Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter XX. — The Humanist

page 327

Chapter XX.
The Humanist.

The process of evolution did not stop at imperialism. Passing on to still greater things, he became a humanist, eager to do something for humanity's sake.

“All legislation which I have brought to bear upon the human side of life is the legislation which counts most with me,” he said to a newspaper interviewer once; “there is much talk of men being Radicals, Conservatives, Socialists, and Liberals. I am none of these. I am a humanist. I desire to improve the conditions of the people, to inspire them with hope, to provide for their comfort, and to improve them socially, morally, and politically.”* The humanity stage came last of all, and if he had lived longer he would have done more in the humanitarian field of work.

It was an open secret among his friends that of all the measures he brought into operation, he took most pleasure and pride in the Old Age Pensions scheme. He fought for it as he never fought for anything else in his life. He rightly looked upon it as his greatest achievement. The sending of the contingents, the annexation of territory, the saving of the Bank of New Zealand, Premiers' Conferences, reciprocal treaties, and preferential tariffs, all fell back in his estimation behind his Old Age Pensions scheme. “If I succeed in passing an Act that guarantees a pension to the deserving aged poor,” he said to himself some years after he became Premier, “I shall be doing a really great action.”

There are members of Parliament who tell the wonderful story how he sat in the chair at the table of the House for page 328 eighty-seven hours to get the Bill through committee. “I doubt if I could bear the strain again,” he remarked to a friend six years afterwards; “a man does not want to do that more than once or twice in a lifetime.”

A short sketch has been given in a previous chapter of Sir Harry Atkinson's scheme of annuities. The proposal came from Canon Blakely, who took an absorbing interest in the subject, and wrote many newspaper articles showing that legislative action was feasible as well as desirable. Sir Harry was a humanist himself. He was thoroughly in earnest in all his attempts to improve the people's conditions; but he lacked a great deal that Mr. Seddon possessed, and failed to carry his proposals to the last stages. His scheme was supported in a dreamy manner by the country when he “stumped” the electorates with it in 1882, but he found that Parliament would not have it, and he allowed it to drop quietly out of politics. He had several conversations on the subject at the time with Mr. Seddon, who told him that a scheme involving compulsory contributions must fail in any country except Germany, where a standing army could enforce the payments. Mr. Seddon always believed that an Old Age Pensions scheme based on compulsory contributions was unworkable in a British country; the majority of the working-men, even in New Zealand, where wages were high, could not afford to pay. It was against the principle of compulsory contributions that he fought the hardest fights with members of the House, several of whom insisted upon having compulsory contributions or nothing. He did not believe it possible for the ordinary working-man, who maintains a family, pays rent, settles his accounts, and sends his children to school until they have passed the Sixth Standard, to pay insurance premiums or make other provision for old age.

He believed that the theoretical part of an Old Age Pensions scheme had been fully dealt with. There was nothing for him to do in that field. But there was great work to be done in devising a practical scheme, which would be applicable to the needs and circumstances of New Zealand. That was where his mission lay, and he took up the task carefully, thoughtfully, unflinchingly, and cheerfully.

page 329

He believed that it was in him to grapple with the subject, to overcome the difficulties, and be successful. Looking backward, he remembered that the colony had not hesitated to pledge itself to the extent of a million and a half sterling in order to give cheap money to the settlers. It had not hesitated to commit itself to a direct liability of two millions and a half, and also a contingent liability, at the time of the banking crisis. Early in the colony's history, its war with the Maori race cost between ten and eleven millions, and the people bore that burden also without demur. In these circumstances, he had no doubt that it would accept his new scheme, and pay the money that would help to make the lives of the destitute poor less miserable.

He had another way of looking at the question. The money borrowed for advancing to settlers, the fifteen millions spent on building railways, and the large sums expended on other public works, had benefited chiefly the land owners and the well-to-do classes, while it was the masses who supplied the money to pay the interest on these sums and the sinking funds. The colony had been committed to large liabilities for public works, and it did not seem to him unreasonable to ask the colony, in the hey-day of its prosperity, to commit itself to the payment of a sum of money that would give an annual pension to insure old colonists against pressing want.

At the time of the Maori war, the colony passed a Military Claims and Land Settlements Act, giving land-grants to those who fought in the war, although they may have been engaged in it for only a few months. To attract military men, land-grants were given to them if they would come and settle in the colony, even if they took no part in the war, and many old soldiers came from India and England and other countries in the Empire, and settled under those conditions. He pointed out that that was really a system of pensions, which sometimes proved to be very valuable ones, and he used the regulations under the Act as further arguments in favour of granting pensions to old people.

He knew that the difficulties which had surrounded Old Age Pensions schemes in the Old Country did not exist in New page 330 Zealand. A careful study showed him that he was in an entirely different position from that in which other British statesmen stood when they were appalled with the mass of obstruction before them and were afraid to take one step forward.

He startled Parliament towards the end of the session of 1896 by introducing, without warning, an Old Age Pensions Bill. The country had taken very little interest in the matter; no one, apparently, had demanded it; and no member of the House seemed to know that the Premier's thoughts were running in that direction. The Bill was crude. He had not worked out the details, and had no fixed opinion in regard to some of the minor provisions. What he had made up his mind to adhere to was that everybody should contribute to the scheme, and that it should be a State concern from beginning to end. He did not say that it was right that the wealthy should pay for the pensions of the poor; but he argued that those who had acquired wealth should not have pensions, as there would be no necessity for them to fall back upon a State institution for assistance. He proposed that every person over 65 years of age, whose income, other than from personal exertion, was less than £52 a year, should receive 10s. a week. He placed great faith in that 10s. a week. He believed that it would turn the course of many men's lives, as it would give them something to look forward to, and would let them know that the State would not forsake them in their old age. It was to be some kind of a temperance reform, to save men from taking to drink in their despair, and it was to keep them out of the refuges and gaols. He roughly estimated the cost at £250,000 a year.

A general election was quite close when he introduced the Bill, and his opponents accused him of trying to catch the popular vote by holding out a benefit which he never intended to confer. The hasty manner in which the Bill was drawn up gave colour to this, and they said: “You are not in earnest; we shall hear no more of this after the general election.” To this and other criticisms he replied: “You will see.”

Very few members, however, were courageous enough to vote against the second reading of the Bill, which was carried page 331 by a large majority. In committee, however, the opposition to the proposal was shown by the number and nature of the amendments moved. An opinion was held by many members that the pensions should apply to all persons, without reservation in regard to income or property. Mr. Seddon said that it was quite hopeless to expect the colony to find a sufficient sum to meet the demands of a scheme of that extent, and he withdrew the Bill rather than agree to the extension of the scope. His intention at that time was to find funds to pay the pensions out of a graduated stamp tax, a mortgage tax, a ticket-tax on entertainments, and a totalisator tax, but the means from those sources were limited, and would not allow him to go as far as the House desired. The Bill was withdrawn, but his object had been gained. He had ascertained that an Old Age Pensions scheme of some form was acceptable, and he was encouraged by many offers of help to turn out of the legislative machine a really practical and workable measure.

At the general election of 1896 the principle was much discussed, and was generally approved, but there were still many different opinions as to details. In the session of 1897 Mr. Seddon's Bill appeared again. It was more workable and practical now. Steps had been taken to find approximately how many persons came under the scheme. Applications for registration had been invited, and it was found that 8000 claims were admitted. Mr. Seddon realised then that 10s. a week would be too heavy a drain on the colony's resources, and he brought down the pension from £26 to £18 a year, or 7s. a week, all persons whose ascertained wealth exceeded £36 a year to be excluded. On a basis of £18 a year, he felt that he had reached a sound finance, and that there need be no anxiety on that score. He retained the age and property restrictions, and he estimated that there would be 10,000 claimants, so that £180,000 would have to be provided.

He had changed his mind in regard to the method of establishing a fund. He discarded the idea of special taxation, and now said that the whole of the money would have to come out of the Consolidated Fund, the colony's general account. At that time £300,000 was being taken from the fund for public page 332 works, which in Australia, and previously in New Zealand, were constructed out of borrowed moneys. He pointed out that that drain on the fund could be reduced, if necessary, in order to have sufficient money to pay the pensions. There were other ways of reducing the colony's general expenses if the worst came to the worst, and he hinted pointedly that there were some high salaries in the Civil Service that could come down before the old age pensioners were made to suffer.

He had another object in taking the money out of the Consolidated Fund. He believed that it would insure the scheme for all time, as the pensions would rank as one of the first claims on the fund, in the same way as the capitation under the Education Act and other charges, and the money to pay the pensions would always be available. He argued that if he fixed any particular tax upon specific items to meet the expenditure, he would be face to face with the fact that those who paid the particular tax would become the enemies of the scheme, and might ultimately wreck it. Another argument that weighed with him in placing the burden on the colony's general funds was that the pensioners would be able to say that they were not dependent upon the land owners, or people who attended entertainments, or anyone else. They would have contributed their share to the Consolidated Fund, and it was out of the Consolidated Fund that they should be given their pensions. In going through the goldfields he often met with old miners who would rather die in poverty than accept charitable aid donations, which they considered degrading. His pension scheme would enable them to take money from the State without compunction, as it would be given as a right. He emphasised that point persistently, saying repeatedly that his scheme contained no element of charity.

The principal objections against the Bill were that the people would not be satisfied with the restricted pensions Mr. Seddon proposed to give; they would demand an increase in the sum, and a reduction in the age limit; a popular chamber would be unable to resist the pressure, and the cost of the scheme would be enormously increased in a few years, when the colony might not be so well able to pay; the population of the colony page 333 was only 800,000, and it was hardly able to take up such a tremendous burden; it would be a piece of heartless cruelty to pay the pensions for a few years and then withdraw them; the scheme was likely to discourage the thrifty and encourage the thriftless in their bad ways; it would speedily create an army of sturdy beggars; it offered no incentive to work, and men and women would just wait for the time when the pension would be due; it would detract from the self-reliant spirit that was necessary in the working classes; New Zealand might have the hollow honour of leading the English-speaking people in establishing Old Age Pensions, but it would be making itself a laughing-stock for the whole world; in any case, the scheme was only an extension of the charitable aid system, and there was nothing more demoralising than to encourage people to throw themselves on the State in their old age; they must be encouraged to practice thrift and self-reliance. The strongest attack against the scheme, however, was made on the ground that it did not provide for individual contributions, and did not apply to all aged people. Sir William Russell urged these points strongly, and he was well supported. “If we specially bring up our people to rely entirely on the State and thereby encourage pure Socialism, it will tend to destroy our civilisation,” he said, “while if we bring them up not to rely on the State, but on their own endeavours, it will advance our civilisation. I believe that the Socialistic methods now preached throughout the world will, if allowed to prevail, gradually destroy our civilisation.”

Again the Bill passed its second reading with a large majority; but in committee it had a stormy passage. There is probably no measure on the colony's Statute Book that has been so battered and torn. Eighty-nine amendments were moved, and 945 speeches were made, Mr. Seddon contributing 147. The House again decided that the pension should be granted to all old people. Mr. Seddon said that in that case he would again drop the Bill. Members, however, were in a very rebellious mood. In opposition to his wish, they said that the Bill should be gone on with, and one member offered to take the chair at the table and pilot the Bill through, as an affirmation page 334 of the principle that measures of that nature could be taken in hand by private members as well as by Ministers.

Mr. Seddon was so incensed at this that he adjourned the House for an afternoon, saying that he would have to consider the Government's position.

The Bill went to the Legislative Council; but there it met with determined and unveiled hostility. The Council decided that the scheme should be laid aside because no opportunity had been given to consider its scope and operation and its effect on existing benefit societies; its financial proposals were unsatisfactory; it was not based on carefully prepared estimates or actuarial calculations; it was practically a form of conditional relief, open to the risk of great injustice in administration, and should be considered with the whole question of charitable aid. The Bill was therefore dropped for that session.

Parliament, knowing Mr. Seddon's determination, was not surprised to see the Old Age Pensions Bill on the order-paper in 1898. It was his third and final attempt. There was another stormy passage in committee of the House. The opposition displayed by opponents was dogged and obstinate, but not as dogged and obstinate as Mr. Seddon himself. It was on this occasion that he had the great battle to fight. The House sat uninterruptedly in committee for nearly ninety hours, and more than 1,400 speeches were made.

Mr. Seddon's strength seemed almost to give way. For a long time, in the small hours of the morning, he would sit in the chair, with his head fallen forward and his arms crossed on his chest, more than half asleep, while the droning of a member's speech fell on his ears.

After one of those all-night sittings, the House presented a worn-out appearance. When members reassembled after breakfast, the floors were dusty and strewn with papers, as if a paper-chase had taken place around all the desks and had ended at the Premier's chair, where a snowdrift of paper had piled up. The chamber bore many signs of having been used as a dormitory during the night. Almost every bench had a ministerial grey blanket or an opposition or independent rug huddled into one corner, and cushions were lying about in confusion. Members were still to be seen endeavouring to snatch an hour's rest. page 335 Occasional remarks came from the recumbent figures, and the Chairman of Committees, in a loud voice, asked that members should not speak whilst lying down.

Opposition members moved many amendments that they never expected the House to take seriously. Sir William Russell took an active part in the proceedings. An amendment to exempt horse-trainers and jockeys from the provisions of the Bill gave him an opportunity to deal at length with the work, training, and responsibilities of jockeys. He described the methods adopted by jockeys to reduce their weight, the antics of a thorough-bred horse while being brushed down, and the dangers of a jockey's life. He spoke on the subject time after time, taking up the thread of the dissertation, until he exhausted all the information he possessed, and the committee, having negatived the amendment, went on to other clauses of the Bill.

Modified in scope and duration, but an Old Age Pensions scheme still, the measure passed through the House and on to the Legislative Council. The Speaker of the latter body ruled that it was a Money Bill; it could not be amended by the Council, and must be either accepted or rejected.

Mr. Seddon had strengthened his position in the Council by the appointment of new members. In any case, the Council hardly cared to flout him again. It accepted the Bill, which became law at the end of the year. He had done his duty to the deserving poor. The cause for which he had valiantly fought was the cause of humanity, and many thousands of people now look back with gratitude to what he has done for them.

Mr. Seddon rapidly prepared his machinery and regulations. Registrars were appointed, districts were proclaimed and gazetted, and claimants were invited to send in their applications without delay. By January, 1899, Magistrates were busy inquiring into thousands of claims, and by March the pensions were actually being paid.

The people took more interest in the measure after it was passed than they did in Mr. Seddon's strenuous efforts to get it through Parliament. The Magistrates' Courts presented strange sights, and were the scene of some striking incidents, when page 336 they were opened to the applicants. Mr. Reeves has given an interesting description of this in his “State Experiments.” He says:—

“One magistrate, who had 693 cases set down for inquiry before him, announced at the outset his intention of disposing of them at the rate of fifty per diem. Another, less energetic, was satisfied to take them in batches of twenty. The actual rate at which they were heard seems to have been about thirty a day. The courts, on the days of hearing, were an odd, and rather a touching, sight. The lame, the halt, and the blind were there in evidence. Here was some white-bearded pioneer, crippled with rheumatism contracted in the wet New Zealand bush; there, a luckless gold-seeker, maimed by some mining accident; or a seamstress, poverty-stricken through failure of her eyesight. On the whole, however, the old people seemed of good physique and well fed. Almost all looked decent folk; hardly any but were clean, fairly intelligent, and neatly clad. The comfortable appearance of many was explained by their being supported by the earnings of grown-up children. Others had sallied forth from State charitable institutions, called the Old Men's Homes. A number were still earning a wage, often small and precarious. Generally speaking, the applicants seem to have been frank enough about themselves. Some did not know their age, a difficulty which, however, was usually surmounted by a little patience and the examination of documentary evidence. Several candidly admitted the date of their birth, and retired silent and crestfallen on it being explained to them that they would have to wait a few months before reaching the legal age. One old fellow could not say how old he was, but was certain that his married daughter was fortyeight, and so on. The calculation of minute incomes produced some amusement. The proud and affluent possessor of £39 a year of his own retired only half satisfied with a certificate for a pension of £13, and almost envious of the entirely incomeless woman to whom the full pension of £18 was adjudged. Clergymen, former employers, and neighbours, were brought in as witnesses to character—policemen also, occasionally. The evidence of any neighbour or friend of good standing and repute was usually accepted as sufficient. The police, at first, watched the cases in Court, and, as a rule, their presence was enough to keep fraud in check. A significant feature was the tiny amount disclosed of dire and utter poverty relatively to the whole population of the colony. Poor people there were; but there was little trace of the sordid, dismal, social wreckage of the Old World—the rubbish and ‘tailings’ of urban society.”

Up to 1905, the full amount of pension paid was £18 a year, as Mr. Seddon proposed in his first complete Bill, but in the amending Bill of 1905, the sum was increased to £26, and the Act was widened in other directions. The pension is now paid to all men and women over 65 years of age who have resided in the colony continuously for 25 years before the date of application. There are several reservations in this respect, however, and occasional absence does not disqualify unless the page break
Mr. Seddon and General Booth in Wellington, in 1905 (with members of the Ministry and General Booth's staff).

Mr. Seddon and General Booth in Wellington, in 1905 (with members of the Ministry and General Booth's staff).

page break page 337 period is over three years. The claimant must not have been sent to gaol for four months during the twelve years preceding the date of application for a serious charge, “dishonouring him in the public estimation;” the desertion of wife or husband and of children is also a disqualification. The applicant must be of good moral character generally, and, for the five years immediately preceding the date of application, at any rate, must have been leading a sober and reputable life. At first no one with a yearly income of £52 could claim the pension, but the sum was altered in 1905 to £60. The joint income of husband and wife, including the pension, must not exceed £90, an increase of £12 on the sum originally fixed. The net capital value of the applicant's property must not amount to £260. The pension is diminished by £1 for every complete pound of income over £34, and by the same sum for every complete ten pounds' worth of net accumulated property. The pension is paid each month. Pensioners may be disqualified at any time by a Magistrate, who may order a pensioner to forfeit instalments of the pension in cases of drunkenness. The Maoris come into the scheme, but no aliens, Chinese, or other Asiatics can claim pensions. The total sum spent in pensions in 1906 was about £300,000. The ages of the pensioners range from 65 years to 104 years, and among them are between 600 and 700 Maoris.

At the time of his death, Mr. Seddon was engaged on a scheme of national annuities, which, no doubt, he would have carried through with the same determination that he brought to bear on his Old Age Pensions Act. Full details of his fresh project he did not make public, but the scheme may be stated briefly by saying that it embodied voluntary contributions subsidised by the State.

He proposed that, in order to receive an annuity in later years, any person, male or female, rich or poor, should be allowed to deposit with the Government any sum, paid in instalments, if desired, and the sum should be increased by the Government's subsidy. As soon as the deposit was completed, there would be an end to the liability of the depositor. Compound interest would accrue on both deposit and subsidy. The page 338 rate of the subsidy would vary according to circumstances. A poor man's deposit, he suggested, should be subsidised to the extent of 25 per cent., while the well-to-do would receive only 10 per cent. Between these extremes there would be a gradual scale. A further point he would have taken into consideration when deciding the rate of subsidy is the size of the depositor's family; the larger the family the larger would be the subsidy. Incidentally, he believed, that provision might help the solution of the birth-rate problem. Mr. Seddon gave an example of the operation of his scheme. “A young man of five-and-twenty, of the clerk or artizan class,” he said, “deposits, say, £10, either in a lump sum or in instalments, as he prefers. This, with the Government subsidy, and interest additions, is brought up to about £25, which will yield him at the age of sixty an annuity of ten shillings a week; that is if he marries and has an average family. If he has a large family the annuity will be greater owing to the increased amount of the subsidy. On the other hand, if he does not marry, or if he marries and is childless, the subsidy will be on a lower scale, and the annuity consequently smaller. Once he has paid his £10 he will have no further liability.”

In his scheme, a depositor might begin to draw his annuity, if he wanted to do so, at any time, not less than fifteen years from the date of completing his deposit, but, of course, in that case he would get a smaller amount than if he waited till he was sixty. If a husband, however, joined the fund, he would not be permitted to anticipate the annuity without the consent of his wife; and, similarly, a wife would be unable to do so without the consent of her husband. Special arrangements would have been made for people joining the fund when past the age of forty-five. Another feature of the proposal was a provision giving to the members of Friendly Societies subsidies in excess of the ordinary subsidies paid, and in some instances these subsidies would amount to as much as ninety per cent.

Mr. Seddon had the scheme examined by actuaries, and he was assured that it was workable and financially sound. He had no intention of abolishing the Old Age Pensions. page 339 It was his intention that the two systems should exist side by side, but he hoped that, though there would be an inevitable residuum of the thriftless, the pensioner would in time become practically absorbed in the annuitant. He desired that many young married people should take advantage of the scheme. What he really wanted was power to compel everybody to join in it in proportion to his or her means. The difficulty which confronted him was that English-speaking people would not tolerate compulsion. He intended to do the next best thing by persuading people to help themselves in spite of themselves. He did not believe that his scheme would cost the State any more money than it paid at present; he even hoped that it would bring about a saving. At present the Government subsidises charities to the extent of £100,000 a year, and he felt that when his annuity scheme was put into operation the bulk of that expenditure, as well as a great deal of the expenditure on Old Age Pensions, would be saved.

He believed that the scheme was practical and possible. “Strength and health,” he said in 1906, “may be left to look after themselves, but when years bring their burdens, the claims upon our human kindness increase. Old Age Pensions, we were told, when we introduced the Bill, would destroy thrift, encourage idleness and extravagance, and spell all sorts of social trouble. We forced this ‘humanity’ through Parliament; and who to-day, of all those who opposed it, would venture to declare against it on the hustings? Apprehensions of poverty in old age often darken advancing years, and we will next session try to institute a system of State annuities by which the Government will subsidise the thrift and savings of the people, to provide them with a comfortable income in their old age.”

It was his doctrine that the life, the health, the intelligence, and the morals of a nation counted for more than riches. He wanted to see his country free from want and squalor and the unemployed. That was to him a far better condition than if the colony became the home of multi-millionaires. He was striving to make “New Zealander” a title of honour to the bearer wherever he went. He thought that it ought to imply a type of manhood “strenous, independent, and humane.”

page 340

He was not a theorist, but a practical reformer. Unlike Sir George Grey, he took up no reform until he was prepared to apply it immediately. If it was not practical, and if the time was not ripe, he would lay it aside or wait. In the meanwhile he would not waste time and energy on it. He never expected to do things all at once, and was not disappointed when he failed. He would try again by-and-by, more strenuously. He was willing to take small profits and slow returns. He did not despise piecemeal methods. Short and steady stages were good enough for him. Slowly and surely he removed obstructions to the people's development, and offered facilities to bring about a better state of affairs. That was what he had in his mind when he talked of humanitarian legislation. It was that spirit which he endeavoured to infuse into all the progressive laws and State experiments tried by his Government. He liked to call those measures “Our Humanities.” He even had a classification for them, placing them in the following order:—


Humanity for the mother and the infant.


Humanity for the young.


Humanity for the worker.


Humanity for the old and feeble.

His memorandum on the preservation of child life, sent out to the people through the newspaper press in 1904, was widely read. In it he sketched many new departures and made many suggestions, some of which he saw embodied in laws before he passed away. His mind had been greatly exercised by the Report of a Royal Commissioner in New South Wales on the falling-off in the natural increase. He set his officers to collect information in New Zealand, and when the results of the inquiry were placed before him, he saw that the evil existed in his colony as well as in Australia, although not to the same extent. He was led to the conclusion that it was his duty to do something for the preservation of infant life. He was there to prevent sorrow and affliction as far as he could.

“Too much money is spent in coffins, headstones, and funeral expenses,” he said; “and it is pure hypocrisy to page 341 bewail the want of a proper natural increase unless we do something substantial in the way of saving the infant life that is born into the colony. I may be told that these things should be left entirely to the benevolent and philanthropie. Such objection may be applicable to older countries in certain cases; but we must deal with things as we find them. We have no leisured classes, and we have not many people of ample means. Therefore, ‘the responsibility of saving these valuable lives falls on the State. The necessity for action is admitted by all; and in these circumstances, at the risk of jibes and sneers from those who ever resist and oppose the expansion of State functions, humanity, in my opinion, demands that we should do something in the direction I have indicated, thus preserving life, increasing our population, and proving our claims to a higher civilization. This scheme, will, of course, meet with opposition, and some may be unkind enough to say that, if wanted before, it is a sure sign of impaired health now. Let them say what they like; my heart prompts me in my present proposal.”

The scheme he devised at the prompting of his heart is embodied in the Midwives Act, passed in 1904. Any woman is entitled to be registered under the Act on paying a fee and satisfying the registrar that she has been practising as a midwife for at least three years before the Act came into operation, and that she has a good character. At State-owned maternity homes, pupil-nurses may, on paying a fee, be carefully intructed in the duties required for attending to the welfare of mother and child. Instructions are given to the pupils by means of lectures outside of the hospital, and by midwifery work. There are regulations for the examination of the pupil-nurses; and every nurse who successfully passes the examination is given a certificate. The District Health Officer appointed under the Public Health Act is a supervising authority over the midwives in his district, and may investigate charges of negligence. A heavy fine may be imposed on anyone who practises as a midwife without having been registered.

The Act is the first of its kind the colony has put into operation, but Mr. Seddon intended that it should be but the page 342 first of a series of enactments on the same lines, designed to help mothers and infants. In going into the figures, he was shocked to learn that in one decade no fewer than 20,487 children under five years of age had died in the colony, and of that number as many as 15,767 died before reaching the age of one year. The argument upon which he placed most reliance in appealing to Parliament to pass the Bill was that when the colony lost its children it lost its population, and that the loss of the children, or the want of child-life, showed that the nation was decaying. It was stated that in establishing these maternity homes he was legislating almost solely for the working classes, but he denied that, and said that no woman need be ashamed to go into the homes, as the institutions would be able to command the very best medical and nursing skill that could be obtained in the colony.

There was a remarkable unanimity of opinion in favour of the Bill when it was submitted to the House for its second reading. Every member who spoke supported the principle. Several criticised the details, but not in a hostile spirit, and all showed that the Premier had entirely carried them with him in that “humanity.” Amidst hearty congratulations, Mr. Seddon started upon this part of his “humanity” scheme. It was essentially an auspicious beginning. No measure ever introduced into the House of Representatives was received with greater favour by all members. There was no tinge of party feeling in the discussion, which became a eulogium.

If Mr. Seddon had lived he would have seen other portions of his child-preservation scheme received with the same hearty good-will.

He was intensely fond of children. Nothing delighted him more than to be amongst them, to listen to their prattle, and to hear their voices raised in cheers when, at a visit from him during school hours, they were given a holiday to celebrate the occasion. He never ceased to look upon the children, apart from the charm of their years, as coming colonists, who would have to carry on the work he and other statesmen had taken in hand; and he felt that in putting his humanitarian policy into operation he was not only making the lives of those around him page 343 less hard to bear, but was also doing his best for the future happiness of New Zealand.

He noticed that amongst the poorly-housed working classes, when sickness overtakes young children, difficulty is experienced in getting them to the ordinary hospitals, and it often happens that medical aid is called in too late. To meet cases of this kind, he included in his preservation scheme foundling hospitals, the State providing the money for the erection of the buildings and the maintenance of the institutions, the management to be handed over to committees, trustees, or ladies, “who, I am sure, will take a delight in performing this humane and philanthropic work.”

He faced the risk of criticism when he affirmed that the State should provide nurses for the poor. He saw nothing revolutionary in this proposal. Indeed, it seemed to him to be quite natural. He said that the only direct return the masses received from the colony's general fund was in regard to free education. They supplied the lion's share of the nation's fund, and if the State gave nurses to the poor it would not do more than they might fairly claim.

To meet the demand for trained nurses in the colony, he urged that the Government should arrange with the trustees of the public hospitals to allow girls to be trained as nurses in the institutions, the State paying for the girls' board and lodging.

He was surprised when a clergyman told him that New Zealand was far behind other countries in regard to prevention of cruelty to children and in dealing with the neglect of parents in cases of sickness. Infant-nursing hospitals, on the lines of those established in the United Kingdom, were therefore included in his scheme.

It is only one step from infants' hospitals to day homes for infants, and he proposed that these also should be established, because they would be used largely by mothers who have to leave their homes to win their bread at charing, washing, and scrubbing. When they were away for a day or half a day, they could leave infants in the homes, where they would be attended to by the nurses and properly looked after until the mothers' return. To prevent the sacrifice of infant life on account of page 344 insurance, he proposed that no child under ten years should be insured for more than £5.

The measures described in these pages are only some of those that deal with the “humanities.” The humanitarian principle runs through many Acts passed by his Administration. It permeates the labour laws, the educational system, the land policy, and even the tariff. The long series of Acts stretching over fifteen or sixteen years of the colony's history is full of humanitarianism.

He once reviewed these “humanities,” and he was not afraid of ridicule by beginning with the Midwives Act. He saw the scheme embodied in this measure sufficiently far advanced to enable him to open a maternity home at Dunedin. “The silent martyrs of life,” he said on that occasion, “are the low-waged workers' wives, who keep the cradle full and bear the double burden of poverty and maternity. Can we not profitably lighten their cross and brighten their lives by this simple humanity? One great, large-hearted man in England declared that most of the children of the poor in that country were not so much born into life as damned into it; this reproach should have no truth in this prosperous land. The wages of the working classes seldom permit of comfort and skilled attendance. Feeling this, we have taken steps to establish maternity homes. My desire is that these homes will be available to all whose means will not permit of private comfort and skilled attendance. My earnest hope is that this ‘humanity’ may give the child a better chance of life and the mother a lighter burden to bear.”

page break
A cartoonist's representation of the joy in England when it was announced that Mr. Seddon would visit the Old Country.

A cartoonist's representation of the joy in England when it was announced that Mr. Seddon would visit the Old Country.

page break

* The Evening Post, Wellington, May 1st, 1906.