EJANZH: McAloon reviews Watson and Gilling

James Watson, Links: A History of Transport and New Zealand Society Wellington: GP Publications, 1996 paperback 315pp $39.95

Bryan Gilling, Government Valuers: Valuation New Zealand 1896-1996 Wellington: Valuation New Zealand, 1996 paperback 191 pp $29.95

Reviewed by Jim McAloon

James Watson has produced an attractively laid-out history which contains a great deal of fascinating information. Much credit is also due to the New Zealand Ministry of Transport for funding a history of the area with which it is concerned, rather than a mere institutional history of the ministry.

Watson’s thematic arrangement – organising his chapters according to whichever form of transport dominated in the period – is a useful means of avoiding a simple chronology. The book itself is a synthesis of a great deal of secondary material but is perhaps less strong on primary research. Watson presents a vivid picture of Maori transportation before 1769, citing a number of whakatauki or proverbial sayings to highlight the point. Such fascinating details abound – the practice of riding and tying where a pair took turns to ride one horse, the rider leaving the horse tied and continuing to walk while the other caught up. The massive importance of technological innovations like sail and steam, with the resulting fundamental change, is discussed clearly and well. The relationship between transport and leisure is also brought out, most evocatively in the case of the holy Kiwi trinity of rugby, racing and beer. Transportation was also essential to the modernisation of much of New Zealand farming, both in connecting isolated dairy farms to factories, and in shipping meat, butter and cheese to Britain.

Watson also rightly emphasises the role of transport in nation-building, as New Zealand’s scattered provinces and communities were brought closer together. One consequence of this was the standardisation of time, a point which may surprise readers at this end of the millenium. The influence of the shift from rail to motor transport on urban layout is also noted; the urban centre of gravity shifted from the railway station to the arterial road. Trams, buses and cycles, and then cars, made possible the development of spread-out suburbs. Apparent disadvantages of certain methods of transport are turned on their head. Thus it is pointed out that the slow country trains of the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, far from being a source of frustration, provided valuable enforced relaxation for farming people. Watson’s eye for telling detail works into the present, as he notes that one airline hired more female cabin crew than a rival, in order to get the businessmen’s market.

There is, then, a good deal to praise in this history. Unfortunately, it suffers from some major weaknesses of organisation. Watson tends to leap around his subject matter, from one topic to another and back again. For instance, between pages 54 and 58 we go from the politics of colonial transport to immigration to taxation to tolls to religion to disease among the Maori to fire at sea, and then back to immigration and then to road accidents. Thus is depth and systematic discussion sacrificed.

Many important issues are treated too lightly, especially for the period to about 1930. Much more should have been said about the ancient Polynesian voyaging waka: the important work of Ben Finney and Geoffrey Irwin is ignored. Watson minimises Maori transport technology: there is some evidence of long-distance trading, for instance in the wide sourcing of stone in early archaeological sites such as Southern Wairarapa, and there are traditional accounts in Elsdon Best of deepsea fishing. The dependence of early European on Maori as guides, porters and negotiators is not stressed, and while Watson correctly notes the connection between roads and assimilation of Maori, he neglects the biggest example of all: the aukati or border in the King Country, which kept settler power at bay until 1883. The transport dimensions of the 1860s goldrushes are also neglected, particularly with regard to the Arthur’s Pass road across the Southern Alps which linked Christchurch and the West Coast goldfields. The central importance of steam transport – rail and sea – to 1914 is noted, but far too little is said about workers in those industries, or their unions. The tranport unions have provided a core of militant activism in New Zealand since 1890.

Recent developments are, inevitably, discussed in less depth but again some weaknesses were avoidable. The introduction to the Age of the Jet is really a discussion of aviation, not air transport. There is a difference. It seems odd to accept the word of the Road Transport Association on the merit of increasing trucks to 60+ tons. It seemed to make little sense to include controversies over nuclear warships in a history of transport: the issues were never about transport. More could have been said about suburbanisation and the shopping mall, and about containerisation of shipping. The replacement of jets by turboprop aircraft on some routes was alluded to but more could have been said about the new generation of turboprop aircraft which are a far cry from Fokker Friendships and Hawker Siddley 748s. Also lacking was a discussion of the effects of the deregulation, corporatisation and privatisation of much state-owned transport.

In summary, Links is a fascinating book with a great deal of useful information, but tighter editing would have made it much better.

Government Valuers is the centennial history of Valuation New Zealand (formerly the Government Valuation Department). Bryan Gilling starts well with an account of the gradual commodification of land from the 1830s and 40s. Gilling discusses some aspects of land valuation and purchase, noting the arbitrariness and vested interests of many land purchase agents.

Until late in the nineteenth century, there was not only a lack of professional surveyors and valuers, but also a wild variation in methods of valuation, and complete lack of uniformity in valuation of land for purchase from Maori.

There was a move to uniform rating from 1875 as provincial governments were abolished, and the debate over the best basis on which to rate is well shown, as are the conflicts of interest and unprofessional practice, and occasional misconduct, which continued into the new century.

The importance of valuation to Liberal land reform programme and modernisation of agriculture was the reason for the creation of the Valuation Department. If the government wished to tax land, lend money on it, raise stamp duty on sales, or take land for public works, accurate valuation was necessary. This was also a matter of political controversy, especially over the proper way of measuring – and even defining – unimproved value. Gilling discusses the professionalisation of valuation through the establishment of the Land Valuation Court as a court of review in 1948; the passage of the Valuers Act in the same year, and the introduction of a Diploma course at Lincoln College, in 1938 (and other courses elsewhere in later years). Anecdotes abound, which serve to give something of the flavour of training, rural practice, and badly-needed administrative reform in the 1950s. Many of the illustrations are of considerable interest.

Perhaps reflecting a bias in the department which Gilling acknowledges, there is something of a rural focus. The urban side of valuation is underemphasised. The only infelicity is the reference to a young `girl’ working in the Dunedin office during World War Two.

Valuation, bearing directly on taxation and on creditworthiness, is bound to be controversial. As F W Flanagan, Valuer-General from 1910 to 1926 noted, if valuers were popular they were not doing their job. Yet the number of variables made valuation anything but an exact science. For the period up to 1914, Bryan Gilling has provided not only a useful history of the Valuation Department but an excellent and concise discussion of the issues around the valuation of land. Thereafter the book becomes more an institutional history, but those interested in land settlement and the economic history of New Zealand will find it a useful work.

Jim McAloon, Department of Human and Leisure Sciences, P O Box 84, Lincoln University