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Sir George Grey Pioneer of Empire in Southern Lands

Premiership of New Zealand — 1877-1879. ætat 65-67 — Chapter XVII — New Zealand Politics

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Premiership of New Zealand
1877-1879. ætat 65-67
Chapter XVII
New Zealand Politics

Sir George Grey enters political life in New Zealand—Unsuccessful struggle for the maintenance of Provincial Parliaments—The Duke of Newcastle's criticism of the Constitution of 1853—Foundation of the Radical or Progressive Policy in New Zealand— Sir George Grey Premier, 1877-79—Measures intended to establish a new order of things—Land taxation, and compulsory purchase of big estates—Adult franchise and elective governors—Education of the masses—Unconstitutional conduct of the Premier— His deposition in 1879—Sir George Grey's policy not inconsistent with, but a fulfilment of, his life's work—Continuity of the policy under Mr. Seddon.

After a short period of retirement at Kawau Sir George Grey left for England, where in 1870 he sought election to the British Parliament by offering himself as a candidate for Newark. But his programme startled the Liberals, and he was obliged to withdraw. He returned to New Zealand and spent three years of cultured ease on the Island of Kawau, far removed from the busy hum of the world's affairs, happy in the companionship of books, and ministering to the cravings of his better nature by investing the surroundings of his retreat with interests congenial to his æsthetic and scientific tastes.

By the expenditure of large sums of money and the application of years of thought he made a home that was worthy of a better fate than the one which has overtaken it. Kawau has associations that are comparable to Groot Schuur. It is true that provision was made for the maintenance of page 242the latter by its owner; but Sir George Grey died worth £5,000 and Mr. Rhodes left many millions. It is painful to visit Kawau in New Zealand after rambling through the parks at Rondebosch in South Africa, and the contrast is not at all creditable to the people of New Zealand, much less to that government which has been in power for the past thirteen years, and whose policy was founded by Sir George Grey during the period when he held the office of Prime Minister from 1877-79.

Grey entered political life in order to fight against the abolition of the Provincial Legislatures, which was part of the policy of Sir Julius Vogel.

In outlining the Constitution at the request of Earl Grey in 1851 he had assumed that the organization of the provinces should be a part, "and perhaps the most important part of the Constitution." To this conclusion he had been driven by a careful consideration of facts geographical and commercial. In the centre of the North Island was a range of mountains rising to the height of 10,000 feet, throwing off spurs in various directions, and making the country difficult of access. The Maori and European populations were settled for the most part round the harbours, and on fertile plains in the Valleys of the Thames, Waikato, Wanganui and Rangitikei Rivers. Communication between them was difficult. And the same was true of the South Island, where if geographical divisions were not so formidable, differences were well marked owing to the social and political principles on which the settlements were founded.

Not less striking was the distinction in matters of trade. There were six important settlements in both islands, and page break
KawauFrom a Painting in possession of the Hon. Seymour Thorne-George, Auckland

KawauFrom a Painting in possession of the Hon. Seymour Thorne-George, Auckland

page 243five of them were situated on good harbours, each carrying on a direct trade with England and Australia. From this point of view the harbour returns for Auckland in 1851 were particularly interesting. In that year six vessels arrived from England, forty from Sidney, and only six from the other principal settlements in New Zealand! Grey concluded that there was little community of interest among residents of different settlements and little opportunity for intercommunication. And therefore, while he decided that a General Council was necessary for some purposes, he was of the opinion that it need not be frequently convened; and as the ablest men would not be willing to serve on Municipal Councils, he was driven to entrust Provincial Councillors with considerable powers.

His opinion had not altered in the interval between 1851 and 1874. The New Zealand Constitution had been modelled on the British; but Grey had a distinct bias in favour or the federal form of government, because it afforded more opportunity for the expression of local feeling. He was deeply attached to the principle of local self-government: "One trembled almost with anxiety," he said, "in thinking what great things could be done with such a movement." It occupied an important place in all his constitutional schemes, and his plans for the government of Ireland included four local parliaments. Under the influence of such convictions he appeared on the hustings in New Zealand; was elected superintendent for the Province of Auckland, and shortly afterwards became a member of the House of Representatives.

But despite his ardour and the almost magical effect of his page 244eloquence the Representative Councils were doomed. Many facilities for communication had been acquired since 1851, and, besides, the New Zealand Constitution was unitarian, not federal, in form. In view of this fact it may very reasonably be affirmed that in 1851 the Governor made a mistake in giving a larger measure of power to the Provincial Councils than was consistent with the balance of the Constitution. At least the Duke of Newcastle thought so; for in 1862 the people of Auckland province transmitted a memorial to the British Government praying for a separate Government, and in his reply the Duke confessed that the Constitution of 1853 had failed in some respects; and he expressed the opinion that "the powers conferred on the Provincial Councils with their elected superintendents were too great." So it proved; and the result of the struggle which brought Grey from his retreat in Kawau only confirms the wisdom of the Duke's suggestion—that greater power should have been given to the Central Legislature, so that political ability might be concentrated there. Not a few prominent men in New Zealand are of the opinion that a federal form of government with a Provincial Parliament in each island at Christchurch and Wellington would be most suitable for New Zealand and while Sir George Grey was Premier there were rumours that he intended to effect some such change. But in answer to inquiries on the subject in Parliament, while avowing a preference for the federal system, he repudiated any serious intentions of making any further alterations in the form of the Constitution.

His mind was by that time engrossed in other questions of supreme importance, which on his own confession involved page 245a new order of things. In one sense this is true. The policy of the progressive party in New Zealand was founded by Sir George Grey during the two years he was Premier. The success which he achieved at the time was not great, partly because he was bereft of those qualities which make a successful primus inter pares. His opponents returned to power and controlled the government till 1890. Mr. Seddon then entered on his long tenure of office, and for the past thirteen years the policy of the New Zealand government has been essentially the same as that which was founded by Sir George Grey in 1877.1 That policy aimed at the destruction of private monopoly, and the extension of the power of the people.

Before setting out on his expedition to Western Australia, Grey had served as a military officer in Ireland, and the condition of the peasants had made an indelible impression on his mind. He believed that their miseries were due mainly to the iniquitous land laws by which they were victimized. His feelings as well as his convictions were expressed in an article which he published on the Irish question. During Elizabeth's reign 40,000 acres of land in Ireland had been granted to the Earl of Essex, and this was only one of many monopolies authorized up to the end of the reign of Charles II. The result was that two-thirds of the country was occupied by 1,800 people, and the ill-clad Irish peasant was obliged to pay a rent of £10 an acre. That kept him in a state of extreme poverty without hope for the future, and made him the victim of page 246devastations that swept through the island during periods of famine.

Later on in New Zealand, when reviewing the state of affairs in other parts of the United Kingdom, he declared that in Scotland twelve landowners were in possession of one-fourth of the country, and in England one-sixth of the land was held by 280 persons, while in the whole of the United Kingdom two-thirds of the land was held by 12,469 persons. Such a state of things was fundamentally at variance with one of his most cherished convictions. "I abhor the land laws under which such things can be brought about," he declared, "and think we should neglect no means within our power to get them altered in the Mother-country; and then we should also neglect no means at our disposal to prevent laws and regulations being established in New Zealand which ultimately bring about a similar state of things in this country." With this intent he had fought against the great landowners in New Zealand during his first administration, but he had not prevented monopoly. Great estates had been formed, and at the time of his accession to political power, 18 million acres were in the possession of 1,500 people.

The object of his land legislation was, and always had been, to safeguard the interests of the general community and settle the small farmer on the land. Using the argument of John Stuart Mill, he pointed out that railways are made, roads constructed, harbours improved, immigrants paid for and police maintained, courts of justice erected, and numberless other duties performed by the whole people. It was clear to his mind, therefore, that "the whole people page 247who yearly spend vast sums of public money in giving a value to land are creators of increased wealth, and it belongs to them." It was right and just, then, that some return should be made to society by those who benefited from this unearned increment. "What I am struggling for," he said, "and what I have struggled for in the past is that the people of New Zealand as a whole should derive some advantage from the enormous wealth that a few will draw from such vast tracts of land."

There must therefore be a land tax, imposed in such a way that the interests of the small holder should be safeguarded "The bill first of all says that we ensure to every living being in New Zealand who can get a small home that he shall not be required to pay any tax on that small home." As to the larger holdings, a clear distinction was to be made between the "increment" that was due to individual effort and that which was imparted by progress in settlement. The substance of his proposal was therefore: "Find the total value of the land with improvements, and the value of improvements alone; deduct the value of improvements from the total, and tax the residue only." Grey believed that the unimproved value of land in New Zealand was £15,153,630, and on this he proposed to levy a tax of one half-penny in the pound on the capital value of that portion which exceeded £500 in possession of one owner. Such a tax would, he believed, protect the bona fide settler, restrain the speculator, and secure for the State a portion of that which was due to the combined efforts of all the people.

But he was prepared to go further, and deny the right of any individual to retain possession of vast tracts of country page 248which could be used for purposes of closer settlement. He therefore prepared a "Land for Settlement Bill" which was intended to "burst up" the big estates and provide holdings for bona fide settlers and small farmers. In this matter success was only delayed for a season. Compulsory purchase is now in operation in New Zealand, and, whatever may be urged in defence of the rights of property, it is only another application of the principle that considerations of general utility are paramount over the claims of priority of occupation. So civilized nations have argued against native races; so democracy argues against great landowners.

It is probable enough that in his land legislation Grey underrated what was due to the man who encountered risks and endured privations in the early days of settlement in New Zealand. He may, too, have undervalued management and individual enterprise in the attainment of prosperity. Again, in advocating his land tax, he may have overlooked the importance of other forms of taxation, and especially a property tax. But, after all reservations have been made, it remains true that closer settlement has succeeded in New Zealand, and that the principle is gaining ground in Australia, where, generally speaking, the conditions are less favourable for its application.

Grey was more immediately successful in his struggle for the attainment of manhood suffrage. Under the system which prevailed in New Zealand at the time of his accession to political power citizens were qualified for exercising the franchise by residence and by freehold. While, therefore, every male adult of respectable character had one vote, those who held property in different parts of the country had many.

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Grey contended that the time had come for the adoption of one man one vote, and one only. In 1851 he had argued forcefully that the franchise should be extended to the poorer classes in New Zealand. There was certainly no inconsistency in his arguments for a further extension, nor in his contentions at a later time in favour of adult suffrage, which is now generally accepted in Australia and in New Zealand.

Grey was not unmindful of the dangers to which any country is exposed where power is entrusted to the ignorant and inexperienced. But he was willing to take the risks, and trust to education as a safeguard in the future. "In my lifetime," he said, "many plans have been discussed for the representation of minorities by John Stuart Mill and others. These rested on the supposition that the masses of electors were too ignorant to form just judgments, and that it was therefore necessary to provide bulwarks against a supposed dishonest and ignorant majority. We now seek a remedy against such an opinion, even then partially erroneous, by giving a thorough education to all." Grey was too earnest a student of political matters not to realize that there was a flaw in the argument against government by the masses. He knew well enough they could merely control, not govern; and he was of the opinion that ten thousand people might be as safely entrusted with the power of selecting the best administrators as ten hundred. He also realized that if democratic governments were imperfect, oligarchies had not been uniformly successful in this world's history. Masses are unable to administrate; but it does not follow that they are unable to choose individuals who can.

And at least, by investing the people with political rights page 250and powers he was freed from the opposite charge of keeping them in ignorance, and then excluding them from any share in the government of the country because they were unfit. While addressing a Christchurch audience on the subject in 1878 he was interrupted by an individual who protested that "the people would know too much." Such an argument, he retorted, was worthy of the House of Peers in England: "Hence the uneducated millions which exist in Great Britain, hence those dens of vice which exist in your large towns, hence the numbers of children who are brought up in misery from the lack of education which was deliberately kept back from them lest they should 'know too much'; law after law rejected for fear that the people, becoming educated, should 'know too much,' and thus become discontented with their lot." Such language used on the spur of the moment must not be taken too seriously, for the speaker's nerves were tingling under the pressure of a great occasion; but it serves to prove his unwavering faith in the possibilities of human nature, and his inflexible determination to fight for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. There are those who, like Polonius, grown old in the administration of affairs, talk as much nonsense about the "younger sort" as he did about Hamlet. Sir George Grey never reached the age of dotage or imbecility. To the last he trusted the people, believing that they were essentially honest. Under Democracy, as under any other form of government, mistakes would inevitably be made; but the people would learn how to correct them by means of experience, and to avoid them by means of enlightened and liberal education.

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Hence his anxiety for the development of a "higher" as well as a utilitarian system of education. The greatness of Britain he maintained was due not only to the number of universities in the United Kingdom; but also to their diversity. Anxious as he was to save the colonists from many of the traditional evils of European countries, he considered that they should follow England and Scotland in this. Instead of having one university in New Zealand there ought to be four: one might excel in Mathematics, another in Classics, a third in Divinity, and a fourth in some other branch of higher education; the object being to offer facilities to students of various tastes and capacities. Here again his wish has been practically fulfilled. There are centres for university teaching in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin; and the High School at Wanganui, with whose foundation he was so closely associated, is perhaps the most successful of its kind in the Colony.

It was also because of his desire to encourage talent that Grey wished to entrust the people with the power of electing their Governors. This was one of his political measures, and because of his well-known enthusiasm for Empire it has been made the basis of another charge of inconsistency. On the contrary, it was simply a logical development of his views and actions. When Lieutenant-Governors were dispensed with on the introduction of Responsible Government in New Zealand, Grey contended that the Superintendents of Provinces should be elected by the people. Earl Grey declined to accept his proposal in 1852, but Sir John Pakington, who succeeded him at the Colonial Office, adopted page 252it in the final draft of the Constitution of 1853. Sir George Grey failed to carry public opinion with him on this point in Australia and New Zealand. During the debates at the Federal Convention in 1891 he argued that under the Federal system of government the Governor-General should be elected by the people. After the subject had been warmly debated, a division was called for, and Grey sat alone, Mr. Kingston and Dr. Cockburn afterwards left the opposite side to join him, and his amendment was lost by 35 to 3 votes! The Governors and Governor-General are still appointed by the Imperial Parliament, and if at the present day in the Australian States there is a desire to dispense with State Governors it is not due to any real change of feeling, but rather to the belief that the aristocratic safeguard is sufficiently provided for by the appointment of a Governor-General from England.

There is no inconsistency in the policy advocated by Sir George Grey when he was Premier of New Zealand; but while maintaining this, it must be admitted that his personal conduct was reprehensible. He allowed himself to be swayed by an unworthy desire to vent his spleen on the Colonial Office for their determination to leave him severely alone after 1868; and his conduct toward the Marquis of Normanby and his lady was unworthy of his position. During the first "memorandummiad" in New Zealand Sir George Grey was Governor and Mr. Fox was Premier. At that time the Governor complained that his health and spirits had been impaired by the unbecoming treatment he had received from his ministers. During the second "memorandummiad" Sir George Grey was Premier and the Marquis of Normanby page 253was Governor, and Grey's conduct was not only unbecoming, but vindictive and needlessly offensive. The Marquis of Normanby declined to grant a dissolution at the instance of the Premier, and Grey declared that he had been faithless to his duty. The Colonial Secretary thought otherwise, and Grey retorted: "Of the Secretary of State we absolutely know nothing—for the Secretary of State we absolutely care nothing."

Such language might be regarded as a childish outburst of passion, showing that the old spirit of defiance still raged fiercely within. But he did not stop there. "There can be no doubt," he declared, "that the Home Government have rewarded men for their services in opposing the present government. They have done it directly, and they have done it indirectly!" To such depths of unworthy suspicion could this lofty nature sink under the strain of opposition! And deeper—"We have left England. Do you keep yourselves at home. … Do not interfere in our affairs. Keep your rank; keep your wealth. Do not send us out men who care nothing for us, with high titles, to make great fortunes out of us!"

As with the Governor and the Colonial Office so was it with Grey's colleagues in Parliament. "The great difficulty in arguing with the honourable member," said Major Atkinson, "is that he assumes that he alone is doing his duty and that his opponents are influenced in their action by other motives than those of the public weal." That criticism was not only just but kind. Grey was totally unfitted both by nature and training for playing an important part in Constitutional government. It is now generally conceded that in page 254order to get at the bottom of a question, it is well that Parliamentary forces should be arrayed on two sides, the one being Her Majesty's Opposition. To such an arrangement Grey was unable to adjust himself: "I see the gentlemen sitting opposite to me," he once exclaimed. "They would destroy me if they could because I have exposed their dishonest practices, and am resolved they shall not carry them out!" He could not endure opposition without rushing to the conclusion that his opponents were bent on "ostracizing," "injuring," or even "destroying" him.

But it is necessary to distinguish carefully between his personal conduct and the policy which he founded during the period of his administration. Granted that some of his public utterances were inspired by vindictive feeling; there is nothing inconsistent in the measures which he advocated in the public interest. On the contrary, they were a fulfilment of the policy for which he strove under varying conditions for nearly half-a-century. Moreover the history of recent years has justified him in many of his contentions. Hardly had he retired from political life when Mr. Seddon came to power. The policy of his government is essentially the same as that of his "friend and chief," Sir George Grey. New Zealand is now one of the most prosperous countries in the world. There are not wanting some who maintain that it is so despite the legislation of the past thirteen years; but at least the presumption is in favour of those who argue the other way.

1 Mr. Seddon died in the middle of 1906; but his policy has been continued under the leadership of Sir Joseph Ward.