The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 2 (May 1, 1936)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 38 — Sir Joseph Ward: — A Statesman Of New Zealand And The Empire
The political career of the late Sir Joseph Ward was distinguished by two features which have marked several other great lives in Colonial history: his rise from smallest beginnings to the highest position in the Dominion and his quick, vigorous, far-seeing share in the affairs of the British Empire. Like his chief, Seddon, he was one of those men who made their way upwards without any assistance, by inherent merit and force of character. Ambition was strong in him, but it was ambition with sound and brilliant capacity behind it. The spirit of initiative was his in an unusual degree; he was not afraid of criticism once he was convinced that his actions were in the country's best interests. He was for forty years a consistent champion of Liberal principles in Government, and he was responsible for necessary reforms and innovations in the country's administration. Like Ballance and Seddon, he was a victim of overwork; he remained in office too long, with that fatal clinging to administrative power which has shortened many a great man's life.
Sir Joseph Ward was one of a pair of bright and promising young men who entered the New Zealand Parliament in the latter part of the ‘Eighties and who soon began to take a prominent share in the beginnings of the Liberal movement in politics. They came in at the parting of the ways; before long they were to travel together the fascinating highway of bold “experimental” legislation. The other young man of great gifts was W. P. Reeves. Ward came from Awarua, the Bluff, where he had begun his working career as a telegraph messenger boy. Ward owed nothing to the kindly fortune that smiled on Reeves’ young days. His education was the most elementary; the world of work and business was his college and university. He was generally described as a young man of push and enterprise who was afraid of nothing. Certainly he was not afraid of pushing in among his elders. He was a borough councillor in Campbelltown, the Bluff township, at the age of twenty-one; indeed he was not quite of age when he was elected.
He was not New Zealand-born; Melbourne was his native town; but he came as a child to this country with his parents, and he grew up a thoroughgoing young New Zealander, developing a vigorous spirit of local patriotism. He was a greatly popular young citizen of the Bluff; he took a leading part in social and sport movements; he developed the spirit of discussion and debate on local affairs.
He did not long remain content with carrying other people's messages and working for the Government. At twenty he was on his own account in business in a small way, and soon to expand greatly.
Young J. G. Ward—they called him “Joe” or “Joey” then and all his life, which matched Seddon's “Dick,” “Good old Dick” —was speedily found to be a quick, keen, incisive speaker, with a particularly able grasp of financial matters. He made a good impression in Parliament, as elsewhere, by his pleasant manner, his brisk debonair ways, his agreeable voice that had not then taken on the rather high petulant note the wear and irritation of politics sometimes gave it in later life. He represented Awarua capably from 1887 onward, and, with intervals, he continued to be the elect of that southernmost constituency all his life.
In the Ballance Cabinet.
In the election of 1890, following immediately on the settlement of the great maritime strike, the Atkinson party, the representatives of Conservative policy met an irretrievable defeat, and the Liberals entered into power. John Ballance became Premier, and he recognised the value of brisk young Joseph Ward by making him a member of his Cabinet, as Postmaster-General and Commissioner of Electric, Telegraphs. A high testimonial this to Awarua's member, after only three years of Parliamentary service. He held this position many times later, and displayed a thorough knowledge of the working and the needs of the service and its capacity for expansion. He was far and away the most successful of all the Ministers who controlled the Post and Telegraphs.
The Penny Post.
Ward's most noteworthy act as Minister was the introduction of penny postage for letters. From the very first he had realised its advantages, and, in 1891, he succeeded in obtaining Parliament's authority for the establishment of the penny postage in New Zealand and on reciprocal terms with any country which might be disposed to adopt it. But the initial difficulty, the losses that at first would follow reduction, delayed the actual establishment of the reform until January 1, 1901, when the people were for the first time enabled to send a letter for a penny.page 18 page 19
In the meantime, Mr. Ward had been out of politics through business troubles, but on his return, in 1899, he took up the cause on which he had set his heart, and carried it through. Further concessions to the popular needs were made, such as the reduction of telegraph charges.
The honour of knighthood was conferred on the Minister soon afterwards; it was a fitting recognition of his untiring work in the cause of freer and cheaper communication. At the International Postal Conference in Rome, in 1906, he appealed for the universal adoption of penny postage— a great and bold reduction from the existing charge of twopence-halfpenny. The cautious Convention did not adopt the reform then, but the proposal set the nations thinking and moving, and penny postage came at last.
The Tourist Trade.
Another important step forward was the establishment of the Government Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. Sir Joseph was the leading advocate of the institution which had for its object the management of such places as the Rotorua spa and the world-wide advertisement of New Zealand's glories of scenery, its attractions in sport, and the healing virtues of its wonderful hot mineral springs. The first manager of the new Department, Mr. T. E. Donne, was exactly the kind of man required, and under Sir Joseph he built it up into a most useful branch of the public utilities service. The world soon began to hear all about the wonder and beauty of the country and its unusual qualities of landscape, its shooting and fishing, and its place as the holiday land of the southern world. All through his Ministerial career Sir Joseph fostered this live Department, as an agency greatly necessary in the advancement of the national interest.
In his youth Sir Joseph Ward had seen some service in the employ of the Railways Department, and throughout his political career he dealt with the affairs of the State lines with inside knowledge. Mr. R. A. Loughnan, in his excellent biography of Sir Joseph, wrote of him as Minister that, “he plunged into the intricacies of railway affairs with a brave heart and a clear head. So doing he kept both eyes open—fixing one on the travelling and trading public, without losing sight of the weight carried on the railway account by the taxpayers, and the other on the personnel he relied on for efficient and cheerful working of the railway system.” He did not want the railways to pay all charges, recognising that the development brought by railways required time for the return of profits. At the same time he held that the lines must pay something more than their expenses, some fair margin of profit. Roughly speaking, he arranged for a profit of about 3 per cent., leaving the balance of the overhead charges to be paid from the Consolidated Fund. He took up the burden of the system soon after the Railway Commissioners had laid it down, pursuant on the new policy of direct Ministerial control, a policy which, as Mr. Loughnan summed it up, gave good results. Certainly the Ward regime was greatly satisfactory both to users of the lines and to the staff of all classes. Sir Joseph introduced the legislation establishing the Railways Superannuation Fund in 1903; it is one of the numerous measures for the public betterment that stand to his credit.
The Manawatu Railway.
In the process of the extinction of private companies’ rights over the country's railways, the final act was the purchase of the Manawatu Railway section from the company which had built and operated it. When the Purchase Bill went through Parliament in 1908, after long negotiations, many tributes were paid to Sir Joseph Ward's skilful handling of a difficult matter. The bargain was fair to the owners of the line, and satisfactory in the interests of the colony.
The Country's Finances.
In many another department of State enterprise Sir Joseph Ward took a vigorous hand. Pensions, trade tariffs, the public health, the country's defences, financial reforms, all were dealt with successfully. The Premier's consummately skilful handling of the nation's finance is a matter of history which is discussed with knowledge and approbation in Mr. Loughnan's biography. Indeed, Ward's complete command of all the mazes and intricacies of high finance has never been equalled in the story of the colony, not even by Sir Julius Vogel. Both men were described as “financial wizards,” both were execrated by critics and worshipped by those who admired bold and courageous tactics.
Ward, the War Finance Minister, had an infinitely more trying and responsible part than Vogel, the pioneer of development. To quote Mr. Loughnan again, in describing the financial operations in the great national emergency of war, the country pays tribute to the sagacity and courage of the Finance Minister who got the enormous sum of 55 millions from the New Zealand money markets. “As Finance Minister, Sir Joseph got his money and saved the honour of New Zealand as a dependable unit of the Empire.”