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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter III. — His First Session

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Chapter III.
His First Session.

The general election swept the country like a great storm, but it did not clear the atmosphere. Both parties claimed a victory. Each was sanguine that an actual trial of strength in Parliament would see it triumphant.

The card, however, could not be pricked with any degree of certainty. Many members had been returned on account of their personality; many others had been elected to secure for their districts as much money from the public treasury as possible.

These members cared less for the position of parties than for the welfare of their constituencies. Several of them had utterly failed to grasp the principles of party government. They would as soon follow one leader as another, as long as money was spent on roads and bridges and on other means of opening up the country.

The people as a whole were not acquainted with the subtleties of the party system, and some of their representatives, with a frank disregard for constitutional practice and political traditions, absolutely declined to play the game.

In regard to the leaders of parties, the Government was fortunate, but the Opposition was unfortunate.

All the members of the Government were returned. Sir William Fox, a leader of the Opposition, and the most prominent advocate of the temperance cause, had to meet the powerful influence of the liquor trade, and was defeated. Sir Frederick Whitaker also suffered defeat. On the other hand, the Opposition had gained greatly by the Selwyn electorate returning Sir John Hall, who had resigned his seat in the Legislative Council to take part in the contest.

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The attention of the whole colony was centred on the House of Representatives in Wellington. Its actions were watched by crowded galleries, and spectators looked down upon the contest with keen interest.

The Governor's Speech, echoing the Premier's platform utterances, expressed an earnest hope that the new Parliament would be distinguished for the enactment of measures that would promote the happiness and welfare of the people.

It was recognised that New Zealand had reached one of the most important epochs in its history, and that the future depended largely on the action of Parliament.

The Speech maintained that, in spite of the severe monetary pressure and commercial gloom which had prevailed throughout the world for some time, the position of the colony was thoroughly sound. It was announced that there would be submitted a Bill to amend the law relating to Parliamentary elections, in which the broad principle was affirmed that every man who pays taxes, and is otherwise affected by legislation, has a right to representation.

It was proposed to introduce a Bill to provide for representation on a population basis.

Among other measures briefly sketched in the Speech was a Bill to change quinquennial Parliaments to triennial Parliaments, which, it was urged, would make members more directly responsible to their constituents, and would secure to the electors the power of returning members so frequently that public opinion, which often in young countries takes a new direction owing to the rapidly varying circumstances of the communities, would be fairly represented in every phase which it might assume.

The Government believed that these three measures were strictly in accordance with the spirit of the people and with the advanced ideas that had been steadily gaining public favour, even before Sir George Grey began his famous campaign.

The Premier, using the Speech as a mouthpiece, expressed a belief that if those measures became law, there would be permanently established throughout the colony a feeling of general contentment. “The power of legislation,” the Speech page 36 said, “will then rest largely in the people's hands, and it is to be hoped that they will maintain within the colony's limits an equitable system of taxation, a just administration of public lands, and a sound system of local self-government.”

Another policy Bill was designed to suspend plurality of voting at elections of local governing bodies while those bodies were subsidised by the Government.

Sir John Hall, who had taken Sir William Fox's place as leader of the Opposition, came forward with a formidable regiment of members, and lost no time in beginning the attack. On the second business day of the session he gave notice that he would move a direct no-confidence motion as soon as the debate on the Address-in-Reply began.

Four days later the House was in the thick of the discussion. No sooner had the Address been moved and seconded than the Opposition leader rose and brought forth his charges.

His speech was moderate in tone. It was characterised by a spirit of fairness and even old-time chivalry. Many of his supporters, indeed, felt that he was far too gentle. They wanted to strike the Government with a mailed fist. He used a velvet glove. Their old leader was strong, virile, and personal in speech, and was wont to shower blow upon blow with staggering effect. Sir John Hall was courteous and kind.

His motion, however, was drafted very carefully. It left open the course of action the Opposition intended to pursue with all its might if it reached the ministerial benches. The words of the motion were: “Whilst we are prepared to give effect to the Liberal measures desired by the country, we feel bound to submit that the Government, as at present constituted, does not possess the confidence of this House.”

In other words, he asked that the Liberal Party should be thrust from office, and that the Conservative Party should be allowed to carry out the Liberal policy.

The charges consisted mainly of allegations of maladministration, notably the misuse of the telegraphic system and of the Government steamer “Hinemoa” for electioneering purposes. Sir John Hall had a “strong suspicion” that some Government telegrams had not been paid for, and he wanted page 37 information. Ministers had broken their promises. They had made many professions of economy, but had failed to give effect to them. So far from reducing the cost of the Civil Service, they had increased it. Native affairs had been bungled. There was a great deficit. The finances were in a deplorable condition. Newspapers favourable to the Government had received the lion's share of the Government's advertising. Civil servants had been treated arbitrarily. There had been neglect in public departments. The Premier had become an autocrat.

In his first session Mr. Seddon had an excellent opportunity for gaining an insight into the most approved methods of advancing upon a party in power; and there is no doubt that he treasured in his mind memories of those stirring times when he, as a soldier in the ranks, saw leaders of parties fight on the floor of the House, meeting move by move and attack by attack.

Fifteen columns of Hansard contain Sir George Grey's reply to his opponent's charges.

“You have accused me,” he said in tones that shook with passion. “I now accuse you. For years you have taken liberty from the people of New Zealand. You took from them their provincial institutions. You set up nothing of equal freedom in their place. You took from them their fair right of representation, so that in many places small numbers of electors, who are easily managed, could return members to Parliament. Under that system the Opposition and their friends acquired vast tracts of territory—tracts so large that if the whole of them was summed up together, honourable gentlemen would be astonished. In truth, there was growing up a system of landed magnates that prevails in Great Britain. It appeared inevitable that in a few years there would be a number of very rich men in New Zealand holding enormous properties which they really had no more right to than their fellowmen, and the great mass of people would be sunk in poverty. That is what we were rapidly coming to; and that is what we are determined to avoid. We are determined to return the benefits we have received from the country by doing a service to those amongst whom we have lived.

“We feel that we shall succeed, to some extent, at any rate. As long as we have that task before us we shall know no despair. No chill of despondency will come over us, because we are certain to achieve something. We know that it has taken many years to build up even the smallest portions of the edifice of freedom which the human race is trying to erect. Whatever the difficulties may be, we shall do something towards completing that edifice; something towards adding to its beauty; something towards making its proportions greater and better than they are. We care nothing for the taunts hurled against us; nothing for the puny and contemptible accusations that are made. We know that we shall succeed in laying here the foundations of a race which shall be in every respect a monument to the efforts of those who have striven to build it, which shall be as page 38 a light here, at the utmost limits of the known world, lighting up the dark regions which surround New Zealand and securing to them civilization and Christianity.

“Whether we are in office or out of office, we can pursue that course and do our duty by our neighbour and our fellowman. With that object before us, it is immaterial to us what position we hold. We shall hardly turn aside to notice the contemptible accusations made to try to darken our good fame. We seek something nobler, something greater; and we shall have this solace in old age, that we can look back on something accomplished here, upon abuses swept away, upon freedom secured, upon liberties gained for the people of New Zealand, upon a system of society which secures a home to all, and hope for all men in the country. Fortified by these thoughts and desires we shall walk calmly, quietly, and cheerfully on in the course upon which we have entered, no matter what position we may occupy.”

Mr. Seddon had not intended to take part in the debate. His desire was to watch and listen, and to express his opinion by his vote in the division lobby. He had been asked by the Government Whip to speak, but had absolutely declined to do so.

During the afternoon, however, he rose without premeditation to reply to a remark made by Mr. E. Masters, the member for Grey Valley, and caught the Speaker's eye.

His reasons for wishing to give a silent vote refute the charge that, even in the first days of his political life, he was carried away by a mania to unduly force himself to the front. Probably no young member of that House spoke for the first time with greater reluctance, with more modesty, and with less assurance.

“I declined to speak,” he said, “because there are grave and experienced men here who know more than I can pretend to know of the subject; and I am aware that it is the duty of the young members to act the part of jurymen, and to come to a decision on the arguments used by those who were here before them, and also on what has been said to the constituents at the late elections.”

He then apologised to those older politicians for his boldness in differing from them, and for his inexperience:

“I trust that, though I may differ from the experienced politicians in this House upon the great principles that have been engrossing the attention of the country, they will bear with me in the remarks I am about to make. I will not, like the honourable member for Auckland City East (Mr. W. J. Speight), say that page 39 I dare them afterwards to attack my remarks, for I feel that, owing to my inexperience, those remarks will be open to be assailed. But, Sir, with the experience I have had and the knowledge I have gleaned while serving in the position of a representative on local bodies, I shall try to convince some of those members who are on the Opposition benches that by adopting their present course they are not doing that which is right and good, and which will be beneficial to the colony at large.”

The next sentence was a justification of his action in taking to himself the right to advise members who, in his opinion, were being led in the wrong direction. Was he not a representative of a class of men who were the first in the colony to receive the right of manhood suffrage? Should not that responsibility alone give weight to what he had to say? Manhood suffrage, he explained with some pride, had been granted to the miners of the colony by the Miners' Representation Act of 1865, and he, being purely a miners' representative, represented that great privilege. He was responsible to a manhood suffrage constituency, responsible to 3,500 souls, and what was said by him and by the three other mining members from Hokitika and Greymouth should weigh well with members whose Parliamentary experience might be greater, but whose responsibilities were necessarily smaller.

Having made clear his right to be heard, he at once passed on to the no-confidence motion, supporting the Government and loudly and energetically stating its case:

“What is the position of affairs? When the motion was brought forward last session condemning the Government for maladministration, it was alleged that it had mismanaged the affairs of the country. What has been the response? How is it that you see so many members sitting on these benches? Simply because the voice of the people is with the Ministry. It is said that the only questions submitted to the country were those of manhood suffrage, triennial Parliaments, redistribution of seats, and other measures introduced by the Government; but I say more than that was submitted to the people. It was a question whether those principles having been enunciated by the Government, they were fit and proper persons to be entrusted with carrying them out. What has been the verdict in the large centres of population? In Christchurch we find Sir George Grey and Mr. Andrews, his supporter, returned. At Greymouth, also, the members were returned as pronounced Greyites. At Hokitika we find the same result. We go to Auckland, another large centre of population, and we find that the people there have also elected Greyites. The only centre that has declared against the Government is Dunedin; and the people there have declared against more than that.

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“I remember the days when the Victorian miners came and landed there in numbers—men who were prepared to ‘do or dee,’ as the saying is—men who were prepared to come there and develop their country for them, and make it such a country as it had never been before. These men were told by the old identities: ‘Gang awa’ out of this with your clout-houses; we dinna want you here, we dinna want you here.' If you take the aggregate number of votes that were recorded for candidates who declared themselves Greyites, and an aggregate number of votes polled for those who stood forward in opposition, you will find that we have polled throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand three votes to one.”

A few more sentences brought him to his favourite subject, the West Coast, its trials, sorrows, and grievances. He chose his words carefully and spoke with diffidence, “because it has been said of the West Coast members that they are accustomed to stand up and make long speeches with very little in them.”

He described the separation of Westland from the rich province of Canterbury. To his eyes, Canterbury was a Shylock, which insisted upon having its pound of flesh, so that the new County of Westland was so impoverished that it had no money with which to make its roads and bridges and other public works.

It was obvious that the speaker's chief object was to defend the Government, but he could not prevent his thoughts from running to the West Coast. He reverted to the no-confidence motion again and again, but only to glance off it and ventilate a miners' grievance.

Intermingled with short dissertations on triennial Parliaments, financial reforms, manhood suffrage, and the destiny of the young nation, there are frequent references to such prosaic matters as land surveys, sledge channels, tail-races, and waterraces.

In view of the radical changes made in the colony's land system by the Liberal Party when it ascended to power twelve years later, taking him with it, special interest attaches to the remarks he made in that first speech in the House on the land question.

An Irish member had referred to land tenure, and Mr. Seddon said:

“I have seen his fellow-countrymen who have left their homes standing on the wharves at Liverpool. I have seen old men and women bidding good-bye to their page 41 sons and daughters, and shedding tears as they parted from them when the young people were starting on their voyage to this country. Then the time comes when the sons and daughters send for their fathers and mothers to come out. Do those who spent their sixty or seventy years perhaps in the land of their birth tear themselves from it without feelings of regret? The last Sunday comes—they visit the graveyard where those who have been dear to them lie. They tear themselves away from all the old associations, and they come away to this new country. Do they come willingly? Is it of their own free will that they break asunder all these old ties? No; they are driven away. They are driven from their homes by the bad laws which oppress them. I hope honourable members will bear that in mind when they vote on this occasion, and I trust that in years to come we shall not, through their votes, see the same thing happen here. I fear me that if I were to arise from my grave some 50 or 100 years hence, I should find the people driven from our shores and going to Victoria and New South Wales, where they are legislating year by year against squatocracy.”

Occasionally lighter notes were struck. He took exception to the young Greyites being compared to greyhounds by Mr. A. Saunders, the member for Cheviot. “When I heard the honourable member make that remark,” he said, “I noticed a certain ‘doggedness’ in his style of speech that did not tend to raise him in my estimation. He will find that no matter whether the young members' colour is grey or anything else, there is a watchfulness about them. He said that the greyhounds were ‘running cunningly.’ I say whatever their running may be I hope it will be straight.”

“The honourable member for Cheviot tried to bounce the young recruits, or ‘greyhounds,”’ he said later on, when he had worked himself up to some heat; “but if he attempts to bounce me he will find that my motto is ‘no surrender.”’

In a single sentence he summed up the general policy to which he has clung throughout his public career and private life. “When once I take up a position I will fight it out to the last; I will never cry ‘Peccavi’; I will never ask for quarter.”

The debate was kept going vigorously for days. At last, when all that could possibly be said had been said, and charges and counter-charges had been reiterated, the House went to a division.

Almost every member was present and in his seat. No sooner had the doors been locked than the members moved towards the lobbies.

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Only four members remained in the body of the chamber. They were: Mr. Vincent Pyke, Mr. E. Hamlin, Sir F. Whitaker, and Te Wheoro, member for the Western Maori District. Mr. Pyke had taken no part in the debate. He had only that day arrived in Wellington from the south, and no one knew how his vote would go. In reply to an urgent telegram sent to him on his journey, he had stated: “I shall vote straight,” but as he did not explain under which leader his “straight” voting would carry him, his reply was taken as one of his jokes. Mr. Pyke was a “fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” and he seldom lost an opportunity of making a joke, especially a good one.

He stood in the gangway for a few minutes, apparently uncertain which door to take.

In the meantime Mr. Hamlin and Sir F. Whitaker were shepherding the Maori member on behalf of the Opposition. Te Wheoro probably took less interest in the proceedings than any other person present. He was lying back on his bench, fast asleep. It was only when the Speaker exclaimed in a loud voice: “The honourable member for the Western Maori District must vote,” that he was aroused from his slumbers. Rising sleepily to his feet, he moved leisurely to the Government lobby, where he was received with loud cheers.

A few minutes later Mr. Pyke, who was the last man to leave the Chamber, voted with the Opposition.

The division was so close that it was thought Mr. Pyke had decided the fate of the parties, or that there was a tie.

The galleries awaited the result breathlessly. They were not kept long in suspense. The real position was made known by an obliging member of the Opposition, who, holding up two fingers, triumphantly announced that his party had gained a victory by two votes.

Next day, the Liberal Party pointed out to its leader that the vote was against him, not them. They told him plainly that his overbearing actions had estranged members of the party, and that he was a stumbling-block in the way of the very reforms he had placed before the people.

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The old leader sorrowfully accepted the position. He himself put to the caucus the motion that deposed him; and he received at his own hands his dismissal from the party which he had created and which he had led to a glorious victory.

“I am now indeed an outcast among men,” he said, as he left his seat in the front benches.

The days that followed were anxious ones for both parties. They played with the items of the Liberal policy, quarrelled for possession of them, and, in their bitterness towards each other, nearly tore the measures to tatters.

Before his deposition from the ministerial benches, Sir George had prepared an elaborate Electoral Bill. It had been framed and revised, and set up in type in the Government Printing Office, but had not been printed. As soon as Sir John Hall took office he ordered a rough proof of this Bill to be brought to him. Attached to the proof there were some printed slips containing conflicting proposals, in regard to which the old Government had not been able to make up its mind. Sir John had determined that he would introduce this Electoral Bill, but, after consideration, he discarded the proof of his opponents' measure, and went back to the Bill which was passed by the House of Representatives in a previous session, and was withdrawn while going through the Legislative Council. This he took in hand, but altered to suit his views.

The first policy measure he introduced, however, was the Triennial Parliaments Bill. It was Sir George Grey's identical proposal. When the old man saw it placed on the table his imprisoned temper broke loose. He rose and in angry and haughty tones demanded to know by whose authority his measure had been brought up without his permission. His excited spleen, however, soon died down, and he bowed to the adverse circumstances that were bearing upon him.

Sir John Hall kept two portfolios open. These were dangled before prominent Liberals, and the air was thick with intrigues to induce members to desert their parties. Some of them stampeded from side to side of the House, as the session rolled and jolted uneasily along. Tamoana, a Maori member, was induced by promises to take Cabinet rank, but page 44 when he found that the promises were not likely to be fulfilled, he quickly resigned, and went back to the Liberal Party.

The Government sat insecurely on the benches, wavering between a minority of six and a majority of one. Ministers hardly dared to bluntly refuse a demand for a railway line, a bridge, or any small work, in case they should alienate support. One day each Auckland member received a telegram from his constituents advising him to sell himself to those who made the highest bid in the shape of public works. The telegrams were inspired from Wellington; but the Auckland members were all Greyites, and they declared indignantly that they would never budge from their allegiance to their party. Just as the division was impending, however, four of them agreed to desert their party and throw in their lot with the Conservative Ministry. They did this for the sake of what they could get for their districts. Sir John Hall, on his part, agreed to use the working majority their action gave him to pass several measures to which they were pledged. There was hot indignation in the Liberal Party, and no member condemned the renegades with more scorn than Mr. Seddon.

The Financial Statement was watched for eagerly. When it was placed before the House, it disclosed the fact that Sir Harry Atkinson, the Colonial Treasurer, anticipated a deficit at the end of the year of £550,000. To meet the position and to bring the finances up to a higher level, he advised the imposition of a property tax and the repeal of the income tax. He announced that, after careful consideration, he had come to the conclusion that Sir George Grey's income tax was not applicable to the colony's circumstances. He also asked that Parliament should allow the land tax to be merged into the new property tax, placing land in the same category as other property, and making it equally liable to general taxation, but not especially so. This was a polite demand for the total abolition of Sir George Grey's land tax. Sir Harry frankly admitted that that tax had been imposed for revenue purposes, to check the growth of landed estates, and to prevent land being held for speculative purposes. He endeavoured to justify its abolition by stating that there were page 45 about 26,000,000 acres of land for sale, and as the object the colony desired most was the settlement of the people on the land, it was unwise to impose a special burden for revenue purposes upon capital invested in land. As to the other reasons for a change, he asked what justice or wisdom there was in specially taxing the class whose growth was essential to the advancement of the colony in order to prevent the probable abuse of the acquisition of large estates by a few individuals. The Government therefore prepared to tax all the property, real and personal, each man possessed, excluding his income. The taxable property in the colony, after deducting exemption, was £113,200,000, and the estimated income from this property tax was £470,000. The Colonial Treasurer also proposed to increase the customs duties, and he threw out a hint that the duties could be increased on tea, sugar, and tobacco. His fiscal policy, in short, was almost a complete reversal of the policy with which Sir George Grey had gone to the country and which was proclaimed as the policy of the masses.

The new Government adroitly avoided a direct no-confidence vote, but its position was decidedly weak. It started at shadows and quaked at whispers. When the Premier or the Colonial Treasurer rose to state what the Ministry intended to do next month, or even next week, the announcement was received with laughter from both sides.

The House was so engrossed with the party struggle that it found little time to attend to the legislative work of the session. When it did get to work, it was ready to rush into a no-confidence debate at any minute, and to throw all other considerations aside. On several occasions its mind was so confused that it did not know where it stood. On November 7th it agreed that the franchise should be given to every woman who owned property in the colony. The following day it stood aghast at what it had done, and hastily reversed its decision, taking from women the privilege Parliament definitely made up its mind to give them without reservation fourteen years later. To the very last day of the session, the leaders were snapping and growling across the benches like angry wolves, and the session ended, as it had begun, in rancour and bitterness that page 46 had never been surpassed in the colony's politics before, and have never been equalled since.

Amidst all the clamour, however, important work had been done. Some of it was bad, but a great deal of it was good. In the first place Sir George Grey had the pleasure of seeing the Triennial Parliaments Act placed on the Statute Book, and the mortification of knowing that it was placed there by his opponents. It remains there still, and is regarded by the colony with satisfaction.

The Qualification of Electors Act placed on the Statute Book was not the measure Sir George Grey and some of his advanced supporters desired. They demanded the recognition of the one-man-one-vote principle. What they got was an Act setting forth two qualifications, “residential” and “freehold.” Under the former, a vote was given to every man who had resided in the colony for twelve months and in the district in which he voted for six months. Under the latter, every man who had a freehold property valued at £25 or over was granted the franchise. The Conservative Party looked upon the “freehold” qualification as a moderate recognition of the rights of property; the Liberal Party looked upon it as a great extension of the privileges of the propertied classes, as it gave the rich man power to vote in every district in which he liked to purchase £25 worth of freehold property.

The property tax, which was adopted, placed a burden of 1d. in the pound on the capital value of all assessed real and personal property, with an exemption up to £500. In after years it was execrated from end to end of the colony, and year after year, until it was repealed by the Liberal Party in 1891, it was the object of bitter attacks.

The session of 1879 is full of historical significance. It saw the end of the first break in the administration of the great Conservative Continuous Ministry, which governed this colony, with only two breaks, from 1870 to 1890. Five years later, the chain was broken again. Another five years had hardly passed before the famous Ministry was finally beaten out of office; and sixteen years after that, in 1905, the party page 47 which it represented, and which ruled New Zealand throughout the days of its political childhood, passed finally away.

The changes that led up to this complete overthrow are described in other chapters. It may be stated here that the party never acknowledged, and often repudiated, the name “conservative,” and it had some grounds for repudiation. Although it was often branded as non-progressive, it gave the colony several of its most liberal measures. A few of these, as in the session of 1879, it took from its opponents, but it cannot be denied that the party numbered among its members many men of progressive ideas, who had the welfare of the masses at heart.

Probably the most notable feature of this very notable session was the utter rout of the first Liberal Party in the very hour of its triumph. Sir George Grey organised the party and planned its policy; but his irascible temper and his tactless manner towards those who would gladly have served under him brought political ruin to himself and his party. He would not lead gently, and the party contained men whose sturdy spirits would brook no driving. As there was no one to take his place as leader, the Liberal Party collapsed and it stood by while its brilliant policy was used by opponents, to whom it had to concede at least half the credit for the good done by Parliament in 1879.

Another interesting feature of the session was the formation of a Young New Zealand Reform Party, to which Mr. Seddon belonged. One of its members, Mr. C. A. DeLautour, of Gisborne, has the party's minute book in his possession. The party, however, had a very short life, and the proceedings of only two meetings have been recorded. The platform comprises six rules, as follow:—


This party will support all objects of Liberal reform, to be agreed upon from time to time.


The party is called “The Young New Zealand Reform Party.”


The names af all parties desiring to join after the first enrolment shall be submitted upon their own application to the party; and, after notice given to each member of the intention on a given day to propose the name of the applicant at a meeting to be held on such day, he shall be admitted if the majority present approves of such admission, but not otherwise. Such decision shall be arrived at by ballot at the request of any three members present.

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For the purposes of the party there shall be a chairman, a secretary and a whip, to be appointed at the commencement of every session.


The party shall be subsidiary to the Liberal Colonial Party of the House and its leaders, and shall not assume the position of an independent party.


Analysis and review of Government measures and of departmental administration shall be divided among the members of the party according to the desires of members.

It was evidently intended to add other rules, but that was never done, and the last rule in the minute book breaks off with an unfinished sentence.

Twenty-two members of the House signed the roll of membership, which is as follows: Samuel P. Andrews, T. W. Hislop, Seymour Thorne George, William J. Speight, C. A. DeLautour, Jas. A. Tole, J. Bickerton Fisher, B. Harris, Richard John Seddon, Hugh J. Finn, W. Barron, Richard H. Reeves, Wiremu Te Wheoro, George Ireland, H. M. Tawhai, S. Shrimski, F. J. Moss, J. Lundon, E. Hamlin, Ihaia Tainui, R. C. Reid, and J. C. Brown. Mr. DeLautour was elected chairman, Mr. Lundon whip, and Mr. Hislop secretary.