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History, Liberal Government and World War I

title of prime minister, Maori land, William Massey, Joseph Ward, Reform Party

The Liberal government of 1891-1912 was led first by John Ballance (until 1893), then by Richard Seddon (until 1906), and finally by Joseph Ward. Seddon, a remarkable populist politician, was known to himself as well as others as King Dick. He led New Zealand into the Boer War (1899-1902), to which it contributed 6,600 troops, and kept it from becoming part of the Commonwealth of Australia, formed in 1901.

The Liberals formed the first of three reformist New Zealand governments in the 20th century. Their policies established the foundation of social welfare that was to be expanded into a comprehensive welfare state after the economic depression of the 1930s. The Pensions Act of 1898, although limited in both amount and eligibility, set the precedent. Labor, land, and industry reforms were more comprehensive. The centerpiece of labor legislation was the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894, establishing a system that institutionalized labor unions and reduced the frequency of strikes. Land legislation included measures to buy and subdivide gentry estates and remaining Maori land for the benefit of small farmers. The state also supplied credit to farmers for farms, and later to workers for homes, at cheap rates. Government involvement in industry included the expansion of railways and the assistance and regulation of new industries.

These measures helped, but did not cause, the great economic transformation of the period. In the mid-1880s New Zealand switched from net importer to net exporter of both goods and capital. Wool exports remained important, but public works, organized immigration, and extractive industries began a relative decline. They were increasingly replaced by the so-called protein industries, which exported refrigerated meat, cheese, and butter to the British market. The new export-based economic system was up and running by 1900. Tight government regulation maintained the products’ reputation for quality in the British market. The focus on regulated exports tightened links with Britain, despite widely held expectations for steady moves toward national independence.

The status of New Zealand changed from colony to dominion in 1907, with premiers taking the title of prime minister thereafter. The Reform Party, conservative despite its name, took power from the Liberals in 1912. The Reform Party was led by William Massey, who served as prime minister from 1912 until 1925. His hard-line policy during a serious industrial crisis in 1912-1913 involved some violence. The failure of a general workers’ strike in 1913 encouraged organized labor to shift emphasis from industrial action to politics. The Labour Party was formed in 1916. New Zealand participated enthusiastically in World War I (1914-1918), supplying 100,000 troops to the Allied forces. Politicians and historians claimed that the country earned full nationhood through this contribution, but the price was staggeringly high: 60,000 casualties out of a total population of barely more than 1 million.

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