mystic. It reveals a clear conception of the end he had in view and a firm grasp of the means by which it was to be gained. There were to be three classes of lands; limits were set to the number of acres that could be held; and all were to be sold by auction. Above all, lands that had hitherto been sold at £1, £2, and £3 per acre were to be sold at ten shillings and five shillings.

The ordinance roused a storm of disapprobation, but in certain districts it scored a signal success. The smallfarm settlements of Greytown, Masterton, and Carterton page 85were reared on the ordinance, and in the province of Auckland the lands were dealt with in the interests of the great body of the people. Grey claimed that he had "made an end of the practice of closing the land against the poor.'' It might have been replied that he threw open the gates of large landed estates to the rich. By "gridironing" the land and "taking the eyes out of it" wealthy individuals were able to defeat the Governor's designs. Just so had Earl Grey suspected that they would be defeated. And just so have similar projects been thwarted in Victoria and New South Wales. Grey's whole career, especially with its many contrivances for the advancement of indigenous races, is a palmary instance of the futility of high ends, even when they are ministered to by suitable instrumentalities.