John McKenzie


John McKenzie

One morning in May 1845, five-year-old John McKenzie was woken by his father before dawn and marched 16 miles across the Scottish Highlands to a Presbyterian church graveyard.

There he saw something he would never forget: the once proud people of Glencalvie huddled together after being evicted from their land by an unscrupulous landlord. This memory would shape his whole life’s philosophy and his land-reform work in New Zealand’s Liberal government of the 1890s.

In 1860 McKenzie emigrated to Otago, where he worked as a shepherd for a wealthy shipowner and runholder, Johnny Jones. From the mid-1860s onwards he achieved the independence he had long striven for by buying increasingly larger rural properties in East Otago. He served on the Otago Provincial Council and county councils before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1881.

McKenzie enjoyed the cut and thrust of political debate and won himself a reputation as an authoritative speaker on land issues. His expertise saw him serve as minister of lands in the Liberal cabinet from 1891 to 1900; from 1896 he was effectively deputy premier. He is best remembered for introducing a graduated land tax, instituting lease-in-perpetuity tenure, facilitating the purchase of the Cheviot Hills estate in 1893, and establishing the state’s right of compulsory purchase.

McKenzie realised his modest dream of unlocking the land for small farmers, but at the expense of Māori. Many of his policies were aimed at making land held under Māori ownership available for sale. His land for settlements policy assured him a place in the national hall of fame, but his native land policy widened the fracture in the New Zealand dream.

Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Tom Brooking

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