Governor George Grey was the architect of the New Zealand Settlements Act, the primary legislative mechanism for confiscations of Māori land. (Painted by Daniel Mundy, circa 1860. Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: G-623)

New Zealand has an international reputation, which we’re proud of, as a country largely without corruption. But does that reputation stand up if the measure takes into account the colonial government’s actions in the 19th century and beyond?

Here, emeritus professors of political science Robert Gregory and Daniel Zirker argue that the land confiscation which underpins our economy today is a historical form of government corruption.


Corruption has seldom been a topic of political controversy in New Zealand, unlike in many other countries.

Politicians don’t stand on a promise to reduce governmental corruption simply because, according to mainstream opinion, there has been so little of it.

Corruption is generally defined as the misuse of public power for private gain. The most commonly identified forms are bribery, embezzlement, money laundering, concealment, and obstruction of justice.

These forms are gauged by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which, since its inception in the mid-1990s, has consistently ranked New Zealand at or near the top of its league table.

But this high status on the CPI omits a historical form of governmental behaviour that underpins our entire economy and political infrastructure today — the confiscation of vast tracts of Māori land.


Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). New Zealand, along with Denmark and Finland, are perceived as the least corrupt countries in the world. 


Whose egalitarianism do we celebrate?

Soon after World War II, New Zealand’s first professor of political science, Englishman Leslie Lipson, published a strongly influential treatise on New Zealand society.

His work, The Politics of Equality: New Zealand’s Adventures in Democracy, identified what Lipson saw as the country’s committed egalitarian ethos.

In his words:

New Zealand has a genuine passion for social justice . . . Poverty is well-nigh eradicated from the Dominion and in its worst forms does not exist at all. There is no underdog, nor is anybody exploited — unless it be the housewife and mother. New Zealanders insist that the essential minima for civilised living be guaranteed to all and shared around, that everyone be given an equal chance, and that the aged and the weak be cared for.

Lipson went on to strongly imply a direct connection between the country’s egalitarianism and the absence of corruption in the bureaucratic hallways of New Zealand’s government.

He remarked on “the generally high standard of personal integrity prevailing among its civil servants” and observed in the New Zealand civil [public] service “a commendable absence of graft and a strict code of honesty”.

He attributed this to job security, strict accounting and audit requirements, and an “inner check” reflecting public servants’ “professional devotion to the ideal of the public interest”.

Lipson argued that the state in New Zealand was not an entity that most New Zealanders felt as some external force, but was regarded rather as the people themselves in action, nation-building in pragmatic rather than ideological ways, and only too ready and willing to develop national infrastructure in the absence of commercial competition.

As he put it, “The people, or at any rate most of them, look upon the state quite healthily as being themselves under another form. When it acts, they feel that they are acting. What it owns, they own . . . To them it is simply a utilitarian instrument for effecting their will.”

But for Māori, of course, the state was a utilitarian instrument pursuing colonial settlement against their will.

The oppression of Māori as another form of corruption 

No sooner had the Treaty been signed than it was largely ignored by the colonial government, which instead set about securing Māori land for the growing number of migrant settlers.

On December 3, 1863, Governor Grey signed into law the New Zealand Settlements Act and Suppression of Rebellion Act.

These were not only designed to crush incipient Māori rebellion, but allowed the government to confiscate land, without compensation, from any North Island tribe deemed to be “in rebellion against Her Majesty’s authority”. A similar scheme had been adopted by the British government in Ireland.

These moves had not been enthusiastically supported by the colonial office in London. New Zealand’s first chief justice, in office from 1841 to 1857, warned that they would create “a brooding sense of wrong” among Māori, which would be passed down from generation to generation.

Still, the colonial government used the Settlements Act and the Suppression of Rebellion Act to confiscate land not only from tribes that had fought against the Crown in the land wars of the mid-1860s but also from tribes who had actively supported the Crown.

These laws simply made legal what had previously been illegal.

Moreover, the New Zealand premier at the time the Settlements Act was signed into law was Frederick Whitaker, an Auckland businessman and land speculator who acquired a lot of land under that legislation and stood to make huge profits from his investment.

Even in those times this would probably have been regarded as corrupt practice. And Whitaker — described by Lipson as “a person of lax political ethics” — was not alone among government officials who benefited personally from the land grab. Whitaker served a second term as premier, 1882-1883, before resigning when publicity exposed his private financial speculation.

Nearly two years after the New Zealand Settlements Act was enacted, the Native Lands Act came into force, enabling the conversion of customary communal landholdings by Māori to be split up into individual titles, thus facilitating increased purchase of Māori land for settlement. Only 10 joint Māori owners per block were allowed, which meant that large blocks with many owners could be sold off more readily, as other owners were dispossessed.

A subsequent Native Land Act of 1873 pressed individual ownership further: no title could be awarded to Māori iwi or hapū, as had been possible under the 1865 act.

In the meantime, immigration proceeded apace, accompanied, especially from the late 1870s, by a massive governmental public works programme to develop national infrastructure. This saw a further decrease in Māori land holding, partly because, under the Public Works Act of 1864, land for roads, railways and other purposes could be compulsorily acquired by the Crown, and not necessarily with compensation.

Māori land was often acquired in preference to Pākehā land, and some roads were built circuitously through Māori reserves.

At the signing of the Treaty in 1840, Māori owned almost the entire North Island. They could not foresee that, within several decades, they would be a relatively small minority, and that, by 1892, they would own just over a third of North Island land, with a quarter of these holdings being leased to Pākehā. From 1844 to the mid-1860s, the Crown acquired about 80 percent of Māori land in the South Island and Rakiura (Stewart Island) for about one penny per acre.

Fairness was hardly the dominating value which drove the legalised alienation of Māori land, unless fairness is seen as a function of superior strength.

Still, Lipson would go on to claim that New Zealanders, unlike Americans, prioritised equality over liberty. It was an assessment to be repeated by others in comparisons of the political cultures of the two societies.

New Zealanders were constantly assured that their country led the world in “this, that, and the other”, and this “delusion of the self-satisfied” was unquestioned.

But the betrayal and violation of the Treaty was in itself a form of state corruption, driven by the settler quest for land at the expense of Māori.

Land confiscation as the foundations of our modern economy

New Zealand’s perceived fair and egalitarian society became much less obviously so from the late 1980s, as deregulation and neoliberal policies were enacted.

The deregulation of trading banks empowered them to finance home ownership through a plentiful and seemingly unlimited supply of relatively cheap money. Today, property investment has become a primary source of wealth and the housing market has become the dominant feature of the country’s economy.

These things are only possible as a result of the land confiscation, privatisation and individualisation of title that were pursued by the colonial government.

The main banks — all Australian-owned — now record huge annual profits, while productivity rates have declined sharply. It has been the major driver of growing wealth inequality.

No government has ameliorated the situation significantly, mainly because too many property-owning voters have benefited hugely, including large numbers of MPs, who are required to list their assets on a publicly accessible register. The quest for fairness seems no longer to be a prime motivator in public policymaking.

Dispossessed of their lands and assets, a disproportionate number of impoverished people in our society are Māori, many of whom are now forced to live in conditions and circumstances that would be completely unacceptable to middle-class Pākehā.

Despite the Treaty of Waitangi’s status as the formative founding national document, the fundamental breaches of it remain relatively absent in New Zealand’s anti-corruption narrative.

Instead, the fact that New Zealand has consistently retained its top or near top ranking on the Corruption Perceptions Index over the past 25 years has informed much of the commentary on corruption in the country.

However, this commentary should be better informed by a more historical, and less monocultural, awareness of the way in which present-day, largely non-corrupt, New Zealand was built on the back of a betrayal of the Treaty of Waitangi and the dispossession of Māori land.

Colonisation fomented injustice through a systemic privileging of the Crown and a relationship in which it assumed it would be the sole and supreme authority. Much of Māori land confiscation was then rendered legal for illegitimate purposes, and was undertaken in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi. The acquisition of land in this way can be explained as a form of realpolitik.

Our argument, offered in a spirit of understanding as much as condemnation, is that legalised governmental action becomes corrupt when those actions are largely based on lies and deceit.

Our concern is that these historical perspectives aren’t embraced within the CPI.


Robert Gregory is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington. He has published widely on public administration and policy, especially critical perspectives on state sector reform, corruption, technocracy, public policy-making theory, accountability and responsibility. He was a Visiting Professor at the then Department of Public and Social Administration, City University of Hong Kong, 2010-2011.

Daniel Zirker is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Waikato. He was a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, and the chair/president of the Research Committee on Armed Forces and Society of the International Political Science Association. He has published on comparative democratisation and corruption and civil-military relations.

Their full article “Historical Corruption in a ‘non-corrupt’ society: Aotearoa New Zealand” is here.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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