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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter V. — Days of Parochialism

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Chapter V.
Days of Parochialism.

While these events were taking place, Mr. Seddon's influence in Parliament was growing, and he was working hard, keeping his duty to his constituents before him and helping to bring about general reforms.

It was not long before he made a reputation for himself as a speech-maker and a “stonewaller.” In his second session, it was told as a joke how he had nearly killed Hansard, which it was proposed to abolish on the score of economy. There was no closure then, and the only breaks on talkative members were the ordinary rules of Parliamentary debate. Mr. Seddon looked upon Hansard as a useful and necessary publication; but he occupied so much time in saying so that he brought it into a critical position, many members using his speech in support of the contention that the record of speeches was more bulky than useful. After pointing out that members' speeches for the session had monopolised 52 yards of Hansard, at a cost of £2,000, he continued to speak for four hours, and when the humorists measured his space, they found that it was eight yards long, and the cost was £300.

His most notable “stonewalling” tacties were adopted in 1881, when Sir John Hall introduced the Representation Act which was passed in that year. It was one of a series of measures devised by the Continuous Ministry. It was deemed necessary on account of the uneven growth of population in the colony, and it brought about a redistribution of seats. Mr. Seddon and several other members, however, looked upon it as a dangerous measure, as it gave more power to property and less to the people. He felt that the measure would give the wealthy classes an overwhelming majority of votes. To his eyes, the Bill was a piece of rank Conservatism page 64 when it ought to have been a most Liberal measure. It considerably reduced the representation of the West Coast, together with that of Nelson and other outlying districts, and Mr. Seddon was up in arms against it.

He and other members, mostly from the West Coast and Nelson, gathered together and determined to block the Bill as far as the rules of debate would allow. They were led by the Hon. A. Pitt, one of Nelson's members, and now, in 1906, a member of the Ministry. They held a caucus, drew up a plan of campaign, and, as soon as the Bill went into committee, began their obstructive tactics. They were so successful that they “held up” the House for 48 hours. During that time it sat continuously to discuss the Bill, which, however, made absolutely no progress. Twenty-three motions to report progress were made and defeated. The Government announced that it would take no other business until the Bill was out of the way, and many important measures were kept waiting. One of the obstructionists, finding his ideas running short, delivered a splendid speech on the colony's fauna and flora, with which he was well acquainted. Another fell back upon apiaries and foul-brood among bees. Each man took his particular hobby for his text, and it is not surprising that Mr. Seddon found an unlimited source of inspiration in the West Coast and its people. He knew them all. Using the electoral roll of the district as a chart, he brought the electors individually under the notice of the House. He commenced with the letter “A,” and reached the end of “K,” before he sat down.

The chairman of committees, utterly worn out, irritated beyond endurance, and convinced that the limits had been reached, refused to accept any more motions to report progress or that he should leave the chair.

Mr. W. Gisborne, the member for Totara, amidst cheers and some excited “hear, hears,” immediately rose and moved that progress should be reported. He brought himself into conflict with the chair in order that the Speaker's ruling might be obtained on the chairman's decision. An excited discussion took place, and resulted in Mr. Gisborne being reprimanded by the Speaker and fined £20, but the incident broke down the page 65 most famous “stonewall” of the New Zealand Parliament, and the Bill went through all its stages without further opposition. The fine, it may be stated, was paid by the people of Nelson.

Mr. Seddon endeavoured to have inserted in the Bill clauses abolishing the freehold qualification at the election of members of Parliament, and affirming the one-man-one-vote principle, but he was defeated, in the first case by 31 votes and in the second by 10.

He searched for something useful to do, and for abuses to be stopped. In all his actions in this direction, however, he was cautious and far-seeing. He had no wild schemes of regenerating mankind. His reforms were practical, and mostly affected conditions that came under his own notice. Neither ridicule nor abuse deterred him from his purpose, and if he failed to gain his object one year, he was more persistent in his search after it the next year. Patience and labour were his watchwords in those early days of his career. The West Coast and its requirements continued to occupy most of his attention. That part of his career is marked by motions, questions, and applications for a post office, a bridge, or some other public work. In later years he looked back, with some degree of surprise at his own patience, to the time when he struggled for Westland's needs against his fellow members and obdurate Ministers. In every way he showed that he was an ideal member for the constituency he represented; and his healthy, happy optimism made him the very man for work in the Parliament of a young country.

Outside of the demands of the West Coast, he busied himself mostly with local government and with legislation that directly affected the special interests he represented. Reports of his speeches covering more than the first twelve years of his Parliamentary life may be searched without the discovery of any trace of the great imperialistic sentiments he expressed in later years. The humanitarian spirit, however, is always present.

The unemployed found in him a practical friend. He often expressed a dread that the conditions from which he had fled in England would be brought into the new land. He was strangely page 66 impressed with the fact that the mechanics he met when he first came to this part of the world were more robust than those he had known in England, and were, apparently, quite a different class of men. He saw that the working classes were rapidly developing an independent spirit, and were asserting themselves with an insistence that was likely to be a very important factor in the colony's future. Up to 1890, neither the artizans nor the lower working classes were represented in New Zealand's Parliament as a section of the population that should be treated with special consideration. There were in the House of Representatives men like Mr. Seddon, who had worked hard with their hands. Sir Harry Atkinson once stated that he had considered himself passing rich when his wages were 4s. 6d. a day, and other members boasted of their exploits in driving teams of bullocks, building their own houses, and erecting fences on their own properties; but these members had other interests than those of labour to attend to. Many of them, indeed, were antagonistic to the demands of labour, and turned a deaf ear to supplications for assistance from those who had come to the colony at the invitation of the State and found that there was no work for them to do.

From the beginning, Mr. Seddon looked forward hopefully to the time when the working classes would have their own representatives, and not rely on men who gave them only a small share of attention. He was convinced that they did not possess as much representation as they were entitled to, and to that defect in the Legislature he attributed the absence of measures that would alleviate distress and make life in lower grades more worth living. He took every occasion to champion the interests of the railway servants, who were the principal sufferers of Atkinson's retrenchment policy.

To school teachers he was a good friend and protector. He spoke in indignant tones of the treatment given to them. Even then he had in his mind the teachers' superannuation scheme he was able to put into operation in 1905. A remark made in the House turned his attention to the teachers' position, and he was surprised to learn in 1883 that the colony possessed no fewer than 1,227 competent teachers who received less than £100 page 67 a year. It was a disgrace and a blot on the educational system, he said, and he wanted to know how it had come about and why it was not wiped away.

Much of his spare time was devoted to studying local government; and the Stout-Vogel coalition found in him a valuable assistant when it took the subject into consideration and revolutionized the colony's system. In 1884 he seized upon the unsatisfactory position of the people in regard to public auctions, and submitted a Bill to Parliament to deal with auctioneers, providing for the rendering of account sales, when required, to persons interested in auctions, and for the issuing of auctioneers' licenses. At that time auction sales might be held at any time of the day or night, but this Bill provided, in the interest of producers, that no sales should be held at night except stock sales which could not be finished in the day time. For seven years he appeared before the House with his Bill, and finally induced Parliament to pass it soon after he entered Mr. Ballance's Ministry. Under it the license fees go to local bodies; night auctions, except in connection with cattle sales, are prohibited; pawnbrokers are not allowed to hold auctioneers' licenses; and in order to protect the public against fraud, account sales must be rendered within fourteen days.

The first Bill he introduced into Parliament was one of the measures he had devised to relieve the miners of the heavy burdens under which they laboured. His proposal was to abolish the gold duty. The speech he made in support of this Bill had been very carefully prepared. He pointed out in the first place that the West Coast up to that time had exported large quantities of gold. As it was purely a goldfields district the inhabitants had to import all their goods; and seeing that the miners had to pay heavy duties on those goods, he contended that, with the gold duty, the West Coast people paid more to the revenue than was fair.

He contended that the miners of the colony had not received justice at the hands of the Legislature. The population of the Coast was 13,000; but not more than 4,000 were actually engaged in working on the goldfields. If the same rate had been imposed upon the export of wool, he added, there would page 68 have been a great outcry from all parts of the colony, and the House would very soon have been compelled to make a reduction.

The position he assigned to the miners in the scheme of colonization is shown by the fact that he regarded them as the real pioneers. Would New Zealand, he asked, be in its present position if it had not been for the miners? He spoke of their intelligence, and said that in a district in which he had lived for some years there was a population of from 6000 to 7000, and it required only three policemen. He affirmed his readiness to pit the ordinary miner against the working man in any of the neighbouring districts. There were traits in the character of the miner, he said, as he continued his eulogium, which must at all times commend themselves to all who had lived among miners for many years, as he had done. As to charitable institutions, miners gave one pound for every shilling contributed by other sections of the community in the same position. He had been on the goldfields for nearly a sixth of a century, and he had never known a person who was allowed to go without a meal or a cup of tea. In the miner's hut there was always a pannikin of tea and a loaf of bread for any person in want. Miners were not the class of men they had been represented to be in the days gone by. They were, indeed, a most desirable class of colonists. Their average wages were thirty shillings a week, and out of that they had to pay £2 10s. a year as a special tax.

At that time about nine-tenths of the county revenue of the goldfields district was derived from the gold duty, and it was feared that the abolution of the duty would cause serious financial trouble. His Bill was opposed strongly by the different Governments, but he introduced it session after session, and finally succeeded in having it passed in 1887.

He turned his attention to the colony's divorce laws. He believed that habitual drunkenness was a good ground for separation, as there was nothing so deplorable to his mind as “a good soul, a good wife, having to struggle and to provide for herself and her family and then be abused by a drunken husband.”

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He took a prominent part in turning the Atkinson Ministry from the benches in 1884. He was still in his parochial days, and the principal crime he imputed to the Government was in connection with the goldfields. He did not stop there, however, and stated that most of the distress in the South Island was due to the blunders—“gross wrongs,” he called them—of those in power. From generalities he passed on to specific cases. In them he found ample justification for the uncompromising attitude taken up by himself and by the majority of the Opposition members. He saw in the colony's position a great danger. The spread of the depression distressed him, and he seldom spoke in the House without referring to it in some way.

Time after time he urged that legislation should be applied to some of the industries that were crumbling to pieces under the adverse conditions against which they had to fight. While theories, based on the writings of great economists, were being bandied from side to side of the House, he was seeking to improve the colony's position by attending to the small things around him, and he pointed out to the Government that although local affairs might seem of minor importance to the General Government, they were of the utmost importance to the people whom they closely concerned.

He never spoke on party questions except as one of the rank and file of the Opposition. He was quite content to do his duty as the representative of the miners, and when he had done that his ambition was satisfied. He had no thought of leading the fight against the Continuous Ministry. When he came to the front, as often happened, he was careful to explain that he was forced into a prominent position. He seldom made one of his vigorous attacks on the Government without stating in detail the causes that brought him to his feet. Frequently he tempered these attacks, or, rather, made them stronger, by expressing his appreciation of the manly qualities possessed by the Premier and his colleagues. He never forgot that Sir Harry Atkinson commanded the respect of the people.

It was the “fighting Premier's” readiness to enter into battle at all times and on all subjects that appealed to him. In that respect he saw in Sir Harry a kindred spirit. “On the page 70 goldfields,” he said once, at the conclusion of an exceptionally fierce attack, “the man who has the courage to fight for what he thinks is right is the man who is respected. I believe I have that courage, and I believe the Premier has it, and that is why we are both respected in New Zealand.”

What struck him most in regard to party politics then was that they had no right to exist. He endeavoured to get away from them; but, like many other young politicians, he found that he had to choose under which flag he would fight.

Although he believed that Liberalism and Conservatism had no real meaning here, he felt that the colony was divided by a distinct line of demarcation. “It is the rich and the poor; it is the wealthy people and the landowners against the middle classes and the labouring classes. That is the real position in New Zealand. Wealth has power, and wealth asserts its sway, and I call upon every man on the Opposition side of the House, who desires to do his duty, to prevent the representation of wealth on the Government benches to the detriment of the people.”

He was quite willing to work in a humble sphere, but he did not undervalue his services to Parliament any more than he undervalued his services to the County Council. He saw no virtue in making uncalled-for and unnecessary sacrifices. He always affirmed that the legislative labourer, like any other labourer, is worthy of his hire. When he first entered Parliament it was the practice for the House of Representatives to vote a sum of about £200 every session to each member of the House. This arrangement met with his strong disapproval. After two years experience of it, he introduced a Payment of Members Bill, which was framed on a measure in force in Victoria, and definitely fixed the honorarium, but he was not successful then in passing it through Parliament.

He was not afraid, even when retrenchment was the order of the day, to demand the sum he considered he had earned by his efforts. He watched repeated divisions on the question in the House, and was struck by the fact that wealthy members voted for a reduction of the honorarium, while poor members, like himself, asked that they should be paid in something like an page 71 adequate manner. He took up this attitude largely on account of an instance of gross public ingratitude that had come under his notice before he entered politics. A friend of his had been a member of the House for many years, and had served the country in other directions. At a public meeting at which Mr. Seddon was present this gentleman told how he had enjoyed the people's confidence year after year, toiling for them and receiving as thanks the plaudits that greeted him. A position arose in which he had to assert his independence. In doing that, he voted aginst Sir George Grey and for Sir Harry Atkinson. For his sin he lost the confidence he valued highly, but not above everything else. He explained to his constituents that his views towards Sir George Grey had changed, but said that he ought not to be punished on account of his independence. He referred the people to his past services and asked that they should be weighed against his recent action. While he was appealing in that strain, someone in the audience said, “See here, old hoss, it is about time you were blistered and turned out.” In other words, after he had faithfully served his exacting master for many years, he was to be turned away, as it was thought that his services were no longer of much advantage.

The appeal and the brutal response made an impression on Mr. Seddon that clung to him through his life. He never forgot that the public, as a rule, is not a generous master, and that it has no scruples in turning away faithful servants who are no longer of any use.

Not once or twice, but on many occasions, Mr. Seddon affirmed that the public ought to pay for the legislative services it received. He felt that had he not insisted upon being paid for his services he would have been doing an injustice to himself and his family by remaining in politics. He never liked the word “honorarium,” which he looked upon as a sham, and he asked in his blunt and forcible manner why the sum granted by Parliament should not be officially known as “payment of members.”

When Sir Harry Atkinson succeeded in reducing the honorarium from £210 to £150 in 1887, Mr. Seddon made one page 72 of his longest and most vigorous speeches. He was opposed to the proposal, which seemed to him to be purely in the interests of the wealthy classes. On being importuned by his friends to assume a resolute and self-sacrificing attitude, in face of the heavy reductions made in salaries of Civil Servants, he agreed to a reduction of 25 per cent. in the honorarium, on the understanding that it would be raised when the financial crisis was over. He told his fellow members who were in favour of a reduction that if one of them offered to stand for a West Coast constituency and to give his services free, the electors would tell him that he was too cheap, and would not have him at any price. It was not till he was Minister for Public Works in 1891 that he succeeded in having the principle of payment of members affirmed definitely by both branches of the Legislature.

It is a notable fact, in view of the eminence to which Mr. Seddon rose as an imperialist in his later days, that he took no steps to support those who endeavoured in 1883 to extend the Empire's bounds in these parts of the world.

There were colonial statesmen who saw that if the islands of the Pacific fell into the possession of any other Power, great difficulties might arise at any time, and New Zealand might be cut off from a large portion of the trade that was being rapidly opened up with outlying islands.

The subject was brought before the people of New Zealand by the proceedings of the Intercolonial Convention held in Sydney at the end of 1883 to discuss a proposal that Great Britain should be urged to acquire further dominions in the South Pacific. New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, New Zealand, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, and Fiji were represented at the Convention, which took up a strong attitude in regard to the intention of France to transport criminals to the Pacific. The motions it passed are sufficiently interesting to be given in full. They are:—


That further acquisitions of dominions in the Pacific, south of the Equator, by any foreign Power, would be highly detrimental to the safety and well-being of the British possessions in Australasia, and injurious to the interests of the Empire.


That this Convention refrains from suggesting the action by which effect can best be given to the foregoing resolution in the confident belief that the page 73 Imperial Government will promptly adopt the wisest and most effectual measures for securing the safety and contentment of this portion of Her Majesty's dominions.


That having regard to the geographical position of the Island of New Guinea, the rapid extension of British trade and enterprise in Torres Straits, the certainty that the island will shortly be the resort of many adventurous subjects of Great Britain and other nations, and the absence or inadequacy of any existing laws for regulating their relations with the native tribes, this Convention, while fully recognising that the responsibility of extending the boundaries of the Empire belongs to the Imperial Government, is emphatically of opinion that such steps should be immediately taken as will most conveniently and effectively secure the incorporation with the British Empire of so much of New Guinea and a small island adjacent hereto as is not claimed by the Government of the Netherlands.


That although the understanding arrived at in 1878 between Great Britain and France, recognising the independence of the New Hebrides, appears to preclude this Convention from making any recommendation inconsistent with that understanding, the Convention urges upon Her Majesty's Government that it is extremely desirable that such understanding should give place to some more definite engagement, which shall secure these islands from falling under any foreign dominion; at the same time, the Convention trusts that Her Majesty's Government will avail itself of any opportunity that may arise for negotiating with the Government of France, with the object of obtaining the control of those islands in the interests of Australasia.

A few months previously, Sir George Grey had introduced into the House of Representatives an Annexation and Confederation Bill, which passed its second reading without discussion or a division, and was only slightly altered in committee. The measure authorised the appointment of a Committee to take steps to annex to New Zealand any islands not possessed by foreign Powers. It was thought that New Zealand had a commercial interest in the islands, as well as an imperialistic interest in common with other parts of the Empire. The islands, it was argued, would supply New Zealand with sugar, rice, coffee, cocoa, and other articles, while they would take from the colony many articles which it produced, and for which at that time there did not seem to be an extensive market. No reason could be seen why a lucrative trade should not grow up at the same time as the boundaries of the Empire were being extended and the bonds were being cemented. Besides that, it was obvious that the islands lying near New Zealand's door might be inhabited by a population that would give New Zealanders a great deal of trouble. It was not proposed to give page 74 the colony absolute power to annex new territory, but only to open up the way by negotiations, and when arrangements were completed they would be submitted for approval to the Imperial Government.

It is a strange coincidence that on the very day on which Sir George Grey and other members of the New Zealand Parliament met to discuss the scheme of his Bill, Mr. Gladstone announced in the House of Commons that Great Britain had decided to follow a policy almost exactly the same as that which the Bill sketched.

The islands themselves were anxious for federation. Fiji, especially, wished to be attached to New Zealand. The European inhabitants of that group were unanimous in their desire for political connection. They believed that their country should be a part of the “Dominion of Australasia.” Many of them were originally New Zealand colonists, and still looked on New Zealand as their home, and it was their ambition to throw in their lot with the colony, which, although notoriously at loggerheads with itself, was making a good fight in the battle of life.

Sir George Grey's Bill passed both Houses of the Legislature, and it may still be found among the statutes, but it has never received the royal assent, and has never been put into operation. In his romantic language, Grey said that New Zealand had been ordained by Nature to be the future Queen of the Pacific. He saw nothing to rob her of her position except gross failure to attend to the duties Providence placed before her. He introduced again the famous unborn millions and the great nation that he saw coming in the distance, prosperous, powerful, and unconquerable. “These are great islands, capable of carrying more than thirty millions of European inhabitants, situated in a very large ocean, separated by such vast tracts of sea from other countries that it seems almost impossible for a army strong enough to do much injury to be sent against it. Within our shores there are strongholds of a most extraordinary kind. The Maoris have shown us in the past how to use those strongholds. They could make it impossible for an army to penetrate into this country and hold it for any length of time. I look upon New Zealand as being absolutely unconquerable. I page 75 believe that centuries will elapse before an army is able to obtain even a footing on its shores. I believe that we are continually advancing to a position which I have always held we should advance to, the virtual government of the Pacific.”

The old man was on his favourite theme. His mind was full of empires and dominions. He again saw a great nation arising out of the Pacific, and New Zealand taking rank among the Powers of the world. There was no limit to the flight of his fancy. He asked that the colony should restore the Provincial Councils. “They were schools in which statesmen might be raised in all parts of the colony, and we might send our governors and legislators to all the distant islands of the Pacific, to unite them by our common system of education, by our common form of government, by one class of habits. We could found as great an Empire as the world has seen, giving employment to every class of our population, our seamen, our merchants, and our farmers. From among our young men we could send lawyers, legislators, physicians, and governors, under whatever name they might go, to these countries. I believe that you could thus awaken the life of a nation here, and put it in the fairest possible position to attain success.”

A committee appointed by the House reported that it considered that it was the duty of the British Government, in the circumstances, to take steps for the establishment of its rule over all islands in the Pacific which were not already occupied or protected by a foreign Power. This proposal was received with little favour by many members. They asked, “Will it pay?” The aspirations were considered too high for a young colony. The proposal was venturesome, and there was dread that the craving for dominion would result in disaster. There were members who asserted that Great Britain had no need to extend her dominion beyond the countries already occupied, and that there were plenty of burdens on the British taxpayer as it was, without adding to them; and Sir George Grey's schemes of Empire were not adopted.

Mr. Seddon was not a student of literature. Newspapers, Blue Books, Budgets, and Parliamentary papers afforded him most of the reading he desired at this period of his career.

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A fellow member tells how he once saw Mr. Seddon reading a book in the Assembly Library. Anxious to ascertain what had engaged his attention, the member waited until he had put it down, when he found that it dealt with the exploits of pirates on the Spanish Main.

What impressed his fellow members most was the wonderful energy he put into everything he took in hand. He never spared himself. He never seemed to need to do so. Apparently, it was quite impossible to tire him. He soon learned the forms of the House by heart, and it was not long before none knew better than he how to observe them, and, occasionally, how to break them. This knowledge gave him a rather formidable aspect as far as the Speaker and Chairman of Committees were concerned, and he sometimes gave them a trying time.

He was no orator. He did not stop to pick and choose his sentences. They came in a full flood of tumbling words, rushing along with a great sound, like many waters. There could have been no more striking contrast than that of his speeches and those of his old friend, Sir George Grey. It was on the subject rather than the method of expression that he relied for effect. He missed no points, and seldom made a weak one. His knowledge of details was enormous. The masses of particulars he dealt with tended to make his speeches heavy. Had he generalised more he would have been listened to in the House with greater pleasure. He felt, however, that he was there not to supply amusement, but to work. His public duties and the affairs of the country seemed to him to be the last things to be treated lightly. He had no sympathy with those who regarded politics as a pastime.

As he sat in the House in his first years and listened to the debates, he often wondered why he was there, and what he was to do to help in making the colony's laws. Throughout this part of his career, however, he always heard the West Coast calling to him. He continually reminded himself that it was the people of the Coast who had sent him to Parliament, and that his first duty was to them, and his second duty to the rest of New Zealand.