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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter XI. — More Difficulties

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Chapter XI.
More Difficulties.

The Government succeeded in passing its land and income tax, and in abolishing the property tax, which had become too unpopular to be tolerated by the country much longer; but the tactics of the last Conservative Government in appointing new members of the Legislative Council just as it was vacating office were quite successful, and the Liberals were prevented from passing other policy measures of great importance, on account of the refusal of a majority in the Council to sanction them.

Sir John McKenzie introduced a Land for Settlements Bill, which could get no further than the House of Representatives. In that chamber it was well received, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Rolleston), and other members of his party agreeing with the principle of the Bill, which was that the State had a perfect right to compulsorily purchase large estates needed for settlement.

The Bill passed its second reading in the House without a division. In the Legislative Council, however, it was received with demonstrations of deep disapproval. The “Lords” looked upon the principle as one of confiscation. When Sir Patrick Buckley moved the Bill's second reading in the Council, there was none but he to say a word in its favour, and it was ignominiously rejected by a majority of two to one.

The same action was taken in regard to the Female. Franchise Bill, which was introduced into the House of Representatives by Sir John Hall, and was made a Government measure. It was carried through the House by 33 votes to 8, but was rejected by the Legislative Councillors by two votes.

They killed an Electoral Bill designed to confirm the decision of Parliament that the one-man-one-vote principle page 162 should in future govern all general elections. Sir George Grey's clause in the Representation Act of 1890 merely states that one man can exercise only one vote at an election. The freehold qualification was still in existence. It allowed a freeholder to register in every district in which he possessed property, although he could vote in only one district. At by-elections, the freehold qualification operated very unjustly, as it enabled freeholders on the roll of an electorate in which a by-election was being held to concentrate their forces there, and it gave them a good chance of turning the result to the advantage of the candidate they supported.

Mr. Seddon and other Liberals thought that it was only fair that by-elections should be fought out under the same conditions as those which governed the general elections. In trying to alter the law to remove this anomaly, Mr. Ballance had the support of most of the Conservatives as well as his own party. Mr. Bryce, a leading Conservative, said that he accepted the proposal as being the natural corollary of the confirmation of the one-man-one-vote principle.

The Electoral Bill passed through the House practically without opposition, but the Legislative Council refused to consent to the measure, which was thrown back at the Government. The Liberals felt the slight. They did not hesitate to say that it was monstrous that an important measure which not only was supported by the party in power, but also was agreed to by a majority of both sides in politics, should be rejected by a nominated chamber, evidently completely out of touch with the new order of things and with the wishes of the people.

Mr. Seddon was among those who believed that the Council's action was dictated by the hope that the rejection of the measure would affect the result of some by-elections which might take place, or perhaps, in some way, influence the next general election. Two Labour Bills—a Shop Hours Bill, and a Workman's Lien Bill—were also totally rejected. The Councillors refused to accept even a mild portion of the Shop Hours Bill; and they would not agree to give shop assistants the weekly half-holiday.

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Sir George Grey introduced a Friendly Societies Bill, which was taken up by the Government. The Council did not try to amend it, but rejected it by a large majority. Another measure which was supported by both sides of the House was the Selectors' Revaluation Bill. It was intended to extend relief to tenants who had not been reached by similar measures of relief in former years. The Council said that those tenants should not receive relief unless the Bill was amended so as to give power to all pastoral tenants of the Crown—in other words, as was pointed out at the time, squatters and runholders—to get their rents reconsidered, and, if possible, reduced. The Government could not consider a proposal of that kind, and the Bill had to be abandoned.

Sir John McKenzie's Land Bill was received with more courtesy than his Land for Settlements Bill. It went into committee in the Council, but it was treated so badly there that he hardly recognised it when it came back, and he certainly did not feel disposed to acknowledge it. A conference was arranged, at which he endeavoured to meet the Council half way. He compromised on several points, but the Council took everything he offered and gave nothing of any consequence in return. Finding that no good would result from his attempts at a compromise, he withdrew his Bill, saying that he would wait twelve months, and, in the meantime, the Legislative Council would see what would happen to it.

The Council, in short, stood in the road of reform, and, without any compunction, rejected Bill after Bill or altered the measures so that they were practically useless. In this way, the Liberal Party was prevented in its first year of office from putting into operation the elaborate policy which it had been preparing for years, and which had the emphatic approval of the country.

The session of 1891, owing to the obstruction of the Council, was largely a waste of good time. The Liberals, however, sought consolation in the fact that the property tax and its unjust inequalities had ceased to vex the country, and they said that a session which had repealed that obnoxious imposition could not be called a barren one.

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During the recess, the Government was brought face to face with a problem of constitutional government, which at one time promised to develop into a serious position, and might have forced Ministers to resign and go to the country for sanction of their action.

Lord Onslow had left the colony and had been succeeded by Lord Glasgow. Shortly after the new Governor arrived, Mr. Ballance advised him to call twelve new members to the Legislative Council, so that the Government's measures should not be in danger of receiving the same treatment as had been meted out to them in the session that had just closed.

An inspection of the division-lists in the Council shows that in 1891 the Government could absolutely rely, as a rule, on only five members of the chamber. One of the Government's supporters had left the colony, and another was too ill to attend the sittings. That left Sir Patrick Buckley, the Minister in the Council, with only two votes upon which he could depend. One of those was the vote of a Maori member of the Council, so that he had actually only one European member to follow him in supporting all policy measures the Government sent up from the Lower Chamber.

An analysis of the membership of the Council shows that up to that time Sir George Grey's Government had appointed four members, the Stout-Vogel Government nine, and the Conservative Governments the remainder. The appointments made by the Stout-Vogel Coalition were of a mixed character, some of the members being advanced in views and some Conservative. When these are sorted out, it is found that nine nominations had been made from the ranks of the Liberal Party, and twenty-six from the Conservative Party.

Mr. Ballance asked that his Government should be allowed to make twelve additions. It would then have fifteen votes in the chamber and would still be in a clear minority, but he said that he would be satisfied if he could assure himself that his measures would be fairly and fully discussed. Lord Glasgow considered that nine was the largest addition he could make. He refused to go further than that number, which the Government declined to accept.

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The controversy involved one of the most important political questions of the day. It gave a great deal of anxiety to Mr. Ballance, Mr. Seddon, and all members of the Government and the party. Lord Glasgow could hardly have been acquainted with the feeling of the country in regard to the two political parties. In refusing to accept the advice of his Ministers, he evidently acted without obtaining full information on the subject, and the determined and uncompromising attitude he adopted from the first nearly led to a deadlock. If the Liberal Party had been guided by less skilful leaders than Mr. Ballance and Mr. Seddon, there would have been a crisis. It was a constitutional question whether, if the Governor refused to accept the advice of his Ministers, they should not resign; and their opponents strongly urged this aspect of the case.

Lord Glasgow admitted that some fresh appointments to the Council were desirable, but he felt that the number should be limited. The limitation he fixed would not have helped the Government, which would still have been represented in the Council by a hopeless minority, and there would have been no chance of it relying upon its policy measures being passed. In that case, the nominated chamber, not the popular one, would have ruled the colony, and the will of the people, as declared at the polls and as represented by the party in power in the House, would have been flouted. The Government had certainly been hampered by the Council, and already had good cause to complain of its actions, which had, at any rate, delayed for a whole year reforms that the Government was absolutely pledged to give.

Lord Glasgow took up the position that it was the duty of the Governor to exercise the power vested in him in his capacity as an Imperial officer, without limitation or restraint, and he felt bound to resist the Government's advice on the ground that to grant the number of nominations Ministers asked for would be an unconstitutional interference with the liberties of the Council.

The Government held that the Governor, being neutral in politics, was not permitted by the constitution to do anything that would prevent the feeling of the country from being expressed in page 166 legislation. Mr. Ballance pointed with a good deal of significance to the fact that in view of the friendly relations which should exist between the colony and the Mother Country, it would be a dangerous doctrine to admit that the Governor considered it his duty to thwart the people of the colony in giving expression to their feelings and opinions.

The whole question of the self-government of the colony was involved in the battle between the Ministers and the new Governor. New Zealand had arrived at a critical point in its history. It had had some bitter struggles for its independence in the past. Conservatives and Liberals had united in defending the constitutional right of the people to govern themselves, and there are many traditions of the sacrifices the colonists were ready to make in the early days as long as the Imperial Government left them their self-government. Now, apparently, some of these rights were to be taken from it. From a constitutional point of view, it is probably the most important question that the New Zealand Parliament has had to deal with.

The principle for which the Liberal Party was called upon to fight is sufficiently important to justify the reproduction of at least one of the communications sent by the Government to Lord Glasgow. It is as follows:—

Memorandum To His Excellency.

“Ministers beg to acknowledge the receipt of His Excellency's memorandum of the 8th inst., and desire to notice one or two matters therein. His Excellency remarks that the ‘best information he was able to obtain was procured solely from public documents, and the memorandum left by Lord Onslow.’

“Ministers reply that no public documents have ever been submitted to them by His Excellency of any kind bearing on the question, and they have had no opportunity of expressing any opinion upon them. The same observation will apply to the memorandum left by Lord Onslow in so far as it was treated confidentially; and, although a memorandum (probably that referred to) was sent to the Premier for his inspection, no copy was kept, and his Excellency has never asked for the opinions or advice of Ministers on this confidential memorandum. Moreover, the circumstances affecting the Council have greatly changed since the departure of Lord Onslow; and his memorandum could hardly be supposed to express the present condition of affairs.

“Ministers take exception to the statement ‘that the idea underlying the whole case of Ministers is that whatever measures an Administration bring forward are sent in to express the feeling of the country.’ It would be more correct to say that measures passed by large majorities of the House of Representatives, within eighteen months of its election are sufficient to entitle page 167 Ministers to the confidence of his Excellency, and to express in terms not to be misunderstood in a self-governing community that the measures do express the feeling of the country.

“Ministers notice that his Excellency points out ‘that the suspensory powers conferred by the constitution on the Second Chamber is a constitutional check intended to give power to the electorate through the intervention of the Legislative Council at any time to step in and control legislation,’ and that ‘this plan insures greater freedom to the electorate than that favoured by Ministers.’ Ministers reply that the argument, if applied in practice, would prove immediately destructive to the constitution. It means that with the sanction and support of the Governor, the Council is at all times to possess the power to impose a general dissolution on the country; that a nominee Council is to be accepted as a better judge or exponent of the feelings of the country than the representatives of the people; and that a decisive majority in the Second Chamber is to be maintained by the representative of Her Majesty in order to ‘control legislation.’ It also means that a majority unresponsible for its acts may harass, by the expense and worry of an election, the representative body, and it suggests the fatal position that the Governor is to be associated with the Council as the practical application of the doctrine.

“If the Ministers could believe that this was the true intent and meaning of the constitution, they would despair of its survival beyond the popular recognition of the fact; but they have not so read it, and hope, for the sake of the constitution, that such a construction may not prove to be accurate.

“The construction may be stated (in accordance with actual facts in recent history) to be this: A majority in the Legislative Council should be in harmony with the minority in the House of Representatives when the Liberals are in power, with a penal dissolution suspended over the heads of the Government; but when the Conservatives are in power they should have majorities in both Chambers without the ‘constitutional check.’ If the first plan insures ‘greater freedom to the electorate,’ it is difficult to describe the constitutional bearings of the second. Yet Ministers have asked for no more than a respectable minority in the Second Chamber. It is against the application of such constitutional doctrine as these that Ministers respectfully enter their protest.

“Ministers thank His Excellency for the information that the series of correspondence will be sent to the Secretary for State and request that this memorandum may be included.

“J. Ballance.

“Premier's Office, Wellington, August 9th, 1892.”

It was evident that neither the Governor nor the Government would give way, and it was agreed that the dispute should be submitted to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Some of Mr. Ballance's friends thought that in making this agreement he made a sacrifice of his dignity. He was sure of his ground, however, and felt that, in return, he would receive from the Imperial Government an emphatic declaration not only that he was right in his contention, but also that the Colonial Office had no power to stand between the people and their wishes.

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Mr. Seddon saw in the attempt to widen the serious breach between the Ministers and the Governor a weakening of the bonds between the colony and the Mother Country, and when he spoke on this question he sounded one of those imperialistic notes which occupy a large part of his speeches in later days.

“Do honourable members on that side of the House,” he said, “contend that we do not owe allegiance to the Home Country, to the Empire; that we have not the right and privilege to consult the Secretary of State on a matter of such importance as this? Are we to take up that attitude? I say, No; and as long as I have a seat in this House, I shall endeavour, as far as lies in my power, to cement the bonds of union that exist between the Mother Country and our colony. As is laid down in Todd, the Secretary of State is simply a channel by which we can approach the Queen; and if it is open to private individuals, to any one of our own colonists, to approach Her Majesty and ask for an expression of opinion on a vital question, the privilege is also open to the Government of New Zealand. I do not wish to see the bond of union broken.”

One evening, when Mr. Seddon was leading the House, in the absence of Mr. Ballance, who was confined to his room through a severe illness, it was reported that the Governor had received a cable message from the Secretary of State. The galleries were crowded immediately, and people thronged into the chamber to hear the result of the controversy on the constitutional point. There was an impression that if the new Government, sent straight from the people, had a particularly weak spot, it was constitutional practice and history, and its opponents were prepared to see it rather badly beaten in its struggle. Besides that they wanted it to resign.

Mr. Seddon tantalised friends and opponents alike for some time. He went on with the ordinary business as if nothing had happened, but, being able to contain his news no longer, he rose and stated that he had received a communication from the Governor, who had been instructed that he must accept unreservedly the advice of the Government. His Excellency had added that he would therefore waive his objections to the twelve fresh nominations.

Mr. Seddon took the Government's great victory with the best of good taste. He made no speech, and passed no comment, but simply, in a few words, communicated the Governor's message. The Conservative members had gathered round Mr. Rolleston, ready to enter upon a heated debate; but Mr. Seddon, page 169 having obtained his victory, was not anxious to rush into another discussion on the constitutional question, and he took the House on to the ordinary business of the session.

In the midst of the heaviest work, Mr. Ballance, who had been working day and night, and whose health had been going from bad to worse, suddenly broke down. He was compelled to relinquish a large portion of his duties. The serious nature of his ailment and the consequent prostration brought upon him, confined him closely to his room. It was thought that he would have to be taken to his home at Wanganui, but he was adverse from that, as he did not want to leave the parliamentary buildings with the session only about half through. His doctors, however, refused steadfastly to allow him to take any part in the debates or to enter the chamber.

Mr. Seddon took the lead of the House. At a meeting of the Cabinet on September 6th, 1891, he was appointed Acting-Premier, and for nearly a fortnight he led the House, until Mr. Ballance was sufficiently well to return to his seat. It is recorded in the newspapers of the day that he “quickly developed decision, courage, and conciliatory tact.” He gave the House a taste of his determination when he insisted upon it sitting all night in order to carry the Land Bill through committee, as he did not think that sufficient progress had been made; and in other ways he showed that he was alive to the responsibilities of the high position he had reached.

He did not neglect small things, and he did not forget that he was member for Westland as well as Acting-Premier. The parliamentary records bear ample testimony to the manner in which he attended to the needs of constituents, no matter how humble they may have been in social life.

Amongst measures that were not regarded as part of the Government's policy, he introduced a Boarding and Lodginghouses Bill, to place boarding-houses under control. He pointed out that the Government insisted upon proper sanitary arrangements being made in public institutions, but in the larger towns of the colony people were allowed to huddle and crowd together. The municipal law did not meet the case, and there was no power for any officer to insist upon an improved condition of affairs.

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Several proposals he made then have since been embodied in Acts of Parliament. He proposed that when any person was found suffering from an infectious disease in any boarding-house the case must be reported. The object was to prevent the spread of a disease before it had gone beyond the control of the authorities. The Public Health Act had already made provisions in that direction, but they were not adequate. His Bill was based on several old ordinances, which had been in operation in Otago and Southland. It was also proposed to license all boarding-houses and charge a small annual fee. This measure, however, did not get past its second reading.

The Government was not content with the mere vindication of its action in regard to the Legislative Council. The result of the controversy over the appointments seems to have fairly frightened the Council. It dropped its aggressive tone at once, and endeavoured to cloak much of its opposition to the important reforms the Lower Chamber sent up for its consideration. It was less contemptuous in its method of dealing with the measures. It professed to treat the desires of the Government and of a majority of the House with respect. At the same time, it mutilated the Government's measures so badly that they had to be thrown to one side, or were accepted as representing only instalments of reforms.

Its actions confirmed the Liberals in their opinion that new blood was needed in the Council, and that as labour had sent its own representatives to the House of Representatives, it was entitled to have representatives from its ranks in the other branch of the Legislative.

The Government left no room for doubt as to its intentions. In less than a month after the receipt of the message from the Secretary of State, twelve new members were appointed. This was a guarantee to the country that Ministers would not heed those who wished the party to halt in its march; it showed that they would listen to no remonstrances against their new reforms.

The most interesting aspect of the Government's action was the appointment of four labour members to the Council, who were included in the twelve. One was a foreman printer in a page 171 newspaper office, another was a compositor in the Government Printing Office, Wellington, the third was a boiler-maker, and the fourth was a storeman. All were men who possessed the confidence of their fellow-workers, and all had taken a prominent part in discussing or preparing labour measures which had been placed before the House or were in contemplation.

Their appointment was a handsome acknowledgment by the Liberal Government that labour had a right to be represented in all branches of the Legislature. It is one of the triumphs of labour, and it cemented the bond between the Liberal Party and the Labour Party. At this distance from the scene of the inauguration of the Liberal-Labour Union, and after many years' experience, it can be said with safety that the selection of these labour members of the Legislative Council was a very wise one. They have proved themselves to be practical men of sound common-sense, with progressive ideas, and with capabilities that have enabled them to give valuable assistance in the work of revision, which is supposed to be the Upper Chamber's special function.