Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

The Historian as Prophet


The Liberals aimed at greatness in a moral sense. They wanted a society which cared for all of its members, including the young and the old, the neglected child, and the female factory worker. In 1900 New Zealand, with a population of less than 800,000, was nevertheless a great country. With some of the Australian colonies, it stood for something of central importance to humanity, as was widely recognized. It was studied and visited by many of the most distinguished reformers, political thinkers, and leaders in the European world.

That moral ideal must be, in my view, one of our abiding concerns. It was Dr Johnson, a Tory, who said: ‘A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.’ Gentlemen of education, he observed, were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lowest orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.

No future I would want for New Zealand would turn aside from the effort to achieve that ideal, and to extend its application – to the mentally and the criminally ill, for instance, unfortunates for whom we do little. But I will not dwell on this topic. My views are widely shared and we are, at present, engaged in the kind of effort I describe. Present policies towards improving the situation of the Maoris, and of assisting development in the Pacific and Asia, however inadequate or imperfect, are a product of three of our traditional ideals: racial equality, social equality, and social welfare.

The pursuit of the joint ideals of equality and welfare is no longer a distinctive characteristic of our society. It would not support any claim to distinction. We are born in a privileged society, not a great one. Our present shortcomings I will initially sum up by saying that equality is not enough: it must not ignore the just claims and rights of inequality. Do please understand that, in the rest of this talk, I am not advocating oligarchy, or the creation of a privileged élite. I speak of what is specifically a problem of New Zealand society, which has demoted ability.

Pember Reeves made another remark which may serve as a text. In a debate, in 1888, on a tariff Bill, he quoted Goldsmith:

… ye statesmen who survey
The rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay,
‘Tis yours to say how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land.

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