Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Recollections of Travel in New Zealand and Australia

New Zealand Politics

page 309

New Zealand Politics.

The politics of the various colonies of Great Britain must often be puzzling to the English reader from the want of a clue to guide him to the matters under discussion. A glance at a few leading points in the political warfare of New Zealand will show on what the conflict of forces in that colony hinges.

The following may be taken as the leading subjects, one or other of which is generally under discussion:—1. The land question; 2. Education; 3. Electoral qualification; 4. Free trade or protection; 5. The native question; 6. The provincial question; 7. Public works.

Of these, the four first are common to all the Australasian colonies; 5 and 6 are peculiar to New Zealand.

The land question in New Zealand has become complicated for the following reasons:—During the session of the General Assembly of the year 1858 a sort of compact was made, by which the management of the land of each province, with all the revenues derived therefrom, was handed over to the Provincial Governments. The consequences of this were manifold.

page 310

On account of the greater part of the land in the North Island being chiefly held by the natives, the land revenue there proved to be very small; whereas, on the contrary, a very large amount was obtained from the sale of land in the South Island, particularly in Canterbury and Otago, where it was good, open, and freed from the native title.

Some of the provinces used the power given to them with skill and discretion, and in this category Canterbury stands the highest; while others, such as Nelson and Marlborough, squandered their estate at a very low price, and afterwards found it difficult to procure the requisite funds for roads and bridges and other public works.

The question of the respective merits of large or small farms has been lately much discussed in Europe and elsewhere. Whichever system may be best in settled countries, there is no doubt that in dealing with the waste lands of a new country the land laws may be so adapted as to ensure the establishment of either large, moderate, or small properties being the rule. The nature of the country as to soil, climate, and elevation may no doubt tend to alter the intentions of the Legislature, but when once the impress is given, it is found very difficult to change it.

The land regulations which in New Zealand have been found to work best in practice are those of the provincial district of Canterbury. There the land was sold by free selection at a price of £2 per acre, the country being at the same time divided into page 311stock-runs, which were let for a term of years, but on which purchase of the freehold, as above stated, could go on at any time. By this system a very large number of freeholders have been settled on the land, whereas if the price had been lower, the whole of the Canterbury Plains would have been bought up by a few capitalists, and the growth of settlement and of population been long delayed. This is no theoretical idea, for the result was nearly brought about by Sir George Grey during his first term of office as Governor. He reduced the price of Canterbury land to ten shillings an acre, and immediately several large estates were bought up, one of them consisting of sixty thousand acres. A few weeks of this would have ruined the province; so the price was again suddenly raised to £2 an acre.

In the province of Nelson a great deal of valuable land was parted with at prices of from 5s. to 10s. an acre which would have soon fetched £2 an acre. I allude to the Amuri country. It is a misfortune that this district was not included within the boundaries of Canterbury.

In the North Island the mode of purchase of the native land is a constant subject of dispute. The question is, whether the power shall rest with the Government, or whether private persons may compete?

Education.—The principle of secular education has been accepted by large majorities, although a growl of disappointment may be heard from the page 312ecclesiastics of the Anglican Church, and the Roman Catholics especially offer the most determined opposition to its adoption. It seems almost impossible, especially in the country districts, to establish efficient schools on the denominational plan, and the experience of the Australian colonies is decidedly against that system;* besides which, it seems illogical that the State should undertake to teach religion where there is no State Church. Possibly the Roman Catholic laity may secretly thank the Legislature for adhering to the secular system, just as individual Spaniards recognise the advantage of having Gibraltar in the hands of the English, as by means of it they can evade in a small way the vicious fiscal laws of Spain. I remember venturing to argue this point with a Governor of Gibraltar, who thought it wrong that smuggling should go on under the shelter of the British flag. I suggested that it was not our business to put a stop to it, and that it might perhaps help to bring about a better system in Spain.

Electoral Qualification.—One great pièce de resistance during the last two or three sessions of the Assembly has been the qualification for the electoral roll, Sir George Grey mounting the hobby of manhood suffrage, while the Opposition and many of his own party held that a small property qualification was desirable. As every ratepayer page 313was entitled to be on the roll, the qualification was already by no means illiberal.

The worst of such a low qualification as manhood suffrage is that the electors do not vote according to their own instincts of what is best; but are worked by "professionals," and brought up to the poll to give a block vote. As a matter of fact, they vote for men who have only their own personal interests to serve, and who merely make catspaws of their constituents. The decadence of the fine province of Victoria should be a warning to retain at least some property qualification in the electoral roll.

Free Trade and Protection.—Although New Zealand professes a free trade policy, and only levies duties for revenue purposes, there is a constant disposition on the part of the small manufacturers to clamour for the introduction of the vicious system of protection, under the name of encouragement of native industry. Politicians are, in consequence, often afraid to speak out their minds on the subject. But the consumers of the country ought to be on their guard. If they are now taxed heavily by Government, they would find their taxes more than doubled by a protective system. Wool, gold, and grain are the chief exports of the country. If a country is to be paid for its exports, it must expect to take its payment in "kind." It would be a curious system for a country to export gold and receive back gold in payment.

The Native Question.—The management of the page 314Maoris has always been a troublesome question in New Zealand, and was at one time a test-point in politics—one party holding" that the Maoris must be forced throughout the colony to submit to the law, and that the Queen's writ must run everywhere; the other party opposing this, and contending that the above policy was too expensive, and would involve a constant risk of war and disorganisation in the colony. Dr. Featherston's views on the subject were very sensible. He held that the Maoris were a decreasing race, whereas the settlers were rapidly on the increase; that war, besides being expensive, might possibly be unjust; and that by exercising patience and waiting we should get all we wanted without fighting. If we did fight, however, he valued the fighting powers of a British regiment very highly, and as far outweighing those of slightly trained forces.

I have mentioned Dr. Featherston's name because, although he did not speak their language, yet he had great influence with the Maoris; but, being chiefly engaged with other matters, he did not come within the category of a "Maori doctor." Of these, the two leading men—and they both spoke the Maori language—were the late Sir Donald M'Lean, and Sir George Grey. By a "Maori doctor" I mean a person who professes, from knowledge of the language and customs of the Maoris, and from personal influence among them, to have an exclusive power of managing them.

page 315

It is impossible to mention the native question without bringing in the name of the late Sir Donald M'Lean, who for so long a time controlled the policy of the colony, either as Native Secretary under the Minister of the day, or as Native Minister himself. Although, I suppose, implicated to some extent in the breaking out of the Taranaki war, which originated in a dispute about the land at Waitara, yet at that time he was not responsible Minister, and as Minister all his exertions were in favour of peace. He was a man of extraordinary patience, and that, combined with a liberal supply of money, was no doubt the secret of his success. It is not every man who can submit to listen for a long summer's day to the long-winded tales of the Maoris, the ins and outs of their land claims, their descent, their quarrels; but Sir Donald could both do all this and assist them by his counsel and advice. Another leading feature of what is called the flour-and-sugar policy is, that the Minister shall always have a handful of loose sovereigns in his breeches-pocket, ready to pay out when required. Although, no doubt, this is supposed to be done secretly, I have seen it done. I suppose the same plan is followed at the present time. It is undignified, to be sure, but it is far cheaper than fighting. A few hundred or a few thousand pounds go a long way, while war costs its tens and hundreds of thousands.

I regret very much personally the loss of Sir Donald M'Lean. He was a kindly Scot. He put me very much in mind in his personal appearance of page 316another well-known old friend, the late Rev. Dr. Norman M'Leod. They were both about the same size, complexion, and style of form and features, and they were both from Argyleshire; and although no doubt the clergyman was the most highly educated and most brilliant of the two, yet I should say they were similar in their tone of mind. The other "Maori doctor," Sir George Grey, has been trying the effect of his personal influence upon the Maoris during the last two or three years. The results appear to have been nil. Dr. Featherston's plan of patience seems to be the best, although it is impossible sometimes to avoid a display of force and of authority.

The Provincial Question.—In the early days of New Zealand there were no roads and no steamers, and communication between the different settlements by sailing-vessels was so uncertain and often so tedious, that a member of the General Assembly for Dunedin in the year 1858 found his easiest way of getting to Auckland was by way of Sydney. Under these circumstances, it was probably wise to include in the constitution the creation of six provinces, which by subdivision were afterwards enlarged to nine. These provinces had considerable powers of legislation and administration, and these at one time almost overshadowed the general Government.

As wealth and population increased, steam communication was established, and rapidly became regular and frequent between the different settle-page 317ments, and a complete system of telegraphs was also established, so that the necessity for so many subordinate Governments became weakened. At length the era of railways arrived, necessitating the borrowing of much money upon colonial account, and it was felt that the time had come when the provinces must fall, otherwise the colonial finances could not be kept under control. Every session of the General Assembly saw a constant pressure from the provinces for more loans for provincial purposes, and, by an organised system of log-rolling, these votes were generally carried against the wish of the Government of the day. This system of finance was dangerous, and, if continued, must probably have culminated in confusion and bankruptcy. It might also have been gathered from the lessons of history that bodies such as those of the New Zealand provinces formed such imperia in imperio that they must either swallow up the Central Government or be themselves destroyed or very much modified by it. Thus we find that the ancient provinces of France were gradually assimilated and absorbed by the kingdom; thus the Heptarchy in England was at length united under one head, although a large part of Northumbria became subject to the kingdom of Scotland, and was, with it, long in falling into the central orb. The kingdom of Portugal survives as an instance of the old dispersive epoch. Possibly the lesson derived from the late civil war in the United States is the most appropriate to New Zealand, as the constitution of page 318the latter country is supposed not to have been an original production, but to have been modelled on that of the former country. The civil war was essentially a struggle to decide whether the central or the local power should be supreme, and I think it is now generally admitted that the successful cause was right in argument as well as in might. Since the American civil war, Germany has furnished another example of this same kind. To compare small things with great, the New Zealand provinces fell before the central power, but fell before a war of words, not of arms.

The most serious administrative charge that was brought against the provinces was that they did not supply really local self-government. The outlying parts of a province were as much at the mercy of the Provincial Government as they would have been at the hands of the General Government. For this reason Hawkes Bay urged and obtained separation from Wellington, Southland from Otago, and Westland from Canterbury. To give real self-government on the abolition of the provinces, counties were formed. These met with much abuse and depreciation from the Provincial party, but in time will probably work well.

As in Germany there is still a "particularist" party, and in the United States a separate State party, so in New Zealand there is still a strong Provincial party, trying by various plans, such as the separation of the islands, to further their views; but it is to be hoped that the matter is page 319finally settled, because even supposing the Provincialists should succeed, their success would only be temporary, as being contrary to the flow of modern progress.

Public Works.—The initiation of a great system of public works in New Zealand has very much modified the political position of affairs, and may be said to have converted the Legislature into the board of a great railway company. The public works policy has passed beyond the range of party politics, and is generally accepted by both sides of the House.

Considerable discussion has taken place as to who is entitled to the credit of introducing railways into New Zealand. It appears to me that the merit attaching to the great scheme is one of a political and financial, and not of an engineering character. The great point was to be able to show how the money was to be found and to find it, and also by basing the scheme upon a general plan of opening out the country and peopling it, so as to throw the interest of the debt upon a broader basis. Many years before the great scheme was brought forward, Mr. William Sefton Moorhouse, who was then superintendent of Canterbury, succeeded by decision and perseverance in carrying through the Lyttleton and Christchurch Railway—a short line only, but involving the excavation of a tunnel, I think, one mile and three-quarters in length, and therefore at that time considered a heavy, and by many represented as a ruinous, undertaking, for the province of Canterbury. This line proved a great success.

page 320

In the year 1861 I published a short pamphlet in the hope of getting railways introduced into the province of Wellington, but my appeal was premature; the time was not ripe for action or for entertaining the proposal. Dr. Featherston had expended what was then considered a large loan of £100,000 without any remarkable results having followed, and a long period of depression was in store.

The time at length arrived, however, when, for political reasons, a greater development of the capabilities of New Zealand seemed to become necessary. The colony had been exhausted by a long native war, the British troops had been removed, and the cost of inland defence had been thrown on the country, and, what was worse, a very heavy debt had been incurred. The question was, whether the colony should merely stagger along, and by means of strict economy pay the interest of its debt; or whether, by the bold policy of opening up the country by means of railways and filling it up with population, the weight of the previous and future debt might not become comparatively easy? New Zealand differs from Australia in this, that whereas in the latter country a bullock-dray can go anywhere, in the former, roads are absolutely required to enable produce to be brought to market, and to bring about the settlement of the country. If railways can be made nearly as cheaply as roads, then why not go in for the superior article? New Zealand is full of rivers, but being a narrow, mountainous country, few of the rivers are of much use for page 321navigation, although some of them carry to the sea enormous bodies of water.

To Sir Julius Vogel the merit is due of covering the country with a network of railways and of introducing population. This scheme has been an immense success, although not yet completed; but the soil and climate of the country itself has to be thanked for the result. In a poor, barren country the scheme would have proved a failure. The debt incurred is no doubt heavy, and will be heavier before the works are complete, but every year will show better returns from the railways themselves, and will add to the population upon whom the burden is laid, thus reducing the rate of debt per head. Mistakes have been made. Some non-paying political lines may have been prematurely constructed, but the outlay in that way has not been very heavy, and even these lines will pay interest before long.

Deterioration of General Assembly.—It is a matter of general remark that the personnel of Colonial Legislatures has deteriorated very much from what it was on the first institution of representative bodies, and to this general rule New Zealand offers no exception.

When I attended the General Assembly in Auckland as far back as the year 1860, the House of Representatives contained many men who, as statesmen, as scholars, and as possessing weight of character, might compare on terms of equality with the members of any representative assembly in the world. The deterioration since that time has page 322been great and rapid, and it has been lately very much accelerated by the action of Sir George Grey. It is not my wish to say more than can be helped about the action of a man who has in his day done good service; but, on the other hand, when a former Governor descends into the arena of politics, there tries to set class against class, insults Her Majesty's representative, gratuitously attacks the Judges (able, worthy, and conscientious men), tries to introduce the worst features of American political life into the colony, and almost succeeds in reducing New Zealand to the very low political level of Victoria, it would be wrong to remain altogether silent. The administration of the colony fell into such confusion under Sir George Grey's Ministry that he has at last been hurled from power, and it is to be hoped he will finally retire into private life. A Ministry is now in office composed of careful and steady men, and we may hope that time will be given them to restore the finances and the prosperity of the colony, and clear away the effects of the political tornado which has lately passed over it.

* It may be easy in a sparse population to support one school and one efficient teacher, but impossible to support four schools and four teachers.