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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 71

Class Legislation

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Class Legislation.

The Parliament, in regard lo Class Legislation, is like a man in a field riddled with pitfalls; no sooner does lie escape from one hole than he tumbles into another.

NNow and then—when one is very much in the humour to be merry, it is amusing; not infrequently it is exasperating—very exasperating; generally, it is said to note the language, sometimes to be read and sometimes to be listened to, employed on the subject of class legislation. It is asserted here that, with the exception of the few laws relating to the protection of the person, the law which has not been long on the Statute Book relating to divorce, and perhaps one or two other Acts such as that providing for the Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths, the whole of the legislation which the world has seen up to this period has been what is now denominated class legislation. Those who have enacted the part of legislators have been drawn exclusively from a class by a class, and, in the nature of things, nothing could be expected from them in the way of legislation but an intense devotion to the interests of those who chose them—interests which were their own. The protection of "Proputty, pro putty, proputty," in all its various shapes and forms, and the ministering to the pride or aggrandisement of "Proputty, proputty, proputty "holders, have occupied entirely the attention of legislators for the past six centuries. The how that is raised to-day against class legislation, does not emanate from those who have suffered—cruelly, outrageously suffered—from the evils of that class legislation, but from those who have largely benefited by it; those who—by their statements—assert themselves as the inheritors of a policy under which the: legislation of the future, like that of the past, shall go on, controlled by the class rights (so called) and the class interests which are peculiarly their own.

Those who have been the victims of class legislation have moaned away their lives in darksome mines; they have groaned in factories; they have "sweated" when "the stars shone through the roof," "when the cock was crowing aloof;" they have shrieked one last, long despairing shriek as the rotten-bottomed and heavily-insured ship has gone down into the depths of the solemn secret-keeping sea, but notwithstanding all this it is not from those who live by toil that the cry of class legislation arises. No, it is not from the masses, who are familiar with suffering and long endurance, but from the classes who page 2 have filled the Parliaments, shaped the Statute Book, and seized the whole administration of the State under which the rich have become Tidier and the poor poorer Surely the display of anguish which wrings the vitals of a few people at having to pay a few extra dollars (if, indeed, they have to pay them), in return lor having tlic great bulk of the laws for their protection and the settlement of their disputes, together with nearly the whole administration of the State working for them, would prove intensely funny, if the thoughts which the spectacle calls up were not so sad—so very, very sad!

Before offering a few observations upon the tendency of some of the legislative efforts achieved in these beautiful southern lamls, which ut least bear a suspicion of having been designed in tka interests of a class, it may not he altogether unprofitable to take a necessarily brief glance at what history reveals of somewhat similar performances in the grand old Mother Lund. In 1265, Knights of the Shire were first summoned to the English Parliament, together with representatives from boroughs. The property qualification required by a Knight in order to enable him to he chosen a representative of a si tire was an annual income of not less than £600, derived from the possession of freehold estate. Before the intersection of the country with railways within the present century travelling was a slow process, difhcult and dangerous, and this, together with the expenses and losses attending residence in the capital, rendered it impossible for any hut wealthy citizens to he chosen a representatives of boroughs. Parliament was therefore hi the nature of a close corporation, in which the esteemed rights of property, more especially freehold property, were supreme. Under the feudal system the barons of England held their lands upon the tenure of military service. Presently the Parliament swept that tenure away; the barons agreeing to pay to the Crown a land tax as a substitute, as being more convenient to them and more serviceable to the State; then the barons swept away the land tax, got their lands for nothing, and cast their burdens upon the people. What did the people get? From 1265 down to a few years ago what single i at as "ire was passed having for its object the lifting up of the people morally or educationally, or with design to the amelioration of their temporal condition? Is it not the fact that as century after century has rolled away, tbe condition of the humbler masses has been found very little advanced from what it was when the first Parliament met? They have been left to shift and do the best they could for themselves, whilst the attention of the representatives of the classes was exclusively devoted to matters affecting their own interests. Open the pages of history where you will, the story revealed is the some. There Mere endowed universities for the sons of the noble and the wealthy, whilst the children of the trader, artisan, and labourer were left to find stick education as their parents could afford to pay for from the local dominies—the dominies bciujj held an almost despised class. This, state of things continued dowu to quite a recent period. In the Public page 3 Libraries there are time volumes constituting indexes of the statute laws, ill operation in England, Ireland, and Seotland down to 1817, and the curious in class legislation will find mines of buried treasure there. Has not Charles Dickons exposed the condition of education in England fifty years ago by his picture of a Yorkshire school? All honour to the name of Dickens, who by one stroke of the mighty, pen led the way to the establishment of systems of education for the benefit of peoples, from which have flowed material and other advantages and blessings now enjoyed by many millions! Have not all the offices around the Court and in the administrative service, in diplomatic circles, in the army, navy, and in the Church been in the hands of the privileged few, and has not every office and position'connected with government been used for purposes of agrandisement? Sir Robert Peel declared in the House of Commons that it was natural for a man to vote in the direction of his own interests, and it was absurd to suppose that any man would do otherwise. There can be no doubt of the truth revealed in this candid statement, and, bearing it hi mind, let a glance be cast upon the constitution of the British Parliament prior to the passing of the Reform Bill of 32. At that time it was a comparatively large constituency that could poll 300 votes. Two nobles held in their hands the power of returning no fewer than twelve members, and in many instances a deserted public house, an old mill, a broken down wall, constituted a constituency. The masses in England are not represented in Parliament now. The total votes (4,750,000 say) polled during the general election that has just taken place, do not amount in number to more than about two-thirds of the population of London alone!

Taking the case of New Zealand, can it be honestly declared that, with all the superior advantages which the difference in the character and intelligence of the people display, the history has been materially different? How does it come, for instance, that in that new land there are more large estates than even in England? In a popular text-book published in '41, it is stated:—" To sound reason it is evident that ever person must be allowed some resting place on the earth; hence, as long as any place is left capable of affording support to another individual, the proprietor cannot arbitrarily deprive a fellow-being of that support," Now, on what principle were the lands of the colonies parted with in early days, when their affairs were controlled by men having engrained in their hearts class prejudices and class interests? Is it not notorious that in the early days, of which sometimes so much is heard, there came to New Zealand men of "family," possessed of sme little capital; that in certain quarters it was felt a duty to have a solicitous regard for them; and that this was done in the parcelling out of the land and in the manner of offering it for sale? Can it be honestly claimed that in this respect those in authority (university men they might be) ever be-stowed one thought upon the interests of those who might come—either by immigration or as a native to the page 4 soil—after, and who might possibly desire to win subsistence for themselves and their families by the cultivation of land? Is it not the truth, that in the famous Province of Canterbury one man went so far as to have a Land Ordinance framed in language to suit his own special interests; nor did he fail to avail himself of his opportunity—constituting himself, thereby, a class in his own proper person?

In Victoria things were managed very differently from what they have been in fertile, and very much old Tory governed—New Zealand. Responsible government came into force in that colony in September, 1856; it was almost immediately followed by a popular demand to "Unlock the Lands." and for ever after, the acquisition of large estates became almost a thing of impossibility. In 1862, a Land Act was passed giving "Homes to the People" under free selection in any part of the colony up to 320 acres, at 20s per acre on deferred payments. Almost simultaneously, the colony was divided into shires, and the work of roads and bridges construction was thrown upon the local bodies. It is true the Government subsidised the local bodies to the extent of £1 for £1 on (he rates levied, but in no case has local taxation ever been less than 6d in the £ on the net annual value—very generally it has been 1s—and therefore it has not been a flimsy pretence of taxing themselves. Of course, it is admitted here that a country must have roads and bridges, and that the general community—even the artisans in the towns—derive benefit from them; on the other hand it cannot be denied that property acquires very great addi tional value from such works, just as it does from the construction of railways. In New Zealand, not only have large estates been created so as to bring into existence a wealthy and oligarchical class, but borrowed money to the extent of between three and four millions, besides large sums from the Consolidated revenue, have been thrown to them for roads and bridges. Not a penny of borrowed money has ever been spent on such works in Victoria, nor in New South Wales, either. These works are very largely for the benefit of a class, and of a wealthy class too, and the general community in New Zealand have had to pay the interest on the borrowed money so expended. It has hcen said that in addition to the three or four millions of borrowed money spent on roads and bridges in that colony large addition sums have been expended on what may be called "local works" out of the Consolidated revenue but still there are no indications of satisfaction at the attempts which have been made to fill this ever open and gaping maw, this "take-all," for in the course of his speech on the financial proposals this session, Mr. Rolleston, the leader of the Conservative party in the New Zealand House of Representatives, complained that the remnant of the loan remaining had not been expended on roads and bridges. In very great measure the railways are paid for by those who use them, and the profit derived from working not being sufficient to meet the interest, is supplements from the general revenue; in this respect the holders of largo estares are in no worse position than any other section of the people; but by page 5 railway construction their lands are certainly improved in value, and that is a consideration that no other class can be said to receive.

In view of all this where, it is now asked, does the cry of "class legislation" come in? Who are they who are howling? Is it they who have suffered, or they who have received the chief consideration and the largest gain?