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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter VI. — The Stout—Vogel Combination

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Chapter VI.
The Stout—Vogel Combination.

The new spirit shown by the House when it discharged the Continuous Ministry was caught up by the Stout-Vogel Government, which made an honest attempt to improve the colony's position at home and abroad.

One of its first actions, however, was to reward Canterbury for the magnificent services rendered by that province's members. For many years Canterbury residents had clamoured for the construction of a railway to unite the east and west coasts of the South Island. This work was included in Sir Julius Vogel's Public Works Policy of 1870. Sir George Grey poetically described the line in 1879 as the bond of matrimony between two wealthy, beautiful, and powerful provinces. Mr. Seddon and other southern members never let a session pass without some reference to it. The route had been fixed, surveys had been made, information had been collected, and Canterbury and Westland had raised their voices in concert to urge the State to take practical steps so that a beginning might be made.

In spite of opposition from Auckland, the Government had a Bill passed authorising the construction of the line by a private company on the land-grant system. The carrying of the Bill was received with jubilation in Canterbury and Westland, and the people looked forward to the speedy construction of a railway which was to open up a new country and create another little world. Over twenty years later, however, the line is incomplete, and at least five more years must pass before it can bring about the union of the east and the west.

In his Financial Statement of 1884, Vogel used a happy phrase, which expressed the bright view he took of the dismal outlook. “With a reinstated finance and diminished expenditure,” he said, “our country will raise itself from its apathy and spring page 78 forward with leaps and bounds of progress.” For years afterwards the colony rang with the words, and “leaps and bounds, leaps and bounds!” became almost a national cry.

The Colonial Treasurer showed that he was thoroughly in earnest. A commencement was made with the construction of a trunk railway to run the whole length of the North Island, from Wellington to Auckland. The Otago Central and the Hokitika-Greymouth lines were pushed forward with a vigour that pleased the districts interested as much as it surprised the Government's opponents; and other works were begun almost before the Government's intentions were thoroughly realised.

The system of local government was radically altered. The Roads and Bridges Construction Act, which had defined the position of local bodies and restricted their duties, was repealed. That Act allowed the General Government to borrow money to enable local works to be carried out. Vogel believed that it was unwise to provide funds for local bodies out of loans raised for general colonial purposes. He saw no reason why Parliament should worry its head about main roads or any other kind of roads. Parliament, in fact, had occupied the position of a huge unwieldy Board of Works, which often did a great deal more than justice to some districts and a great deal less than justice to others, and the Government now changed the nature of its work.

Under the new system, the State offered to lend local bodies sums of money at reasonable interest, but it made them legally responsible for properly administering their charges in regard to spending money, and gave them real powers. In doing this it placed them in a position to develop their capabilities and extend their usefulness.

During the nine years since the abolition of the provinces, the General Government had spent no less than £2,653,000 in roads and bridges. The distribution of this sum had been very irregular, ranging from £76,000 in one year to £420,000 in another year, and as the scramble for the money was a determined one, the system had a bad effect all round, on the people, the local bodies, the members of the House, the Government, and Parliament.

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The Government, therefore, took from Parliament a function it had grown too big to perform properly, and gave into the hands of local bodies one of the principal means of helping settlement. The local bodies responded to the call made upon them, and showed that they appreciated the responsibilities placed upon their shoulders. The change also had a tendency to put a stop to the excessive borrowing that had taken place, as the ratepayers, through the local bodies, felt the immediate effect of the liabilities they incurred in the shape of loans for public works. Probably the best result of the reform was the interest it induced people to take in local affairs. It placed districts in an independent position, and gave them a much larger share of real self-government than they had enjoyed before.

The same line of operation was followed by the Charitable Aid Act. This measure established Charitable Aid Boards, consisting of representatives of local bodies. These Boards took off the Government's hands the duty of attending to the destitute, a duty which it was thoroughly unqualified to discharge. In other respects the new Government placed the method of dealing with charitable aid on a much more satisfactory footing.

This scheme, which was devised in 1885 by Sir Patrick Buckley, the Attorney-General, is in operation still. Very few changes have been made in it. Practically the only dissatisfaction expressed is in respect to the appointment of members of the Boards; there is a growing feeling that they should be elected directly on the municipal franchise instead of being nominated by local bodies.

Not satisfied with urging the colonists to enter upon industrial enterprises, the Government gave them practical assistance. Sir Julius Vogel was convinced that the vast quantities of fish in New Zealand waters could be exploited for both local consumption and export to Australia and the United Kingdom. He prepared several schemes for establishing fishing villages and stations in the beautiful sounds in Cook Strait. In this way the colony was to develop a source of wealth that remains almost untouched to this day. The scheme was to form small page 80 fishing communities in connection with fish-curing works. It was thought that in time these villages would become important centres of population and large contributors to the general wealth of the colony.

Experts were imported to make experiments in connection with the culture of the silk-worm, which it was believed would thrive well in some districts of the colony. Large bonuses were offered to men who started industries that were likely to be of a permanent character. A special Act was passed to encourage the production of sugar from beet-root, and a bonus was provided of one halfpenny a pound for the first 1000 tons of sugar placed on the market. A committee appointed to inquire into the best means of encouraging trade between the colony and the South Sea Islands drew up a scheme for the creation of the New Zealand International South Sea Trade Company, to which, however, Parliament refused to grant a charter.

An attempt was made by the Government to find outside markets for articles the colony produced. The Agent-General in London was instructed to place himself in communication with the Army and Navy and Civil Service Stores and Whiteley's to ascertain if the British public could be induced to become one of the colony's regular customers. Many private people, seeing that the Government was honest in its promises and earnest in its efforts, came forward with advice. An influential citizen of Christchurch recommended that sample consignments of ghee, a kind of rancid butter, should be sent to India, “to be used externally and internally by the millions of natives there.” Companies were formed to manufacture pig and bar-iron in the North Island, and throughout the colony there was a more hopeful spirit and a healthier public tone.

By reductions in the railway freights, which made the phalanx of Canterbury members stand by the Government more steadily than ever, agriculturists were given a bonus of £75,000 a year.

Reductions in the property tax from ¾d. in the pound to 11/16ths of a penny in the pound relieved the small farmer, and an exemption of agricultural improvements up to £3000 placed the homes of small farmers beyond the reach of the tax. Small page 81 manufacturers were assisted at the same time by the exemption of machinery up to £8000, and with these reliefs the dairy industry, which had been crushed down, was given a chance to get upon its feet.

The mining industry was assisted in several directions, and university professors were offered facilities to travel and deliver lectures in mining centres. Forest-planting operations were commenced to counteract the destruction of native timber, which, it was seen, would be a serious problem for the colonists to deal with.

Quantities of railway stock, previously imported from England and America, were made in the colony, and every encouragement was given to local works and industries of all descriptions. In one year the Government workshops turned out more ironwork than had been dealt with in any five years under other Governments.

An attempt was made to push small railways on to Rotorua and other health resorts in the hope that they would attract visitors from other lands.

In many directions the Colonial Treasurer tried hard to put into operation the great scheme he had given the country in 1870. He placed most reliance upon roads and railways, looking upon the latter as the greatest aid to the prosperity and comfort of a young community in a new country. He saw that each line of railway that was run out into the “back blocks” would mark a distinct advance in the colony's affairs. If he was led by this idea to push his policy more rapidly than the time and circumstances warranted, his mistake was not a very gross one. He was not blind to the fact that an isolated little country like New Zealand might suffer just as much from over-production as from want of good settlers, and he searched the world for new markets and the colony for soils and climates that would produce articles the Old World consumed.

By inaugurating a system of selling native lands through the Government, a great deal of the “land-sharking” that had been common for many years in land transactions with the Maoris was stopped. The sale of liquor to Maoris was page 82 prohibited in a large part of the King Country. By a Married Women's Property Act, copied from the English law, women were allowed to control their own property after marriage. Previously, whenever a woman married without taking the precaution to prepare a settlement, she was liable to have her property dissipated, and to be left without any means whatever. This Act has placed the business relations of husband and wife on a fair basis, and has prevented much injustice.

This period is marked, by the number of its land-settlement schemes and their liberal and revolutionary character. The activity shown in this direction is largely due to the statesmanship of Mr. John Ballance, who, as Minister for Lands, was then preparing the way for the fame he achieved a few years later as chief of the Liberal Party, leader of democratic thought and the head of a great Socialistic Ministry.

He consolidated the land laws, and added provisions which gave a decided impetus to the settlement of land in many districts and helped working men near large centres to obtain small areas on village settlements. He had the willing help of other members, and met with little opposition, even his political opponents joining in the discussions in a friendly spirit and advising him on questions of detail.

Sir George Grey was far from being inactive. He asked Parliament to pass a Land Settlement Bill, empowering the Government to purchase properties from private individuals, either by agreement in the ordinary course of business, or by compulsory methods under the Public Works Act. He described his scheme as an attempt to turn the depression to the colony's advantage, meaning that large landowners were then inclined to sell at cheap rates, while many people with small means would gladly take up moderate sized sections if easy terms could be arranged. The properties were to be bought at the valuation placed upon them for the purpose of the property tax. The system was to be a “quit-rent.” The funds for purchasing the properties were to be raised by means of land-bonds. The Government was not to be compelled to redeem these land-bonds at any particular date, although it would, after a certain time, be able to purchase them and liquidate the debt. The page 83 properties were to be divided into farms. The farms were to be valued, and thrown open for selection. Interest on the cost was to be paid as rent, the first payment to be made six months after the selector had taken possession.

The proposal met with very little favour, and Parliament passed over the scheme in order to give its attention to the more practical ideas of Mr. Ballance, who also introduced a Land Acquisition Bill, but had to leave office before he could pass it into law.

Sir Julius Vogel went elaborately into the proposal to lend money to farmers at low rates of interest; but he could not bring himself to ask Parliament to allow his Government to become a money-lender. At one time, he was very much inclined to see the experiment tried, but, believing that it would overthrow the colony's credit, and fearing the bogey of interference with private business, he put the scheme on one side. Rather than risk anything by entering into business as a State money-lender, he decided to leave the scheme alone, and expressed a hope that private enterprise would give such relief to the small farmer as would render State interference unnecessary.

In spite of all the Government's courage and industry, the colony could not shake itself free from the terrible depression. Conditions improved in some directions, and the colonists displayed more enterprise, and were not so inclined to give themselves up to despair; but the unemployed trouble had not been solved, and business was still dull.

There were many factors in deciding whether the colony should have progress or stagnation, and over most of these no Government could have any semblance of control. Fluctuations in the price of wool were one of the principal considerations. Wool and meat were the two staple articles of export then, as they are now; but the frozen meat industry had not given indications of the extraordinary strides it was prepraing to make. It had been in existence only four or five years, and the colony was sending to London about fifty million pounds of meat a year. The first shipment was sent by the New Zealand and Australian Land Company from Port Chalmers page 84 in 1882. There were 9,000 carcases in that shipment, which reached London in good order. The success of the experiment was the signal for the erection of freezing-works almost simultaneously in Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington, Auckland, and Napier. The industry has advanced steadily up to the present time, when the trade is worth about £3,000,000 a year to the colony. The only obstacle it has met is prejudice on the part of people in England. That prejudice has almost passed away, but between 1884 and 1887 it was very pronounced, and the prospects of the trade were not bright.

It was on wool that colonists depended; and the price of wool fluctuated greatly. When it dropped, business was paralyzed, and progress was stopped; when it rose, business was brisk and business people were able to meet their engagements. During the greater part of 1886, the wool market was fair, and business was conducted without disruptions. Towards the end of the year, it was announced that “wool was up,” and the delighted colonists looked forward to happy and prosperous times. The market continued to rise. Coarser cross-bred wool rose from 7 ½d. to 9d. a pound, and a finer sort of the same kind from 9d. to 10d. These few pence were of the utmost importance to the Government. They were life or death to it. High prices were as stimulating to the colonists as a fresh loan from the English money-lender; and when money was plentiful there was little grumbling, and the Government was allowed to take its own course. It was when money was scarce and taxation was heavy that the Government had to look to its position.

The period was a stormy one. While the Government was cudgeling its brains to devise means to improve social conditions, no-confidence motions were volleyed into it. The Stout-Vogel combination withstood more no-confidence motions in one session than any other Government the colony has known. More of these attacks came from Sir George Grey than from any other member. He consulted nobody, and asked for no following. Standing on the floor of the House, in the character of a “lone and friendless man,” to use his own words, he rated the Government for its extravagance and its mistakes. He sometimes found difficulty in getting a seconder to his no-confidence page 85 motions, and a quorum of members could hardly be induced to attend and listen to the debates, some of which closed without a division, the House simply drifting into the regular work of the session.

Late in 1885, the unemployed trouble, which had previously made Christchurch its headquarters, shifted north and south, and established itself in Auckland and Dunedin. In Dunedin, a flaming manifesto was issued begging the Victorian Government to come to the rescue of New Zealand and send steamers to take workmen to Melbourne, the fares to be paid with the men's first earnings in Australia.

The Government was quite out of touch with the working classes. It ignored them and they distrusted it. At the same time they believed that it was better than its predecessor. As a matter of fact, however, Atkinson was, theoretically, at any rate, in closer sympathy with them than either of the leaders of the Government. Sir Julius Vogel was a Conservative in principle and practice. In England he had been a Conservative candidate for the Falmouth seat, and all his leanings were towards the old Conservative school of politicians. Sir Robert Stout was a Radical in regard to the land question, but he held aloof from the principle of State interference in private enterprise.

The Government, in fact, was a hybrid organism. It was half-Radical, half-Conservative, and wholly Individualistic. Although Stout and Vogel stood far apart in most political principles, they found in extreme individualism a common ground. Vogel held the comfortable doctrine that if labour became dominant it would be as hard on capital as capital was on it. He could never decide in his own mind whether it would be better for the happiness of the community to give labour or capital the greater political power, so he tried to balance the scales.

He saw a long way ahead of him. He believed that Radicalism would ultimately prevail, but that “Conservative Radicalism” would be the happy medium which would restrain capital from being too exacting and labour from demanding more than capital would be in a position to grant. Socialism in page 86 practical politics was beyond his comprehension. He told working men who sought his advice that labour depended upon capital and had no special right to consideration in the scheme of State.

Sir Robert Stout held out to the working classes the simple belief that the less the Government did for the people the better it was for them. He warned them that those who leaned on an Act of Parliament or a vote of the House of Representatives leaned on a broken reed. When the unemployed asked for work, he said that no Government in that or any other country had ever laid it down as part of its duty to provide work, and he reminded the workers in cold and unsympathetic tones that they were not the only sufferers by the depression.

Outside Parliament, a great change was at work among the masses. They began to look on politics in a new light. They declined to follow wealthy political leaders as peasants in old times followed feudal lords. Political knowledge became broader. Aspects of political economy were discussed at working men's gatherings, mostly in a crude and uncultured manner, and sometimes with an utter disregard for economic truths, but generally with significant earnestness.

The public mind began to turn from personal politics to political principles. A spirit of speculative politics was abroad. It showed itself in every public movement. Although it sometimes ran wildly, its presence proved that those who were the worst victims of the dreadful condition of affairs that had lasted for nearly a decade were searching for a legislative pathway out of their troubles.

The new and the novel in politics became the subject of general discussion. The women's franchise movement, for one thing, began to spread with a rapidity that alarmed many who saw no good in it. There were visions of better conditions and of prosperity and contentment, and the very thought of these things made the people's hearts beat faster.

The Government struggled through three stormy years of existence, fighting its opponents with one hand and fending off the depression, the unemployed, and clamouring labour with the other. It was the Government's policy not only to encourage the page 87 establishment of new industries, but also to assist old ones by a protective tariff. But people who are smarting under the lash of taxation are not likely to look favourably on fresh burdens. Defeated in the House on its financial and tariff proposals, the Government appealed to the country. Taking full advantage of the depression and the uneasy condition of trade, Atkinson preached a crusade of anti-Vogelism. He had two watchwords. One was “Retrenchment,” the other “No More Vogelism and Extravagance.” He persuaded many electors that their troubles were mainly or solely due to public extravagance. He held up Vogel as the type and emblem of all that was unthrifty and reckless in public affairs. Vogel, in short, was made to bear the burden of all the sins committed by all the Ministries that had taken office for the past seventeen years. Sir George Grey added to the Liberals' troubles by placing himself at the head of the movement in favour of Atkinson's return, and the Conservative Party was never more united than in its deep, steady, and unwavering opposition to Vogel.

At the polls the Government was defeated, Sir Robert Stout losing his seat in Dunedin, and the Continuous Ministry entered upon its last lease of power.