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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter X. — Minister for Public Works

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Chapter X.
Minister for Public Works.

The first thing Mr. Seddon did as Minister for Public Works was to set his department in order. The Conservative Government had contemplated abolishing the Public Works Department altogether. It had frequently proposed to do so, but had never put its scheme into practice. Mr. Seddon thought that, as the money available for the construction of public works was limited, and as the Government had abandoned the borrowing policy with the object of taking safer steps, there should be a large reduction in the departmental expenses. He argued that if the department's income was reduced by about a quarter, its expenses would also have to come down. A day or two after he had been sworn in as Minister he sent for the head of his department and ordered a list of all the officers to be supplied to him. The result of a careful study of the list was that over forty officers were dismissed at once. The list of dismissals included:
  • One consulting engineer.

  • Four district engineers.

  • Eleven assistant engineers and draftsmen.

  • Twenty inspectors.

  • Ten clerks.

As Minister for Defence he dismissed an under-secretary, three lieutenant-colonels, and several junior officers. The saving of salaries in the Public Works Department was £8,000 a year, and in the Defence Department £4,800 a year.

It was only natural that his policy of retrenchment should be severely criticised in the House and in the Wellington newspapers, and also secretly in the Civil Service, in whose eyes he was a demon of economy, seeking for poor Civil Servants to dismiss.

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The result of the policy, although it seemed so excessively harsh that Civil Servants named him “The Chief Executioner,” was to place the Civil Servants under his care on a much better footing than they had ever been before. The life had been crushed out of the Public Works Department by the demand for retrenchment, which had been made session after session for years previously. There was a feeling of uncertainty throughout the whole department, among competent men as well as useless ones. They knew that Parliament insisted upon reductions being made, but as the Conservative Government would never bring its mind to make them, all the Civil Servants waited for the word, and none felt that he was safe.

Mr. Seddon made as many reductions as he could without affecting the efficiency of the department. When that had been done, he let it be known that the reductions would cease. Those under him then felt that the crusade would stop; and, knowing that they were regarded as efficient and faithful servants, they worked with more will and confidence than they had shown for many years. He never lost sight of the fact that his departments must be worked economically as well as efficiently, but from the first he gave his officers an assurance that he would not ask any of them to overwork himself.

His next step was to prevent a recurrence of an abuse that had grown up in connection with the sub-letting of contracts. This was practically the first benefit gained by the working-classes through their action in supporting the Liberal Party at the memorable general election. The workers had suffered greatly from the practice of sub-letting, which had become so common that only a short time before the Liberals took office the whole of a big Government contract was advertised by the successful tenderer to be let in sub-contracts. The subletting system was annoying to the principal, and it often entailed hardship on the workers. In many cases, the sub-contractors were “men of straw.” Competition led them to take the work at low prices, and the workers sometimes had to bear a part of the loss. Much of the sweating that had been disclosed in the colony was due to this evil practice.

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Mr. Seddon made up his mind that there would be no sweating in work undertaken by any of the departments in his charge. He said that the State could pay a fair price for its work, and it was his duty to see that the worker received a fair share of that fair price. He therefore issued strict instructions that the clause in the general terms and conditions of all Government contracts against sub-letting should be strictly observed. For a long time, the clause had been evaded, and the department's officers had looked upon it as a dead letter. He announced that the engineer-in-charge and the clerk-of-works would not be allowed to recognise sub-contracts at all; and that the sub-letting of work, or having it done as piece-work, would be deemed to be ground for the cancellation of the contract, and heavy penalties would be imposed.

Having satisfactorily disposed of that matter, he inaugurated a system of constructing public works on the co-operative principle, giving the work direct to the workmen and dispensing altogether with the middlemen. He seized an opportunity for introducing this system in connection with the construction of sections of the Ngakawau railway extension to Mokihinui, on the West Coast. Public tenders had been invited for sections of that line. Liberal conditions were offered. Immediately the tenders were accepted, the contracts were relinquished, and he had the choice of calling for fresh tenders on the original method or giving the co-operative principle a trial.

On going to Westport shortly after he had been appointed a Minister, he found there a large number of men who had flocked to the coast from different parts of the colony, expecting to secure employment on that line. To avoid the delay that would be caused if fresh tenders were called for, he decided to let three of the sections on the co-operative principle. He asked the men to divide themselves into three parties of fifty men each, and to select trustees from each party. These trustees were to take the work from the Government in the ordinary way, but the work, he explained, was to be done by the whole of the men, each man having equal rights with all his fellows. He arranged that the price should be fixed by the engineer in charge of the work.

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The men soon grasped the idea, which they thought was a very good one. As often happens with the introduction of a new system, there was a little friction at first, and some difficulty was experienced in the classification of the men. The strong and able-bodied men did not altogether like to work for the aged and the feeble. Mr. Seddon, however, classified both the men and the work, giving the lighter work to the aged and less capable, and the heavier work to those best fitted for it.

The earnings, as a whole, proved satisfactory, and when the contracts were completed the men engaged on them in that way stated that they were prepared to accept more work on the same principle if it was provided. That was the beginning of the co-operative system, which now forms a marked feature of public works in New Zealand. At the present time, in 1906, between 4,000 and 5,000 men are employed under the system established by Mr. Seddon a few weeks after he became Minister for Public Works. Most of the colony's railway and road works, and a great deal of its public building work, is done under the system.

Mr. Seddon saw that the contract system had many disadvantages. It brought into existence a class of middlemen contractors. These men often made large profits out of their undertakings, and sometimes out of those whom they employed. There had been strikes on public contracts. The result was that valuable time had been lost in pushing on important works, capital had been wasted, expensive plant had been kept idle, large numbers of men had been thrown out of employment, and there was bad feeling on all sides. Under the old sub-contract system, business people who supplied stores and materials were often unable to obtain payment, owing to the workmen not receiving their full wages, or, perhaps, having to go without any. In these cases, contracts which should have proved a benefit to the districts in which they were carried out, by leading to the expenditure of money, only brought trouble and disaster. It often happened that while the sub-contractor was ruined and the workmen were underpaid, or not paid at all, the principal contractor, who did none of the work, was made rich on the proceeds of one contract. The whole of the profits, instead of page 150 being widely distributed over the district, went into the pockets of one man, who generally arranged to leave the colony and live in England as soon as he had made sufficient money.

It was found, also, that the contracting and sub-contracting system led to the congestion of the labour market in districts where large works were being carried out. When advertisements were published calling for tenders for large works, unemployed workers flocked to the spot, hoping that they would be employed as soon as operations commenced; but if the successful tenderer was a contractor who resided in another part of the colony, and already had a good staff of workmen, or knew where to find reliable men who had worked for him before, he took a regiment with him, and the outsiders had no chance.

Under the co-operative system, every worker is a contractor. He is his own master, and he has a personal interest in carrying on the work economically and successfully. Above all, it is claimed for the system, after fifteen years' experience, that it places him on a much higher plane, and enables him to comprehend more thoroughly the dignity of labour. As for the State, it benefits by having the work carried out at the actual value. The system gives the Government complete control over the expenditure. If it wishes to push the work through rapidly, it can increase the number of men. Departmental officers state that they find the work is done better under the co-operative system than under the contract system. The new system has been attacked repeatedly, but its operation has been attended with more success than Mr. Seddon expected.

He reorganised the defence forces of the colony in a practical manner, arranging for the appointment of an English officer, conversant with modern ideas, to the chief command. He placed the permanent force and the volunteers under district commanders, and he made both branches of the defence service more attractive.

He has seldom appeared to better advantage than at this time, when he was placed in charge of three large departments. He felt that he could gratify his ambition to do something for the colony. He loved the sense of power his position gave him. He regarded it as an exalted position. Like Sir Henry Parkes, page 151 he had been a long time coming to the ministerial benches, but, having reached them, he was determined that while he was there he would uphold the dignity conferred upon him. He was peculiarly sensitive of criticism, and brooked no slights. There were many doubts as to his success as a Minister, but they were not held by the leaders of the Liberal Party, who knew his capabilities and his thoroughness. He was careful, shrewd, and practical, and when any question came within the sphere of his work, he grasped it in all its bearings. Above all, nothing would frighten him. Occasionally he acted with some impetuosity, but it was only when he was led away by his zeal.

There is a noticeable change in the tone of his addresses to the people at this time. He was all for New Zealand now. He was no longer the miners' representative. Instead of representing a district with 1,500 souls, he represented a colony of 600,000 people. In his estimation, the miners had been superseded by the people, and the West Coast by New Zealand. He had now new and important duties to perform, and the coast could claim only a portion of his time. That was in his pre-imperialistic days, and he had no thoughts for the Empire while New Zealand's affairs called for his attention.

As a Minister of the Crown and a recognised leader of his party, he soon made himself known in the land. He began his famous policy of travelling through the colony. He went from the Bay of Islands in the north to Dunedin in the south, speaking, mixing with the people, receiving deputations, giving promises, and granting concessions with all the air and grace of a monarch. It is a policy he never relinquished.

Even in the first month of ministerial office, his opponents commented good-naturedly on his liking for touring the colony. Sir John Hall said that he was the Government's commercial traveller, or bagman. He felt rather indignant at that, but passed it off by saying: “Yes, and as the commercial traveller I've bagged twenty-one votes of confidence; in all the centres of population resolutions were passed, expressing confidence in the Government.”

The Press Association reported his appearance at a town in the North Island one day and a few days later he was seen page 152 in Dunedin presiding at the inauguration of a Liberal Association, and informing the country generally what the Government had done and what it intended to do.*

At Christchurch, he was told plainly by the leaders of the unemployed that they expected him to do a great deal more for them than had been done by Sir Harry Atkinson.

He replied by rebuking their spokesman for a slighting reference to Sir Harry, and informed them that they would be disappointed if they thought that the new Government would carry on non-reproductive works simply for the sake of finding employment for men out of work.

One of them complained of having to walk fifty miles to get work, and the Minister for Mines then related how he had walked one hundred miles in Victoria, without money to carry him on his way. He told them that they went out into the country and made a few pounds at harvest time, and then expected the Government to find work for them for the rest of the year. The Government would not encourage those ideas, which were bad for the men and the country. He reminded them that in the past they had been paupers at 4s. a day. The Government would remove all that, he said, but they would have to undertake reproductive works at prices which would pay fair wages.

* The platform of this association, which first took the name of the National Liberal Association, and had a short life, was:—(1) Residential qualification only for electors; (2) the female franchise; (3) State aid for co-operative industrial settlements; (4) the establishment of a Government Labour Bureau; (5) the appointment of a Minister for Labour; (6) extension of the municipal functions and an increase generally of local government; (7) absolute stoppage of the sale of Crown Lands; (8) the introduction of a progressive land and income tax, and the abolition of the property tax; (9) land succession dues to be paid in land; (10) land companies to be taxed periodically to an amount equal to the average proceeds of successive dues; (11) sole tenure of lands to be a lease from the State; (13) nationalisation of the mines; (14) nationalisation of the railways; (15) nationalisation of the postal marine services; (16) a legal periodical adjustment of rents; (17) statutory limitation of the maximum amount recoverable as interest; (18) a State Bank of issue; (19) the State to supply educational requisites at cost price; (20) equal facilities to be given for acquiring primary and secondary education; (21) the appointment of an elective Revising Committee with limited powers, instead of the Legislative Council; (22) an elective Governor; (23) simplification of the machinery of government; (24) simplification of judicial procedure.

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The interview was not entirely to the satisfaction of the men who had waited on the new Minister, but it showed that he was determined to take his own course in dealing with the unemployed problem, and would not be dictated to or browbeaten even by those who considered that they had first claim on the Government's consideration.

He disclosed on this tour his partiality for banquets. The people were not slow to see this, and a banquet awaited him at almost every town he visited. He was the most popular politician of the day, with the exception of Sir George Grey. His cheerfulness and optimism and his over-flowing zeal made the public like him whether they wanted to or not. When the next session came round, Sir John Hall found the banquets of that first ministerial tour a good subject for jokes at Mr. Seddon's expense; and he frequently naively inquired after the state of the digestion of the “Jolly Minister,” as he called him.

Mr. Seddon met with rebuffs and discouragements, but he brushed them aside. Even if they had been of a serious nature they would not have deterred him, as his mind was full of the projects he had in hand, and other considerations of less importance had to give way. The people felt that he was one of themselves. They liked his practical common sense. He unconsciously added to his popularity by many generous allusions to Sir George Grey, who, after all, was still first favourite with the public.

Other members of the Cabinet adopted his plan of going through the country and seeing the people. When Parliament assembled for the second session in 1891, therefore, the Liberal Ministers had had good opportunities for gauging popular feeling. Their investigations assured them that they had the people's sympathy, and they met Parliament with confidence and a determination to fulfil the promises which had been made at the polls, and which their opponents said they would never dare to keep.

In the meantime, the Conservatives had decided that a concerted attack would be made on the Government. It was not expected that the Government would survive the onslaught, and it was freely stated in the lobbies and in the streets of page 154 Wellington that the Government would first be reduced to a majority that would be too small to be workable, and would then be killed by a no-confidence motion.

Mr. Seddon was first attacked on the fact that the head officer of the Public Works Department had been attracted to Australia by a higher salary than the Government would agree to give him. The attack was led by Mr. T. Fergus, whom Mr. Seddon had displaced from the Public Works portfolio. Mr. Fergus condemned the whole management of the department, and, apparently, made out a strong case, until Mr. Seddon showed the House that any blame in connection with the department could be traced directly to the management of his predecessor. Other members came to support Mr. Fergus. Mr. Seddon became impatient and angry, and in a few minutes the whole House was launched into a bitter discussion, which reviewed the whole policy of the department for the past ten or twelve years.

Mr. Seddon was not in need of support. He was much more than a match on the ground of his own departments for all the men who could be brought against him. There were several Liberals, however, who stepped forward to express their sense of the justice with which he had acted. Among these was Mr. A. Saunders, who had been returned for Selwyn at the general election. He had been chairman of the Royal Commission appointed some years previously to inquire into the position of the Civil Service, and he had strongly advocated the very course of action Mr. Seddon was successfully adopting. In his inquiries into the Public Works Department, Mr. Saunders had found that there was a very anomalous state of affairs. Highly paid men were often employed at work that men of little special ability could do, highly qualified engineers being set to discharge the duties of accountants, inspectors, and clerks. To make a show of finding employment for a host of engineers at high salaries, absurd regulations had been adopted. A common railway siding could not be erected without the presence of two engineers, one from the Construction Department to decide how such an important work should be done, and one from the Maintenance Staff to see how the siding could page 155 be connected with the existing line. When he saw the waste that had taken place in the department, Mr. Saunders said, he felt thankful to Mr. Seddon for bringing about real and substantial economies.

There were crowded galleries in the House when the Financial Statement was delivered by Mr. Ballance. He was nervous at first, and showed a slight hesitancy; but when a hearty round of cheers was hurled at him from his party, he smiled back at his friends, and read his Statement with the air of a man who has achieved success, but whose elation is tempered with the responsibilities of his position.

He announced that there was a surplus of £143,000 on the operations of the year, “a result which must be very gratifying,” he said with a pause, filled in with more cheers, which were renewed when he said that at the end of the next year he anticipated that the surplus would be £260,000. What should be done with it? He glanced towards the new Postmaster-General, and said that the Government believed that the time had come when the penny-post should be established in New Zealand. Thirty thousand pounds could be spent in opening up land for settlements, and a large part of the surplus would be spent in other ways, leaving a good margin, however, in case of emergencies. Finally, he announced that the old property tax had seen its last days, and that the Government would introduce at once a graduated land tax and an income tax; and, in respect to the unemployed troubles, “we are naturally led to the practical consideration of the establishment of labour bureaux in the different centres of population, under the charge of a Minister of the Crown.”

A report had been put into circulation that the Opposition would lay in wait for the Financial Statement and then set upon the new Ministers, demolishing them with figures, tables, and learned dissertations on economical questions. There was still a belief, which was being raised to the rank of a legend, that all the learning, all the knowledge, and all the culture of the House was to be found on the Conservative side; and large numbers of people in Wellington who been led to believe that the working man's Socialistic Ministry with revolutionary notions page 156 and ideas of its own that could find justification in the works of absolutely no recognised authority on constitutional government would be held up before the world for ridicule.

As members were given a week to consider the Statement after it was delivered, the Opposition had plenty of time to gather its information and its forces together. The assault was led by Mr. Bryce, who, however, could find very little to criticise. He contented himself with saying that the Government was chasing capital out of the country. Mr. W. P. Reeves followed with a keen and slashing speech, in which he pointed out that the Government had already dared to go much further into reforms than its opponents believed it could possibly go. Another speech that held the gallaries' attention was that of Sir Joseph Ward, who passed through a fire of interruptions and interjections, challenging members' statements and being challenged in turn, but never being caught tripping.

Mr. Scobie Mackenzie made one of the fiercest attacks of the evening on the Government's position, but was repelled by Mr. Saunders, who, as one of the pioneers of Liberalism, entered the discussion as a friendly critic of the Government. In that capacity he sustained his character as the Nestor of the House, a name that he had borne for many years. Thirty-six years previously, when he was Superintendent of the Nelson Provincial Council, he had advocated the imposition of a land tax, and he had been one of those who had clamoured most consistently against the iniquities of the property tax the Liberal Government had decided to sweep away. He dealt severely with Mr. Mackenzie, and quietly refuted the assertion that Liberals had inherited a large surplus from the Conservatives, by stating that the heritage left by the Continuous Ministry was a deficit of more than half a million of money. ‘Surpluses, in fact,” he said, “are merely the devices of Civil Servants of this colony; they have no kind of reality, and they do not exist except on paper.”

It was not until the debate was nearing its end that Mr. Seddon rose to take part in it. He was calm at first, but as he got well into his subject, he raised his voice and hurled his facts across the chamber to the Opposition benches. No speaker page 157 on the Government benches was so frequently interrupted. He took charge not only of his own departments, but also of the departments of all the other Ministers, and defended them in detail, until the House was surprised at the mass of particulars he had accumulated and had placed ready for use.

“I'm sure,” he said, after he had defended his colleagues, “I must thank members of the Opposition for their kind consideration in not, so far, saying much against me during this debate, in fact, ever since I have been a Minister. I hope we shall always remain on the same terms.”

“Wait till we come to the public works; your time's coming,” shouted back an Oppositionist.

“Well, sir,” he replied, “if my time is coming I should say there is ‘a good time coming.’ I am not one of those who run away. Publicly, privately, and in my capacity as a member of the Government, I prefer to face danger, and simply say, ‘Come on,’ and I say so now.”

“Who gave manhood suffrage?” interrupted one of his opponents when he touched on the franchise.

“Sir George Grey and his party.”

“No, Sir John Hall.”

“Sir George Grey, I say,” he insisted, “gave this country manhood suffrage. I say it was Sir George Grey and the Liberal Party, as the four Auckland members who entered into compact with Sir John Hall to support his Government said that their reasons for doing so was to carry out Sir George Grey's programme. That is why the Hall Government is not entitled to thanks for it.”

“I say the Continuous Government was routed at the last elections,” he said in another part of his speech; “and there is an Administration here now——”

“You won't last long!”

“Long or short, here we are, and we cannot be worse than the previous Administration.”

A journalist who sat in the Press Gallery of the House on that evening and listened to the speech, supplied a graphic description of it to his journal next morning.

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“He is in one of his carefully eloquent moods,” the writer says; “he speaks with touching reverence of his ‘venerable friend,’ Sir George Grey; he has an appreciative word for Mr. Tanner; he promises Mr. Perceval's advice the respectful consideration due to the advice of a friend. ‘As for the financial proposals, they are a step in the right direction; but our first care, Sir, must be to see that we meet our engagements.’ He is very strong and magisterial about this necessity. Having disposed of these two subjects, he draws his sword. As he draws it, he remarks that the administration has been attacked, and his colleagues have been impugned. His voice rises as he declares that he is going to carry the war into the enemy's quarters; and with that he springs to the assault. It is Seddon of old; ‘Richard is himself again!’ The blows of his right arm descend about him with incessant force, as they used to do of old; his voice goes ringing all over the House. The Ministerial Party listens in the attitude of applause, and the Opposition sits back enjoying the spectacle. Suddenly there is a point of order. The Leader of the Opposition asks if it is permissible to read an extract ‘such as that.’ The extract is an American paper. It deals with lies and liars of all kinds. Mr. Bryce thought that the honourable gentleman was applying these remarks to the member for Mataura. Mr. Seddon reads again, and speaks till supper time, and after supper goes on with great vigour and power. He defends the Government's administration in the most astonishing detail. His knowledge is tremendous, his resources great, and his power of argument strong. Along the whole line he scores. They attack him one after another, and one after another they go down, Sir John Hall, Captain Russell, Mr. Fergus, Mr. Rolleston, all and each have a skirmish, and each he floors. The House is in a state of great attention and astonishment. When he sits down at ten minutes past one, his party feels that there is nothing more to be said about the administration, and that he is one of the strongest, best-informed, and readiest men in the House. His speech was quite the sensation of the day.”*

“I think,” he concluded, “that I have proved to the colony, and especially to those who support us, that the proposals of the Government are in accordance with the wishes of the people, that our estimates are likely to be realised, and that the administration of the affairs of the colony may fairly be left in our hands.”

The session is the stormiest on record. It left the Government much stronger than it was when the Liberals came back victorious from the polls, and its working majority was placed beyond all doubt. The property tax was repealed, the land and income tax, which has never been discarded, was put into operation; and the Liberal Party started upon its term of office, which, fifteen years later, has not yet expired.

* “Lyttelton Times,” July 10, 1891.

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At the close of the session, the Conservative Party made a great effort to organise, and gatherings were held in Otago and Canterbury.

At the end of 1891, while the new Government was carrying out its drastic policy of retrenchment, an announcement was sent from Wellington to all parts of the colony that “The Exodus” had stopped. It had not only stopped, but had ebbed back until it became an influx.

The first ten months of the year had seen a serious loss of population. It was the worst year as far as “The Exodus” was concerned the colony had experienced since the appalling record of 1888, when the colonists were shocked to learn that the total excess of departures over arrivals reached 9,175 souls. In 1889 a large exhibition held at Dunedin and other causes enabled the statistics to show a slight balance in the colony's favour. It amounted to only 224, but the colonists said that it was better than nothing. In 1890, the year of the strike, hearts dropped when the colony's life-blood flowed out again. The year 1891 began badly, there being a loss of 187 persons in January alone. It went from bad to worse: in February, 334; in March, 808; in April, 511; in May, 1,431; and in June, 635; so that the first six months showed an excess of departures over arrivals amounting to 3,916, and it was said that the Liberal Government was chasing people as well as capital from the colony. In the latter part of the year, the flow slowed down. In October the loss was only 51, and the colony saw that the turn of the tide had been almost reached. In November the stream began to set in to the colony's shores again, for in that month the arrivals exceeded the departures by 1,156.

The depression had crossed the Tasman Sea to Australia. New South Wales had a large deficit, and was committed to an extravagant public works expenditure, while Melbourne was so distrusted that it failed to float a large drainage loan. Monetary and commercial institutions in Australia crashed to the ground, and the disasters that resulted made that country attractive to New Zealand's floating population no longer. On the top of this, the colony had a very good season for grass and grain; the frozen meat trade was now firmly established, and was bringing page 160 in a splendid revenue from London; wheat was rising; New Zealand butter bounded to the top of the English market, and London experts gave it a valuable advertisement by declaring that it was superior to the Danish and the Norman article.

Nature was kind to the Liberal Government, whose prospects seemed to get brighter each day. With Atkinson's protective tariff, rising prices, and better spirits, there was a stir in commerce and industry. The Bank of New Zealand wrote off a sum representing the depreciation in the value of its landed property. Instead of being kept up to an artificial price, at which nobody could buy, the property was brought down to a legitimate figure, at which it could be bought and put into use. The cry of the unemployed was heard less frequently, and the colony began to lose its melancholy air.

On summing up the position, the public congratulated itself on the fact that although it might have used the word “repudiation” without thinking a few years previously, and although the depression had hung around it like a horrid cloud, good progress was being made and the future was encouraging.