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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter II. — Elected To The House Of Representatives

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Chapter II.
Elected To The House Of Representatives.

When Mr. Seddon first took an active part in Parliamentary work, the tumult of political strife resounded from every public platform in the colony.

Provincial government had been lately abolished. Party government had made its presence felt for the first time, and party lines were beginning to be clearly marked. Party feeling has never been more bitter.

It was a time of many changes. The country was bewildered at the rapidity with which moving tableaux were presented to its view, and it asked itself where its politicians were leading it. A Conservative Administration, crying aloud for political rest, had been driven from the treasury benches. An aged Premier, Grey by name and grey by years, had come from the seclusion of his beautiful island home at Kawau to offer the people their first Liberal policy. With silvery tongue and sweetly spoken words he asked them to enter upon a new era of legislative activity. He told them that they had a glorious future. He hailed them as the heralds of a greater nation than the world had yet seen. He appealed to fathers on account of their manhood, and to mothers on account of the millions yet unborn, and asked them to realise the splendid destiny that awaited them.

“Make homes for the millions,” he cried. “Give your women happy homes, and provide them with husbands who will help them to rear families in health and comfort. There should be a really temperate and happy population here. You must have good men with a stake in the country. You must have men who will be devoted to their country. You must turn New Zealand from a colony with a pauper population into one of the happiest countries in the world.”

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The old man's eloquence fired the imagination of the people, who were struck with profound veneration at the sight of the Great Pro-Consul descending from the towering heights of intellectual superiority to take part in the humdrum affairs of colonial life.

Things had gone very smoothly with the governing class until he came to preach the new crusade, and wherever he spoke he created a political disturbance.

He justified his appeals by devising a policy designed to bring about at least some of the great things he promised.

Although his words were sometimes meaningless, his policy was firm, straightforward, progressive and sound. He declared that the voice of the tax-gatherer should no longer be heard in the houses of the poor. His first measure, therefore, provided for a land tax; his second reduced the customs duties on the necessaries of life; and his third sought to tax the incomes of companies. That was the method by which he intended to make property bear a larger share of the burden of taxation, and to relieve the working classes. The land tax was one halfpenny in the pound on all land exceeding £500 in value; a customs reform measure abolished the duties on forty-three articles, reducing the duty on tea from 6d. to 4d., and on sugar from a penny to a half-penny; and companies were to pay a tax of 3d. in the pound on their incomes. By an Electoral Bill he proposed to give the country manhood suffrage. By a beer tax of 1 ½d. a gallon on beer, which was expected to yield £30,000 a year, he intended to amend his finances.

He took office in 1877, and met Parliament in the session of 1878 in a hopeful spirit. It was soon seen, however, that Sir George Grey in Parliament was a different Premier from Sir George Grey on the platform.

His Ministry was weak and disorganized. The policy was the policy of the Premier, not of the Government. The Premier said one thing, the Colonial Treasurer said another thing, and the Attorney-General said yet another thing. Nobody knew where the party was going.

It was weak when the session began; it grew weaker as the session advanced. Towards the end the Premier was facing a page 26 ministerial crisis. The Beer Tax Bill was strongly opposed. Some members of the Cabinet wished to resign because Parliament would not accept it. Others were for forcing the Bill through. It was clear that the House would not have the measure. It was equally clear that no Government which ever took office could go to the country on a Beer Bill and retain its dignity. The measure was therefore withdrawn. Then the Premier petulantly demanded that the Governor should disallow the Electoral Bill because the Legislative Council refused to give the franchise to his beloved Maoris, and that measure was not placed on the Statute Book.

There was much thoughtless action. There were altercations inside the Cabinet, and only half hidden dissensions amongst Ministers in the House. The distracting session came to an end at last, but the Government's difficulties did not disappear with the departure of members from Wellington, and family quarrels became more public, more frequent, and more bitter.

Early in 1879, members of the Opposition were already negotiating for seats in the new Conservative Ministry, which they evidently expected to form shortly after Parliament met again. Sir George Whitmore, a member of the Ministry, was astonished one day when, at a meeting of the Cabinet, there was placed in his hands the following telegram, addressed to him and signed by a leading member of the Opposition, a resident of Christchurch:—

Thanks for telegram, just received. Concur as to Grey's objects. Confident such Ministry would not be supported by either House or country.

The Minister, puzzled beyond measure at the extraordinary message, which was signed by one of his strongest political opponents, believed that a veiled attempt was being made to induce him to desert his party.

Inquiries showed that the telegram should have gone to Mr. Waterhouse, a member of the Opposition in Wellington, who had telegraphed to his Christchurch colleague stating that a ministerial crisis was imminent, that there was little likelihood of a compromise, and that the Premier wished to compel his Ministers to resign in order that he might form a Ministry page 27 entirely subservient to him. The telegraph operator in Christ-church made the signature “Whithouse” instead of “Water-house,” and the over-eager member of the Opposition in Christchurch read it as “Whitmore,” and sent the reply to the wrong man.

The incident shows the eagerness of the Government's opponents to see it fall, and the confidence with which they relied upon getting into office.

Clearly, everything was ready for the Government's defeat. The Conservative Party seemed to be dying of old age just before Sir George Grey came to disturb its slumbers. When he sent it from the treasury benches, the shock and the surprise roused it into activity, and it came forward armed cap-a-pie, with more vigour and more stomach for fighting. Obviously, there was little chance of the Liberal Premier holding his position. His autocratic temperament estranged even his devoted followers. His quarrelsome moods became unbearable. He quarrelled with his enemies; he quarrelled with his friends. The only people he did not quarrel with were the public and the Maoris, both of whom he treated like children.

Difficulties crowded in. The Government had taken office in a year of plenty, when the finances were sound, the revenue was increasing, and the colony's progress was marked by a notable extension of the export trade. After less than two years of office, the Government had to face serious embarrassments. The colony was overtaken by a commercial depression, which came up suddenly like a summer storm. It could not have come at a more critical time. The land revenue, upon which the Colonial Treasurer had largely depended, fell off. The colony's finances were depressed. Unemployed gathered in the streets and abused the Government. Trouble arose with Tawhiao, the Maori King, and with Te Whiti, the Maori prophet.

When Parliament met in 1879 the Government's supporters were grumbling that they were not in the Government's confidence, and the Opposition was sure of victory. The Government brought down its policy again, improved, extended, and more progressive than ever. Sir George Grey believed that even if Parliament did not want the reforms he page 28 advocated, they were more than acceptable to the country. It was in the time of quinquennial Parliaments, and he accused the Parliament to which he submitted his proposals, and which had existed for over three years, of having lived too long. What he needed, he said, was a new Parliament as well as a new policy.

A no-confidence motion, criticising his administration, but not his policy, was carried by a majority of fourteen. Obtaining a dissolution he went to the country, and preparations were made on both sides for a severe and bitter struggle.

For the first time the old Conservative party met organised opponents. Sir George Grey, in spite of his years, displayed extraordinary vigour. He flew from centre to centre, organising, advising, and exhorting. His voice was heard in all his opponents' strongholds. Carrying the war into their camp, he contested the Christchurch seat as well as his old seat at the Thames.

The hot blood of action surged through his veins, and his heart throbbed with the great joy of battle. He felt that he had put on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation, and that he would defeat his enemies and lead the people into the pleasant places of political reform he saw in his dreams.

He spoke of a great nation that would arise in the South Pacific. He drew upon the learning of his cultured intellect, and quoted Cicero's orations and Pliny's letters as embellishments to his addresses. Wherever he went he had the same cry: “Education for your youths, manhood suffrage, equality of rank, and the earth for men and men's children.” The interest he had aroused a few years previously when he stepped from his romantic retirement into the centre of the colony's politics induced large numbers of new men to turn aside from their vocations and enter the field of strife.

Among these was Mr. Seddon. He was one of Sir George Grey's most ardent admirers from the first. In 1876, he had offered himself as a Liberal candidate for Hokitika. The other candidates were Messrs. R. C. Reid, P. Dungan, E. Barff, and C. E. Button. Two members were required, and Messrs. Barff and Button were successful. In 1877 Mr. Button resigned, and Mr. Seddon took page 29 a prominent part in securing the return of Mr. Seymour Thorne George, a nephew of Sir George Grey. Mr. Thorne George decided to contest the Rodney constituency in 1879, and this left the Hokitika seat vacant as far as a recognised follower of Sir George Grey was concerned. Mr. Seddon was chairman of the Kumara Liberal Committee, which was divided over the choice of a candidate, and, to settle the difference, he asked the Liberal chief what course should be taken. To the surprise of all members of the Committee, including Mr. Seddon himself, the reply was: “You are worthy; stand yourself.” The invitation was accepted, and Mr. Seddon was announced as one of the Liberal candidates.

The electoral district included Kumara as well as Hokitika, and was large and unwieldy. In one respect, however, it possessed few of the distracting difficulties that often beset Parliamentary candidates. The miners' vote was the principal one, and the mining industry was practically the only one that had to be considered.

The names of the candidates as they appeared on the ballot paper were:—

They were all classed as “Greyhounds,” as Sir George Grey's young followers were called, except Mr. Barff, who was a sitting member and a follower of Sir Harry Atkinson. He was an experienced miners' representative, but a ponderous speaker. It is said by those who heard him that he “was sometimes so prosy as to be a weariness to the flesh.” Mr. Cumming was an Irishman, with all the brightness and gaiety generally associated with men of his country. Mr. Dungan, another Irishman, was “a good fellow, a genial man, and a miner.” Mr. Reid was a popular and influential journalist.

Feeling in favour of Sir George Grey was so strong in the district that there was little hope of the Conservative candidate securing a leading place. The people generally favoured the page 30 “Greyhounds.” All of these ran the same course; but, to distinguish himself from the others, Mr. Seddon called them Liberal “Greyhounds” and himself a Radical “Greyhound.” It is certain that of all the young candidates who entered the field in 1879, there was none more eager than he to rush headlong into reform.

The contest was more personal than political. The records of the election, which no one then regarded as of special historical interest, show that no candidate worked harder than Mr. Seddon. He had made up his mind to win the seat, and he set all his tireless energy and determination to break down the obstacles that presented themselves on the threshold of his Parliamentary life. One of those who saw him just before the election says that “day and night he was unwearied and unceasing in his efforts to draw his friends closer and placate his opponents.”

On nomination day a message was telegraphed to the leading newspapers of the colony stating that “Mr. Seddon is strong in Kumara; according to all accounts, he is a clever man, with immense energy, and any amount of push.” Another West Coast newspaper correspondent wrote: “It is to be hoped, for the sake of the occupants of the ministerial benches, that he will not succeed; if he does succeed, he will be a terror to them.”

Apparently Mr. Reid was the most popular candidate; but as polling day drew near Mr. Seddon forced himself forward, and those who were in the best position to judge recognised that the winning “ticket” was either “Reid and Seddon” or “Seddon and Reid.”

Mr. Seddon's first political speech, delivered in the Duke of Edinburgh Theatre, Hokitika, was a clear, plain, sensible, and vigorous statement of the policy which he had adopted, and which he followed with striking consistency throughout his Parliamentary life. Although he had already made a reputation for long speeches, on this occasion, when he might have been pardoned for over-stepping the mark, he kept well within the hour.

“I am not a stranger among you,” he began, “neither do I come without credentials.” Whether he was regarded as a page 31 Radical or a Liberal, he desired that the electors should judge him according to the opinions he would express. He would bear allegiance to Sir George Grey, who, to his mind, “was the only statesman in New Zealand fit to lead.” The speech, read at the close of his life, affords proof of his consistency and steadiness of purpose. He never ceased to advocate what he advocated then; the same speech might be safely put into his mouth at almost any part of his career. Manhood suffrage, fair taxation, reform of the Legislative Council, a good system of local self-government, the settlement of the land, the policy of the large landowners, and the restriction of Chinese immigration were some of the headings he had written in the notes to which he referred as he went along. He described the manhood suffrage movement as striking terror into the hearts of the Conservatives. He naively referred to miners as the most intelligent class of constituents, and solemnly declared, amid the applause of his audience, that he would rather be judged by a mining constituency than by any other body of men. His midnight study of Blue Books helped him in his treatment of the financial position.

“I ask,” he said, “if this country is in a sound financial position? Six million pounds a year are required to carry on the government, and eight million pounds are imported from the Old Country. New South Wales, with a population of 650,000, owes £12,000.000; Victoria, with 860,000 people, owes £20,000,000; New Zealand, with only 440,000 people, owes £21,000,000; and the £5,000,000 about to be borrowed will make £26,000,000. The public debt amounts to £20 per head of population in New South Wales, to £23 in Victoria, and to no less than £62 10s. in New Zealand. I maintain that this colony has been pursuing an unsound policy. Something ought to be done to check the quantities of imported goods, and to foster local industries. With that object in view, it will be better for the people to pay a little more for a year or two. The sum of over £1,000,000 has been paid for locomotives that might have been made in the colony. Whatever our liabilities are, however, we, as good men and true, will have to meet them.”

He had a rough-and-ready, but characteristically practical, solution of the native difficulty, which was then a source of much anxiety:

“The colony, instead of importing Gatling guns with which to fight the Maoris, should wage war with locomotives. Perhaps, on account of my inexperience, I take a superficial view of the native difficulty; but I firmly believe that an outbreak of hostilities among the Maoris cannot be stopped in a better page 32 way than by pushing through the country first roads and then railways. It must be remembered that we cannot judge the Maoris by our own standards. They are aboriginals, and we can hardly take extreme measures against them. They have been treated with toleration, but even now they do not understand our laws. Successive Governments have shown a want of firmness in dealing with these people. There should be no competition in native lands. Roads and railways are being extended through those lands by means of moneys borrowed on account of taxes paid by white people, and the Government should have the right to purchase land on both sides of roads and railways.”

Then, as later, he stood firmly against Chinese immigration.

“I do not think that the Chinese are desirable colonists. They are a nuisance in California, Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. There has been restriction on their immigration into those places, and New Zealand, unless she wishes her shores to be deluged by Asiatic Tartars, must follow suit. I would sooner address white men than these Chinese; you can't talk to them; you can't reason with them. All you can get from them is: ‘No savvy.’ The Chinese in San Francisco are entering into competition with women as well as men. There are Chinese cooks, Chinese washerwomen, Chinese everything: they are a hard pill to swallow.”

He declared for liberal land laws, and against “land-grabbers,” whose methods of securing large blocks of land he described graphically and humorously.

Speaking of local works, he said it was necessary to construct a railway which would unite the east and west coasts of the South Island. “In all human probability,” he asserted somewhat boldly, considering the position of settlement, “the line will pay as well as any other in New Zealand.” A burst of applause encouraged him to go further, and in the next breath he affirmed his belief that if he was elected he could prove that the work would be highly profitable. The vigour and determination in his tones showed that he would be willing to prove anything which might help the West Coast to a larger share of public money.

As the miners' champion, he denounced the gold duty as particularly obnoxious. The digger, whose average earnings were £2 a week, was taxed more heavily than any other member of the community, and the duty, he said, ought to be swept away.

He concluded his speech by saying that he was in favour of secular education, although, he thought, “the Government page break page break
Mr. Seddon in 1879, when he first entered the House of Representatives.

Mr. Seddon in 1879, when he first entered the House of Representatives.

page 33 should provide only elementary education, not Latin, French, and music.”

It is on record in the local newspapers, which, like other institutions, were then in their days of small things, that the speech was followed by “loud and prolonged applause.” After the candidate had replied to a number of questions, some of them intended to be of a facetious character, a motion that Mr. Seddon was a “fit and proper person to represent Hokitika” was carried almost unanimously.

Mr. Seddon probably never worked harder in his life than he did on that eventful polling-day in September, 1879. All day long he drove a trap between Kumara and Hokitika, the principal centres of the electorate. Some of his old constituents maintain that he did not simply drive, but “drove furiously.” At any rate, he must have taken large numbers of voters to the poll by his own efforts. His friends were in good force, also, and gave him the assistance he needed. Wherever there was a vote to be obtained, he was there, and he accepted absolutely no excuse for any supporter of his not going to the poll.

The result was announced as follows:—

Reid 917
Seddon 800
Dungan 561
Barff 463
Cumming 90

Messrs. Reid and Seddon were declared elected, and the junior member for Hokitika was one of the happiest and proudest men in New Zealand.