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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter IV. — The Continuous Ministry Again

page 49

Chapter IV.
The Continuous Ministry Again.

Although Sir John Hall had taken the leadership of the House, the policy-maker of the Conservative Party was the hard-working, capable, and practical Colonial Treasurer, Sir Harry Atkinson. Sir John Hall's work was done in his office. He tied himself to his table in the Premier's room. He worked there day in and day out until he went a long way towards working himself into his grave. He was able to stand the strain upon his strength for only two years and six months. In 1882 he resigned from office, but not from the House. He was succeeded in the Premiership by Sir Frederick Whitaker, who soon gave place to Sir Harry Atkinson, the real leader of the party and the backbone of the Continuous Ministry.

After the harassing session of 1879 had come to an end, Sir Harry, as Colonial Treasurer, bravely faced the deplorable financial position. His path was strewn with difficulties. The clouds had lifted in some directions, but they had settled down in others more heavily than ever. Sir George Grey handed him a deficit of £800,000. In his first year he increased it to nearly £1,000,000. That sum was wiped entirely away by a fresh loan. In 1881 the deficit was very small, and in 1882 he boasted of a surplus of £200,000. In 1883 he had a deficit of £35,000; in 1884, a deficit of £150,000. He had to add to his deficits a shaky credit on the London money market, low prices for produce, and discontent throughout the country.

The causes that led up to the position are found earlier in the colony's history than the years of the Hall-Whitaker-Atkinson Administration. The financial troubles of those days were mainly the direct result of a great Public Works Policy inaugurated by Sir Julius Vogel in 1870 and put into operation page 50 in 1872. When Sir Julius was at the height of his reputation as the most brilliant Colonial Treasurer of the Southern Hemisphere, he told the colonists that their needs were roads, railways, and immigrants. The colonists had no hesitation in accepting the note he struck as a true one. The country was badly roaded; the railway lines covered less than fifty miles. It was almost impossible for large numbers of settlers to get their produce to markets, and quantities of it were thrown away.

The people was fascinated with Vogel's vivid pictures of the things that would be done when capital and population flowed into the country. Parliament authorised the flotation in London of a loan of ten million pounds and the sale of two and a half million acres of land for carrying out public works and assisting immigrants. The money was borrowed, the immigrants came, and the public debt rose rapidly from seven millions to twenty millions.

There was frantic speculation in land. Values rose to absurd figures, which, in many cases, would not be realised now, twenty-five years later. Money was spent with a reckless hand. The colony bounded ahead with breathless speed; but the furious march was checked, and the colonists, who had spent their days in prosperity and had come to be in want, were staggered at the suddenness of the stoppage, which jolted all industries, and left many of them complete wrecks.

Every winter saw a fresh outbreak of the unemployed agitation. Men who were not loafers, and who were capable of doing a good day's work, begged the Government to afford them relief. Hardly a public meeting of any kind was held without some reference being made to the depression. It was the general topic of conversation. It made its presence felt at all times and in all places. Trade became utterly stagnant. Employers dismissed their workers, factories ceased to operate, farmers turned away their “hands.” The reports of the proceedings in the Law Courts show that each winter there was an extraordinary growth of wife desertion cases and other crimes that arise from extreme poverty.

In the centres of population leading citizens were forced to take active steps to relieve pronounced cases of destitution. page 51 Relief depôts, controlled by Citizens' Committees, were established, and there butchers sent surplus meat, while other tradesmen contributed groceries, drapery, and coal. To afford immediate relief, some of the depôts were converted into “Soup Kitchens,” and hot soup, bread, oatmeal, and potatoes were given out to the destitute poor. Many of them were Vogel's state-aided immigrants. They were strangers in a strange land, and had come out on his glowing representations, hoping to find in the new country a means of making an independence for themselves and their families.

Unemployed met in the streets every day. These meetings were often organized by agitators, but there was a serious tone in the motions passed, and generally reason in the demands made. A manifesto issued in Christchurch declared: “We want work, not soup.” Large bodies of immigrants said that as the Government had brought them to the colony the Government must send them back, or enable them to go to some other country where work was available.

As the outcome of one of these meetings, a petition was sent to the President of the United States asking the States Government to help the poor of New Zealand by giving them facilities to reach America. “If this petition fails in its object,” it was stated, “it will at any rate be a standing record against legislators who have brought this colony into such a deplorable condition.”

In response to repeated appeals, the Government gave employment on public works. It offered single men 3s. 6d. a day, and married men 1s. a day extra, the Government to sell a day's food to each man for 1s. 3d. This attempt to solve the unemployed problem was not popular. Public and private speculation on anything like a large scale ceased. Men were afraid to invest capital in enterprise. Harvest time was looked forward to anxiously, as the effects of a bad harvest were felt far and near. Even when Nature gave bountifully, commercial, industrial, and social depression was still very marked.

People began to practice economy with a rigour that had never been equalled in the colony before. In one year the Customs duties on the necessaries of life fell off by ten per page 52 cent., and deposits in the Savings Bank decreased by £75,000. There was a panic in the land. The public had absolutely no confidence in itself. It was rapidly declining into a miserable, pitiable, and contemptible condition of hypochondriacal nervous debility. The more it dwelt upon its complaints the worse it became, and a speculator was regarded as a madman rushing upon destruction. When national bankruptcy and repudiation were suggested, the public, thoroughly alarmed, turned round savagely upon the tactless person who had expressed in words a thought that evidently found a place in many minds.

At that time colonisation was carried on by a partnership. The colonists put into the affair their experience and their unbounded energy, but they had very little capital, most of which was supplied by the sleeping partner, the English moneylender, who charged interest ranging from four to ten per cent., according to the risk. It was the sleeping partner who took most of the profits, and there was a continual dread that he might refuse to continue operations or to grant more supplies. Sir Harry Atkinson's problem was to decrease his expenditure on the one hand, and to increase his taxation on the other, and also to avoid frightening the sleeping partner.

The position was a troublesome one for any Ministry; it was a dangerous one for a Ministry that was out of touch with the masses; but Sir Harry, who did not know what fear was, showed no hesitation. The property tax yieided him a handsome revenue. By adopting a scheme suggested by Mr. Alfred Saunders, he made a uniform reduction of ten per cent. in all Civil Servants' salaries, saving £100,000 a year. The consternation created in the Civil Service spread much further when the Government suddenly and without warning, in the middle of the grain season, increased the railway freights.

This action was the signal for a great outburst of indignation from Canterbury. The southern provinces immediately jumped to the conclusion that the Government intended to make them bear an unfair proportion of the burden of taxation. The policy proved to be a very unwise one for the Government, as it brought the southern members into close unity against it. Canterbury's woes drew Canterbury's members together, and all party feelings page 53 were sunk in the desire to defeat the Government that was attempting to milk the “Milch Cow” dry.

Against this adverse movement, however, Sir Harry had the satisfaction of seeing the split in the Liberal Party grow wider. Sir George Grey's temper did not improve with years. He became more irascible, more obstinate, more capricious, more intolerant of the demands and opinions of his followers.

Almost imperceptibly he began to lean towards the very Government which he had previously denounced without stint, and to carry the few who still clung to him away from the bulk of the party of which he had once been the recognised chief. He rose in the House on one occasion and stated that while he had to thank the Conservative Government for its courtesy towards him, he was under no obligation to that side of the House to which he had a right to look for support.

Following his opponent's successful tactics, Sir Harry toured the colony, speaking at the centres of population, and holding out to the people hopes for better times when the depression should have passed away. As he was never a good platform speaker, however, he failed to arouse any enthusiasm, and his effort probably did his cause more harm than good.

He placed before the people a scheme for national annuities. It was not received with much favour, and never went beyond a motion in the House of Eepresentatives. He saw in the scheme an antidote against poverty. He could get very few other people to take the same view. As a means of dealing with the unemployed difficulty the proposal was ridiculed by all parties. His suggestion was that every person should pay into a great fund, and that all should have a right to draw from it. He believed that in this way he would be able to provide against destitution without demoralising the people. Every single person between eighteen and sixty-five years of age was to receive 15s. a week sick pay, every married man 22s. 6d., every married woman 7s. 6d. The superannuation allowance was to be 10s. a week for every person from the age of sixty-five to the date of death. Every widow with one child was to receive 15s. a week, but the scale was to increase as far as 30s a week, in accordance with the size of the family, and the payment was to page 54 be reduced as each child reached the age of fifteen. The contributions were to be compulsory, and were to be collected by staffs of inspectors and other officers.

Mr. W. Rolleston, Minister for Lands, was more successful. He gave the colony a liberal and progressive Land Act, which ranks as the best piece of legislation of its kind at that time in the Australasian colonies.

Sir George Grey also made a grand tour, following closely upon Sir Harry Atkinson's heels; but the Liberal leader's “mana” was gone. People listened to him with patience, but not with the spirit he had aroused when he offered them his Liberal Policy. They only stared when he thundered forth his magnificent phrases. His words, once accepted as those of a great reformer, now created alarm. His own people accused him openly of misrepresenting material facts and misquoting important figures. They said that he deliberately schemed to estrange the artizans of the towns from the rest of the community and to throw classes into angry estrangement. “You can always claim our friendship,” he was told, “but you shall never again command our confidence as a leader.”

The split in the Liberal Party threw party politics into ridiculous confusion. There were three solid parties. One followed the Government, another constituted the main Opposition, under Mr. W. Montgomery, and the third, a Middle Opposition Party, was led by Grey. Each was in a minority, and none could work effectively without assistance from one of the others. As nothing would induce the two Opposition parties to come together, the Government held office by the will of its opponents and on account of dissensions in their camp. In the first session of 1884, however, the Opposition went sufficiently far into a compromise as to agree to force the Government to a dissolution, with the hope that the country itself would break the deadlock, and, by readjusting things, make a change which would place a fairly strong Government in power.

Probably the change would have been very slight had not another element, which placed quite a different complexion on the position, and entirely altered the course of history, entered page 55 into the political life of the colony. Sir Julius Vogel, who had resided in England for about nine years, returned to engineer an electric light and power company. He came as a private citizen, and announced that he intended to give himself up to business pursuits, and would have nothing to do with politics. During his absence, the cloud that hung over him on account of his extravagant ways and the effect of his Public Works Policy had been dispersed. He was now received by the colonists with joy. Disparagement was turned to adulation. They said that he was the man for the hour, the real leader of the Liberal Party, the one strong man who would stand against the Continuous Premier and remove him from power.

He was entertained at public banquets at Dunedin and Wellington. Demonstrations were held “in order that the public might show its deep sense and high appreciation of the many valuable services rendered by Sir Julius Vogel to New Zealand, and express its admiration for his great talents and ability.”

Sir Robert Stout, whom business affairs had forced back into private life, but who had also made up his mind to enter politics again, advised Sir Julius to stand for one of the constituencies that were freely placed at his disposal. Following the advice of his friends, Sir Julius stood for Christchurch North at the general election held soon after the dissolution. He had an easy victory, and at once stepped into the leadership of practically the whole of the members from the south, and a few progressive men from the north.

His genial presence gave politics a hopefulness and a firmness that they had sadly lacked for many years. He had lost none of his optimistic dreams. His cry was still “more railways, more immigrants, more capital.” He chided the colonists for their gloomy forebodings and their faintheartedness. Pointing out where new industries might be started, he urged them on to private enterprise. “Howling about your poverty and your helplessness,” he said, “is the very last thing you should do.” The people began to think that after all they had been very foolish in heeding the dictates of their despairing hearts; and when he held up to them the glorious examples page 56 of pioneer colonists, who had overcome almost insuperable difficulties, they felt ashamed of their weakness. Looking around for someone to blame, they fell upon Sir George Grey, whose croakings about the depression, they said, had added to their miseries.

Throughout the whole of the South Island, Sir Julius Vogel's popularity increased as rapidly as Sir George Grey's decreased, until the spendthrift Treasurer became the idol of the southern provinces. The general election sent him to the House with thirty-three staunch followers and Sir George Grey with five. Sir Harry Atkinson had thirty-two, and Mr. Montgomery twelve, while there were seven independent Opposition members. The Government, in short, had thirty-two followers, the combined forces of the real Opposition numbered fifty-two, and Sir George Grey's party had almost collapsed.

As soon as members assembled in Wellington for the session, a solid Opposition was formed. Sir Robert Stout and Messrs. Ballance, Montgomery, and Macandrew, all strong men, helped Sir Julius Vogel to draw up a scheme for a new Ministry. They offered Sir George Grey a seat in it. The old leader, however, could not overcome his dislike to the new leader, and not only refused the offer, but cut himself off from the party by entering into direct communication with Sir Harry Atkinson. Sir Robert Stout and Mr. Montgomery waited upon him at his residence and asked him to give them help. Merely saying that he would consider the matter, he turned and walked out of the room. Next day, when a deputation waited upon him and asked him to accept a portfolio, he flatly refused to be a member of a Ministry in which Sir Robert Stout was Premier and in which Sir Julius Vogel held any office whatever. He told Stout that in making an alliance with Vogel, he had done a wrong to the party with which he had been associated.

Vogel's infirmities would not allow him to take the Premiership, which therefore fell to Stout, with Vogel as Colonial Treasurer and Ballance as Native Minister and Minister for Lands. It was not a workers' Government, but it was a Government of hard workers, and it lost no time in settling down to the task it had taken in hand. It seemed that the ideal strong page 57 Government had been obtained for the colony at last, and that everything would run smoothly again, without the turmoil of party troubles.

The Colonial Treasurer began to prepare another brilliant Public Works Policy, the Premier hinted that sweeping reforms would be placed before the House, the Minister for Lands busied himself with a scheme of land settlement that would give homes to large numbers of people, and would lead to a great revival of settlement and of the agricultural industry.

The new Government's bright prospects were freely commented upon, and congratulations poured in upon it from all parts of the colony. Nobody dreamt for a moment that New Zealand was approaching an extraordinary series of events, and that party lines would be obliterated and parties themselves thrown into a state of confusion which is probably unrivalled in the history of party government.

A few hours after Ministers had taken their seats on the treasury benches, Mr. J. W. Thomson, a private member from Clutha, moved a vote of want of confidence. He was a personal friend of most members of the Ministry, and had fought side by side with Sir Robert Stout on several occasions. To the surprise of the Government, the vote went against it, and six strong men, with the country behind them, were turned from office before they had time to formulate a policy or announce definitely what they intended to do. This result is largely attributable to Sir George Grey. He joined Sir Harry Atkinson in making an active canvass against the new Government. Many members who had been inclined to support the Stout-Vogel combination and had voted it into office were alarmed by Grey's conversations and his predictions that the brilliant Sir Julius would initiate another extravagant Public Works Policy, more elaborate than the one of 1870, and certain to bring greater disaster on the colony.

Having been sent for by the Governor, Mr. Thomson made several attempts to form a Ministry. He went from Grey to Atkinson and back again to Grey, but without avail, and finally relinquished the attempt. Sir George, having had the task placed in his hands, consulted every leading member of page 58 the House except Vogel. He exhausted all possible combinations of parties and leaders. He went as far as to suggest that parties should meet at a common conference and take a ballot for members of a new Government, to be supported by all. As for himself, he expressed his willingness to waive any claim to place he might be allowed to possess if the combined forces would help him to carry the measures he had at heart. Canterbury members still marched together as a solid and powerful phalanx. Sir George besought them to follow him as they had in former days; but they, still looking to their new leader, turned their backs on the veteran, and he, beaten at every point, reluctantly told the Governor that he could not form a Ministry.

It was now Atkinson's turn again. He was sent for on the advice of Grey, who had lost none of his deep and angry feeling towards Vogel. Atkinson, who had played a waiting game, thought that his opportunity had come; but while he was asking the Governor to give him time to arrange a Ministry, members were declaring that if the no-confidence motion in the Stout-Vogel Government could be moved afresh, it would not be carried. Some members felt that the motion should be rescinded and the Government reinstated.

Another suggestion, which seemed to meet with a good deal of acceptance, was that all the strong men of the House should be brought together and be asked to form themselves into a Ministry, Grey, Stout, Vogel, Atkinson, Ballance, and Montgomery walking six abreast at the head of a mighty array, with one thought, one purpose, one grand object in view. This idea captivated poetical minds, but it was quickly discarded on account of its thorough impracticability.

Besides personal feeling among the leaders of the different parties, there was much provincial jealousy. Auckland and Taranaki would not pull with Otago and Canterbury. Therefore, Grey and Atkinson, from the North, would not pull with Stout and Vogel, from the South. Dunedin idolised Vogel; Wellington hated him and all his works. Nearly the whole of the North Island stood for the old Continuous Ministry; page 59 nearly the whole of the South Island for the new order of things represented by the Stout-Vogel combination. A meeting of Canterbury members unanimously decided to vote as one man against any Ministry whatever of which Vogel was not a member. It was largely a question of the North versus the South, and feeling ran so high that the South began to consider whether it would not be better to separate and let each island attend to its own domestic affairs.

While these wranglings were taking place, and the business of the colony was brought to a standstill, Mr. Seddon came into greater prominence than he had yet achieved. Rising in the middle of one of the party quarrels that were of daily occurrence, he made a speech which found an echo in every centre of population. It was telegraphed in full to the newspapers, and was commended for its practical common sense, and the desire it displayed on the part of the speaker to get on with the work Parliament was supposed to be attending to. Remarking that he had a right to let the people of the colony know the true position, so that they might fairly judge those whom they had sent to represent them, he detailed the history of the previous few months, but he made no further apology beyond saying that “this is a time for plain speaking, and I am going to speak plainly to-day.” He was surprised at Sir George Grey's actions, he said, and he could not understand how that statesman regarded it as his duty to help in unseating those who were endeavouring to do good to the country. He wanted to know why men who had worked with Sir George and for him should be turned off the treasury benches before they were able to say what schemes they had devised to chase away the bad times that had overtaken the colony. The father of the property tax, the head and front of the Continuous Ministry, and the man who was supposed to be robbing the “unborn millions” of their birthrights, was now to be supported by the very statesman who had denounced him. Mr. Seddon added that the whole proceeding struck him as being exceedingly inconsistent, and it would require a great deal of explanation to make him see it in a different light. It was a “lamentable state of affairs,” and a “sorry spectacle.” The session had made absolutely no page 60 progress, he concluded, and the pleasant pastime of “cabinet-making” would have to be brought to an end.

The speech had a powerful effect both in the House and among the electors. It was accepted as an exposure of the absurdity of Parliament giving up session after session to intrigue and conspiracy when the colony's affairs were waiting to be set in order. It was the first time that a member had come forward to show the country the comic-opera character of the proceedings and the great burlesque that was being acted. There is no doubt that Sir George Grey brought Mr. Seddon's attack upon him. This was recognised by many Liberals, who endorsed Mr. Seddon's opinion.

Having succeeded in forming a Ministry, Sir Harry Atkinson found himself again in office, with a minority behind him, and formidable opponents in front. The list of his Ministers affords a good illustration of the looseness of party ties in those days, and the freedom with which members went from one party to another without hesitation, and, apparently, without any qualms of political conscience. Mr. E. Wakefield had been a noted man on account of his uncompromising opposition to Atkinson's policy from beginning to end. He was elected for the Selwyn electorate, in Canterbury, for the sole purpose of helping to oust the Continuous Ministry. He told the electors that the Atkinson Government had departed from the traditions of its good friend, Sir John Hall, and that it was his privilege to ask the people to support him in order to turn the Ministry out of office. He redeemed his election pledges by making quite the best attack upon the Atkinson Government in the session of 1883. He followed this by posing as one of Vogel's most extravagant eulogists; and he expressed an ardent wish to sit on the benches with Vogel. Instead of doing that he secured a seat in the new Ministry, and sat side by side with Atkinson, taking part in his counsels and fighting his battles.

The confusion of parties, in fact, led to many anomalies in politics. Some of them have continued to this day. Most members followed leaders, not political principles. They dropped on to one side or the other, and from one side to the other, without regard to Conservatism or Liberalism. A road, a page 61 bridge, or a short railway line often made all the difference. There was no great sacrifice of principle in this action, as in every Ministry that has ruled the colony from the time it was granted responsible government there has been a strange mixture of the two great political principles that generally divide parties in the Old Country. There always have been Liberals and Conservatives on both sides.

If things had been arranged with any degree of fitness, Vogel and Atkinson would have been together, Grey and Stout, Ballance and Rolleston. As a matter of fact, Atkinson made a distinct offer that he and another member to be named by him, should join the Stout-Vogel combination. There were several negotiations in reference to a coalition, but they all fell through, as Atkinson's party insisted upon having a majority in the Cabinet, and most of Atkinson's followers were opposed to the reforms Stout considered necessary.

Even if the Stout-Atkinson coalition could have been put into practice, there was the difficulty of filling the Premiership. Would it be taken by Atkinson, Stout, or Vogel? And would the followers of all three be led by any one of the trio? It was suggested by Atkinson that this difficulty might be overcome by appointing to the Premiership a member of the Legislative Council who was of a neutral tint and had no particular political leanings at all. In that case, he said, there could be no heart-burnings; but this scheme also fell to the ground, and the Continuous Ministry was left to take its chances against the full force of the opposition from the South Island, which still insisted that it would have none but Stout and Vogel.

A few days later, Sir George Grey's little party met and decided to vote solidly against the Continuous Ministry. When the next no-confidence motion was moved, therefore, all Grey's supporters, together with their leader, were arrayed in opposition to the men they had first ousted and then helped into office. By this time the House had come to the conclusion that it had played long enough at seating and unseating Ministries. It declared that the Continuous Ministry would have to stand down, for a time at any rate, and Sir Harry Atkinson retired page 62 into opposition with a majority of eight against him, and with a deficit of £150,000 in the public accounts.

In great good humour with itself, the House settled down to the real business of the session. It worked unreasonable hours, introduced many new Bills, appointed committees, asked for innumerable returns, produced a bulky Statute Book, and closed the session with the second break in the chain of the Continuous Ministry.