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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Leadership in the colonial setting

Leadership in the colonial setting

From the vast literature on leadership we will take as our guide Robert C. Tucker's short work Politics as Leadership, and follow his distinction between management as the routine direction of ordinary day-to-day group life, and leadership as

the directing of a group at times of choice, change, and decision, times when deliberation and authoritative decision occur, followed by steps to implement decisions reached.3

page 251

Tucker sees leadership's directive function as having three phases, which in practice may be interpenetrating:

First, leadership has a diagnostic function. Leaders are expected to define the situation authoritatively for the group. Second, they must prescribe a course of group action, or of action on the group's behalf, that will meet the situation as defined. They must formulate a plan of action designed to resolve the problem in a manner that will serve group purposes…. We may describe these functions as diagnostic, policy formulating, and policy implementing.4

Tucker also makes the point that before meaningful situations can be treated as problem situations, their existence has to be perceived and the facts known. He uses the term signalizing for the activity of apprising leaders of circumstances that merit diagnosis and policy response, and notes the value of an uncensored press in the signalizing process.

We have seen in Chapter 15 that colonial New Zealand had a vigorous press which maintained an effective institutional presence at all levels of the community, and was therefore available for signalizing community problems and also as a channel by which leaders could advance their diagnoses, formulate their action plans and mobilise support. Patrick Day has noted how the press represents an early instance of a growing centralist focus in New Zealand. While the newspapers had begun as class journals with strong political linkages, by the 1860s the commercial newspaper was rising to dominance, expressing (if not altogether fulfilling) an ideology of nonpartisan leadership in the interests of the community as a whole.5 The settlers had no difficulty in getting their main problems to the ears of the leaders either of their district or of the colony. The difficulty was in knowing who was in a position to initiate effective action.

The colonists tended to be willing both to suggest and to accept centralised collective activity in the tackling of their problems. As G.R. Hawke has noted:

From the establishment of a Public Trustee, the Government Life Insurance Office, and the Post Office Savings Bank in the 1860s, to the State Coal Mines and the State Fire Insurance Company at the end of the 1890s, the New Zealand government operated in many fields often thought appropriate for private property only. There was, too, the government involvement in overseas loans and public works, so much so that the government may have been directly responsible for half of all capital formation between 1870 and 1900.6

This small, close-knit society was preoccupied above all with ‘development’, and its members would happily use any instrument, including the central government, that could help them in getting on with it. In his valuable page 252 thesis ‘Parties in the New Zealand House of Representatives 1870–1890’ Ian R. Fletcher has shown that:

The policy of borrowing for development became an article of faith with all sides of the political spectrum, both in the House and in the community, and the carrying out of this policy came to be seen as the raison d'etre of the colonial government. The consensus of 1870 lasted until 1887 and, in doing so, it underpinned and structured the politics of the 1870s and 1880s.7

It might seem, then, that if any significant problem appeared anywhere in the colony the best strategy for those concerned was to campaign for the ear of the central government. The reality was far different. Central government might be able to set up many useful national institutions and at times feed them liberally with borrowed capital, but it was often surprisingly impotent in dealing with local and regional needs and crises.

This central government impotence was due in part to the weakness of its institutions. Parliament itself could hardly expect to be a mature, experienced establishment when about half the members returned at each election were new to the House, and about a fifth resigned during the life of each parliament.8 At times when representation matters were before the House, comparisons were drawn with the Australian colonies. When a move late in 1887 to reduce the number of seats was supported by reference to the population per member in Victoria, one member pointed out that

the comparison with Victoria has nothing at all to do with us, because there they are so centralised that they are well represented with the members they have got, but here we are so scattered all over the country that, with a reduction in the number of members of this House, it would be impossible for us to have proper representation.9

Indeed, in Victoria a large proportion of the representatives resided in the capital, within a few miles of the House, while most of the remainder could reach the House within a few hours on a railway network which centred on Melbourne. Also few rural members faced the kind of difficulties in getting around their electorates that were common in New Zealand. The general pattern of the Australian colonies was that the capital was clearly the dominant city, a popular and easily accessible rendezvous. Membership of, and attendance at, parliament was a privilege rather than a duty, and so there was not the rapid turnover of members experienced in New Zealand. In New Zealand largely inexperienced members made what were often tedious journeys to a not over popular capital city because somebody had to be found to see that their electorate's interests were looked after. In these circumstances the distribution of such largesse as parliament had to dispose of was largely done on the basis of equality of treatment rather than of need, or page 253 of a comprehensive development strategy. Nor was attendance in the capital between parliamentary sessions popular with cabinet members. In any case, much of the vitality of their departments was being expressed through the branch offices, and through subsidiary institutions like education and land boards. The centre's most significant decision making role lay in determining development priorities. The public had firmly indicated that it wished resources to be concentrated on the colony's sinews and nerves—its roads, railways, telegraphs and postal services—and on education. At the 1884 election the electorate had had clearly put to it, and had equally clearly rejected, the proposition of reducing expenditure by limiting the existing free provision of education. Parliament endorsed these public priorities of communications and education.

In countries such as England, France, New South Wales and Victoria the benefits of lobbying in the capital were augmented by its being the centre of much more than the civil government Here were also centred the other main aspects of the country's life—its commerce, banking, communications, culture &c. In New Zealand of the 1880s it was different. The head office of the colony's main bank was in Auckland; that of its main shipping line was in Dunedin. In matters of culture and higher education Wellington had not yet begun to compete with Dunedin and Christchurch. For most issues and problems, a district's best hope of gaining a hearing and drawing on wider resources was to turn to its regional capital. Any hope of tapping into wider colonial resources was best advanced by doing so through the regional capital.