The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon
Chapter VIII. — A Prominent Liberal Leader
A Prominent Liberal Leader.
As the session of 1890 approached there were many rumours about Sir Harry Atkinson's ill-health. It was the subject of inquiries and conflicting bulletins. On the one hand it was stated that he was strong and brisk, and that his sufferings had never been acute. On the other hand there were harrowing accounts of a wasted and shattered invalid clinging desperately to an office with the duties of which he was quite unable to cope. There were reports of anxious consultations among his friends and among the leading members of his party. Friendly newspapers openly discussed the question of his successor, and expressed their opinion as to whether it ought to be Mr. Bryce, Sir John Hall, or Sir William Russell.
The truth was that he had been very unwell for a long time. He ought to have retired from politics instead of taking the lead of the House on the dismissal of the Stout-Vogel Government. It would have been better for him if he followed the course adopted by Sir John Hall, who retired from the head of affairs when he found that his health would not stand the severe strain placed upon it by the vexations not so much of ruling a young nation as of conducting incessant party fights.
Sir Harry clung to his public duties. Although some members of his party often told him that it was not he they wanted, those who were not in the party, and who took a clear view of the position, knew that he was the only possible leader. There were good men among his supporters, men who were very well liked, and men with progressive ideas, but they were not in touch with the majority in the House, and would have commanded only a small following. From the Conservative point of view, although there were many Conservatives who did not realise it, it was Sir Harry Atkinson or nobody.page 112
Mr. Ballance, after consulting with some of his colleagues, had made up his mind that his plan of campaign would be the same as in the previous session. He would instruct his men to scan and criticise the Government's proposals and ask it to explain its actions. He was determined that if the rejected policy measures of the session of 1889 were placed before the House again they would be stopped, even if it meant a useless session and a waste of time.
Some days before members met in Wellington he had determined to bring things to an issue by moving a direct vote of no-confidence in the Government. The attitude he took up was that as the Opposition had no confidence in the Government it was bound to say so in the clearest manner. In addition to that there was a great press of parliamentary work to be attended to, and if the Government remained on the benches undisturbed, a great deal of that work would be postponed for another year.
Mr. Ballance, together with Mr. Seddon and other Liberal members, was anxious, above all, to make a change in the system of dealing with lands for settlement. They saw no hope for that as long as the Conservative Government, as it was constituted then, remained in office. Prominent members of the Conservative Party during the recess had thrown out hints of increased taxation, and this was taken as another reason why no time should be lost in ascertaining whether it was to be a Liberal Government or a Conservative one.
The Governor's Speech, in a tone that the Liberals took as ironical, congratulated the colony on the evidences afforded of the substantial progress made in its circumstances.
Like many others who were disturbed at the frequent strikes that were taking place in New Zealand, as well as in many other countries, Mr. Ballance was surprised that this subject was not mentioned in the Speech. It was, at any rate, in all the people's minds, and he voiced the opinion of many men when he said that the great organisation of labour that was being brought about was one of the most marked features of the age. He gave some indication of the far-reaching reforms which followed his accession to office when he said that organized labour would not find itself permanently arrayed against capital, page 113 and that there would be a reconciliation between capital and labour on an equitable basis. There was a hope, he said, that the toilers themselves would be able to maintain and vindicate their position, and that they would adopt such measures as would entitle them to a fair reward for their labour. These remarks of Mr. Ballance early in 1890 are well worth quoting, as, consciously or unconsciously, they represented the views of the party he led, of the greater party he was to lead in twelve months, and of a large portion of New Zealand a few years later.
His speech on the Address-in-Reply all through was a very strong one. He dealt with every point raised by the Government, criticised its land administration with the utmost severity, and fell upon the object of his bitterest hatred, the obnoxious property tax.
He was followed in the debate by Sir George Grey, whose only object was to see the people play with the new toy he had given them, the one-man-one-vote principle. The impatient old man testily told the House that the electors were waiting to take possession of the privilege. He was irritated at the delay, and every fresh speech made his irritation become more apparent. He was incensed at the spectacle of a dead Parliament governing a living nation. He could not imagine how the people with a great privilege in their grasp could brook the delay of a minute, much less of a whole session. He was eager that the people should exercise the privilege, so that they could show what they were capable of doing. He was waiting to see the electors step forth as absolutely free men, exercising the right of voting fairly and equally.
Even he, with his strange prophecies and his almost supernatural insight into the future, had no conception of the changes that would be brought about when the masses realised the power he had placed in their hands. He saw happiness and contentment in New Zealand, and he saw the country rising into a great nation; but he did not see the long list of legislative reforms that has been placed on the Statute Book since those days of 1889 and 1890.page 114
Mr. Seddon was asked by Mr. Ballance to take part in the debate on the Address-in-reply, and followed Mr. T. Fergus, Minister for Public Works and Mines. Mr. Seddon, of course, was better qualified than any other member to criticise the Department of Works and Mines, and he did so on this occasion with all his vigour. The Opposition had been asked by the Government to wait until the Financial Statement came down before it made its attack.
“Wait till the Financial Statement is ready?” Mr. Seddon said derisively. “When we have the Financial Statement, we shall be told to wait for the Public Works Statement, so we will go drivelling on until two or three weeks have passed, and then the cry will be: ‘You have been in Wellington nearly a month now; here is some work for you to do.’ It is by such tactics as these that the Ministers have managed time after time and Parliament after Parliament, even when they were in a minority, to keep their seats there, like barnacles on a ship's bottom.”
A large portion of his attack dealt with personal charges against Ministers, and he demanded explanations about one thing and another from nearly every member of the Government. The Governor's Speech seemed to him to be nothing more than a bald statement. He, like Mr. Ballance, wanted to know what would be done for the men and women who had been hoping against hope for the colony's condition to improve, and whose eyes had been turned to New South Wales and Victoria. That bald statement, in the face of the deplorable condition of the colony, was, to his mind, the last straw.
The Government had stated that “the position of the colonists, as far as their private indebtedness is concerned, has greatly improved,” and that an additional area of land had been settled. He suggested that the paragraph ought to have read: “That those who hold the estate, the patrimony, of the people in large areas have, through the present administration and the land laws, been able to increase those areas.” He asked for information about the 20,000 persons who had left New Zealand. He valued them at £150 a head, and found that, in plain round figures, on a strictly commercial basis, they were worth £3,000,000 to New Zealand.page 115
The Liberals, with much reluctance, agreed to postpone their main attack until the Statement disclosed the Government's policy. When the Statement was delivered, it was found that Sir Harry Atkinson, who had been granted permission to impose a primage duty temporarily, asked for its continuance. Word was then sent round amongst members of the Opposition that Mr. Ballance had come to the conclusion that it was time to deal a direct blow at the Ministry's policy.
This proposal met with the general approval of the Liberal Party. No finality could be seen in Sir Harry's policy. In 1888 he was given all he asked for in the way of taxation, and now he asked for power to raise more money by taxes. He was given all he asked for in the way of borrowing, and now asked for further borrowing powers. The members of the Opposition condemned the policy entirely. They felt that they were bound in consistency and honour to challenge the Government to go to the country at the general election which was approaching, and to allow the electors to judge between the rival parties.
The following motion was drafted at a Liberal caucus:—
“That, in the opinion of this House, the continuance of the primage duty is unnecessary, and is a distinct breach of the understanding arrived at when it was first imposed; that further retrenchment is imperatively demanded and can be effected without impairing the efficiency of the public service; that the retention of the property tax in its present form and the land policy pursued by the Government alike impede the progress of the colony.”
In moving this motion, Mr. Ballance showed that during the three years of the Government's office, the average number of settlers placed on the land had greatly decreased. He blamed the administration of the land laws for the loss of the colony's population. The land system in operation favoured “dummyism,” which was carried on every day, he said. Finally, he claimed that the House should be dissolved, in order that the whole position should be placed before the people for their consideration and judgment.
The House was crowded while Mr. Ballance was speaking, and loud cheers went up from the Liberals when he concluded his speech. Mr. Seddon's first action, when he was put forward page 116 by the Government, was to defend his old chief, Sir George Grey, from attacks made upon him from the ministerial benches. In indignant tones, he reminded the House that Sir George Grey had been the means of giving the colony manhood suffrage, triennial Parliaments, and a land tax. Mr. Seddon had been in favour of that tax from the first, and he believed that if it had been allowed to remain in force the colony would not have been in such a bad condition as it was in 1890. He was one of those who blamed the property tax largely for “The Exodus,” and he was not slow to affirm that with a land tax in operation people would return to the colony, and immigration would set in from the Old Country, as it had done before.
This speech bristles with tables and figures, dealing with land settlement, finances, charitable aid, and other questions. He supported Mr. Ballance in declaring that “dummyism” was rampant under the land laws that existed at that time. He always declared that liberal land laws in New Zealand commenced in 1885, when Mr. Ballance was Minister for Lands in the Stout-Vogel Government. Mr. Ballance was the first Minister who carried the village-settlement system into operation, and Mr. Seddon was not likely to permit detractors to take from Mr. Ballance the credit to which he was entitled.
He seemed to think that it was his duty to defend with all his might all members of the Opposition who had been attacked by ministerial supporters, and he passed from eulogies of Sir George Grey and Mr. Ballance to a confirmation of statements made by Mr. George Hutchison. Then the whole force of the Opposition Party was brought under his protection:
“The blow we have struck is a fair and open blow. The Opposition has been led to the attack by an honourable gentleman who has the entire confidence of the party, and I claim that the work we are doing redounds to our credit and is of decided benefit to the colony at large. Step by step, since the present Government has been on those benches, we have forced its hands. We have prevented it from doing wrong; we have assisted it in doing right; and in many directions we have protected the interests of the people. When we go to the country it will be for the people to judge between the Government and us.”
What annoyed him more than anything else was a chance remark by Sir John Hall that the Opposition was composed of page 117 unthinking men. “That, Sir,” he said, “was the charge which the honourable gentleman levelled at the Opposition. I should like to know where he gets his ‘thinking men’ in this House, unless it is from the ranks of the Opposition. It would be invidious for me to give names; but, at all events, I should say that on this side of the House there is a compact body of thinking men who, in the opinion of the large majority of the people of the country, are giants as compared with the pigmies that follow the Government,” a little bit of boasting which brought smiles to the faces of several Opposition members, especially when they noticed the speaker's thorough earnestness.
He did not like Sir John twitting the Opposition with not being united. There had, indeed, been many rumours afloat that the Opposition was divided, and Mr. Seddon's name had been mentioned in connection with the supposed discontent. He soon set doubting minds at rest on that score, however:
“I have been in this House since 1879, and I have never seen an Opposition so unanimous as the present one. I have never seen such a united body of men, a body of men imbued with more respect for their leader, or who placed more confidence in him. Our division-lists last session shall be the judge between the leader of the Opposition and the member for Selwyn (Sir John Hall). There were no lost sheep there, no stray lambs, no rodents in our party, no defections from our ranks. It is a compact Opposition, a solid Opposition, with a good leader and with men who have confidence in him. That is my reply to the remark made.”
Sir John, while speaking in the debate on the previous day, had referred to defence and to the possibility of a hostile squadron coming to New Zealand waters. On being interrupted by Mr. Seddon, he retorted:
“The honourable member knows full well that a Russian squadron would not touch Kumara; it would not get much there; but if it chanced to come to Wellington during the session, I venture to say that the honourable member would soon skedaddle for the safe shelter of Kumara.”
To this Mr. Seddon replied:
“I do not know that, with all my failings—and I have been accused of many in my time—I have ever before been accused of being a coward. If it came to a case of cut-and-run, and there were only the honourable member and myself here, I do not think it would be I. I would respect my honourable friend's old age, and I should place him in the rear and cover him from the enemy's fire, which I should not have much difficulty in doing. If I did run I think the page 118 honourable gentleman would accept it as time to skedaddle. And if I did run to Kumara I should run to the right place, for it is there that all the crack shots are. Last year the Kumara Volunteers took the first, second, and third medals for the best shots in the Island, and two years ago they took first place, firing against the whole colony. Where would a man go for safety rather than to the stalwart miners, who make the finest volunteers in the colony? And where would the best men be more wanted than for the protection of the coal ports of Greymouth and Westport?”
In 1890, he was breaking his mind away largely from its close association with the West Coast. He took up questions with broader aspects; but he was always liable even then to rush back to the old place and drag it into his speeches, no matter what subject he happened to be dealing with. To his mind, the principal blemish in the Financial Statement and in the Governor's Speech was that neither of them said one word regarding the mining industry, and the former seemed to him to be about as clear as the mud that came from the Kumara sludge-channel.
In the midst of the Government's troubles, the “Skinflints” became active again, and demanded some kind of satisfaction. They would not vote for Mr. Ballance's motion because it came from him, but they still insisted that the Government had not gone nearly far enough on the road of severe retrenchment. Mr. Ballance's motion placed them in a peculiar position. They talked of retrenchment for months. They had promised their constituents that they would insist upon retrenchment being made without delay. If they voted for the motion, they might put into office men whom they regarded as political opponents. If they voted against it, they would have to account for their actions when they went back to their electorates; and that tiresome thing, a general election, would take place in a few months. They saw that something must be done to lift them out of the hole into which they had fallen. They therefore appointed a deputation to wait upon Sir Harry Atkinson. His health had become so bad that he was unable to read his Statement, and he had been ordered by his doctor not to enter the House at all until he regained some of his strength. In the meantime, the leadership of the House was taken by Mr. E. Mitchelson, Native Minister.page 119
The deputation found the Premier at his home in company with Sir John Hall, who, all through the strife of those years, remained behind the leaders of the Conservative Part and gave them his advice on all important questions.
The Premier was not at all pliable. He could not see that further retrenchment was necessary, desirable, or possible, and the most he gave the deputation was cold comfort in the shape of a promise that any specific reductions they proposed would be carefully considered. They held another conference, and sent another deputation to the Premier, who then consulted his colleagues. The result was a compact. The extreme economists voted with the Conservatives, the no-confidence motion was lost by 11 votes, and the Continuous Ministry was safe again.
The estimates were the centre of the next attack. Mr. Seddon took that opportunity to insist that if Parliament continued to reduce its servants' salaries, the reductions ought to be made in the higher ones. A rumour that the wages of railway servants would be largely reduced brought him to his feet with questions and protests of a very vigorous nature. He found that Ministers were ready enough to defend the salaries of the heads of departments, but used the pruningknife in a cruelly regardless manner on the lower salaries. The result was that the weight of the retrenchment measures fell upon the lower salaries, while salaries of £600 and even £1,000 a year were left untouched. A Minister of the Crown received only £800 a year, and Mr. Seddon saw no reason why high officials should be paid out of proportion to both their superior and inferior officers. He therefore determined not to give his vote for the increase of any salary over £200 a year.
He succeeded in the face of the Government's opposition in reducing the vote for the Audit Office by £950. The Audit Office had never been subject to the humiliation of a reduction before, and the action of the House, led by Mr. Seddon, threw the whole of the Civil Service into a state of terror, which lasted all the time the estimates were under discussion.
The harassed Civil Servants at last formed a union to protect their interests. They complained of Parliament, Ministers, page 120 and the taxpayers, and said that reductions or dismissals were made in the same haphazard method as appointments and promotions had been made in former times.
They complained—it must be admitted very justly—that it was not they who had landed the colony in its deplorable condition. They asserted, indeed, that if the advice of the heads of the departments had been followed, thousands of pounds would have been saved every year. Their conduct on the whole had been exemplary, and they saw no reason why Governments and Parliaments should fall upon them and punish them with cruel severity for things that they had never done. Year after year at each session of Parliament there began a reign of terror for them, and it was time, they said, that the service, which was debarred from the ordinary means of defence against attack, should do something for itself, so it formed the Public Service Association.*
The reduction of the audit vote was really a defeat of the Government by two votes, but as it was not taken as a no-confidence question, the House continued to deal with the estimates, Mr. Seddon, Mr. Ballance, Mr. W. P. Reeves, and other prominent Liberals criticising almost every item and showing that nothing would be allowed to pass unless the money asked for was absolutely necessary.page 121
Mr. Seddon voted for all reductions proposed when he saw that they were likely to put a check on extravagant expenditure. On several occasions, however, he rose to protest against competent officers in the Civil Service being referred to in terms of condemnation that were not deserved. In this debate, also, the miners and the West Coast figured prominently. While in one breath he condemned the Government for appointing too many new officers, in the other breath he asked that coal mine inspectors should be appointed, especially in Westland. He protested against the increase of inspectors generally, but said that more inspection was badly needed on the goldfields and coalfields, where mining was being carried on without regard to proper ventilation or to precautions against accidents.
Mr. Seddon's grasp of the manner in which the different departments had been conducted took the Government by surprise. He repeatedly nonplussed Ministers by asking for particulars of some appointment or some expenditure, and, on not receiving a satisfactory reply, supplied the information himself and commented upon it with vigour. It was not only the Mines and Public Works Departments that he treated in this way, but he also turned his attention to the Government's dealings with the educational system, the dairying industry, and other undertakings. Nothing seemed to come amiss to him.page 122
There was, apparently, no field of inquiry too wide for his criticism and investigations. His zeal and earnestness carried many members with him. He showed that it was not party feeling which dictated the course of action he had adopted, but a genuine desire to clear the Civil Service of some of the evils that beset it and to place it in a much better position, in which it would receive and hold the confidence of the public. There was no obstruction in his tactics, and when he found a proposal from the Government which he believed should be put into operation, he had no hesitation in supporting it, whether his party liked it or not.
He was now rapidly coming into greater prominence in the eyes of the colony. He was recognised as the first lieutenant of the Liberal Party, a man whom other men might follow. His strength in debate was recognised. It was freely acknowledged by Mr. Ballance, who frequently put him forward to lead the great charges made by the Liberals on the Government's positions.
He was improving steadily in his manner of speaking, and in the way in which he arranged his facts and placed them before those whom he addressed. His speeches were forcible. He discarded flippancies and fribbles of debate, and, with an earnestness that carried conviction to many people, poured forth his grievances against the Government and his hopes for the colony's future.
He himself realised that he was now becoming a prominent figure in politics. He no longer made those half-apologies for speaking that characterised his earlier speeches. His remarks were entirely free from egotism. He said nothing of what he had done or what he intended to do. If he cherished high personal ambitions, they found no place with him when he rose from his seat in the House or stepped on to the public platform. It was his subject that engrossed all his attention; and his subject was New Zealand and her people. He had come forth from his parochialism. He was no longer merely a miners' representative, but a New Zealander, and was determined to do his best for the country in which he had found a home.page 123
He was pleased and flattered to a high degree when, at a crowded meeting of citizens in the Exchange Hall, in Wellington, on August 6th, 1890, at which several prominent Liberal members were invited to give addresses on the political situation, he was placed second on the list of speakers, following the man whom above all others he wished to follow, Sir George Grey. The change that had come over him may be traced in a few extracts from his speech on that occasion, which show that his mind had broadened and that he took the clear wide view of a statesman.
“I shall commence,” he said, “by saying that I believe that we New Zealanders live in the best country under the canopy of heaven; but it is one of the worst governed countries on the face of the earth. But a weapon has been placed in men's hands in this colony, and if they use that weapon at the coming general election, they will do a great deal towards restoring the colony to a more prosperous condition. The remedy lies with the people. They will find it in the ballot-box. When freedom was brought about in France, liberty, security, and the resistance of oppression actuated the people. The people of this colony must also adopt those principles and assert the equality of men. They must preserve the rights of labour. It has been said that the labour movement will drive away capital, but that is a fallacy. In other colonies, and also in the Old World, labour is protecting itself. I advise the people of this colony not to look at the movement as at an evil thing. It will eventually prove beneficial to capital as well as to labour itself.”
Taxation, the results that followed “land-grabbing” and the sins of an absentee landlord, who drew £2,000 a year from the colony and spent only £75 in it, were other points that he touched upon before he appealed to all working-men who held Liberal views and believed that Liberalism was for the colony's benefit, to combine and put the right men into Parliament.
The session dragged on for weeks, the Opposition becoming bolder in its attacks and more damaging as it gained more information in regard to the administration of the departments. It found that the country watched its actions with interest, and, it believed, with favour.
By the middle of August, little progress had been made by Parliament, and all members saw that the Government, always looking for the defeat it adroitly managed to avoid, would be unable to pass any policy measures. Parliament was rapidly approaching the date on which it would expire by effluxion of page 124 time, and Mr. Ballance, advised by Sir George Grey and supported by Mr. Seddon, was anxious to go to the electors as soon as possible and see what would result from the first election under the one-man-one-vote principle. With the consent of his followers, Mr. Ballance came to an arrangement with the Government to enable it to get through with the important work and let the House bring the session to a close and go at once to the people.
It was stated in several newspapers that the Government had insisted upon a particular clause being inserted in the arrangement. Mr. Seddon had not dealt with Sir Harry Atkinson's estimates in vain. The Government had come to look upon him as its severest critic, and the man who was to be dreaded most; and a newspaper correspondent, who was not friendly towards either Mr. Seddon or the Liberal Party, published a statement that the Government had made a strong point of demanding from Mr. Ballance a promise that the member for Kumara would submit to party control. Mr. Ballance, the report added, could not undertake to answer for the strong-minded member for Kumara, and negotiations were nearly falling through until Mr. Ballance gave an assurance that there would be no fractious obstruction.
“Sir,” said Mr. Seddon, when the Government briefly announced the terms of the compact in the House, “you behold now the wreck of what was originally the independent member for Kumara. You see before you a member with a gag in his mouth, with his hands tied, and bound—without hope of release —I was going to say by party ties. No doubt, it would be galling to honourable members generally that liberty of speech should be taken from them as mine has been taken. As long as I consider that any agreement is in the interests of the country and will facilitate business I will be a party to it; but when I believe that any arrangement made will take away from me my liberty, or will prove injurious to my constituents or to the colony, I will have nothing whatever to do with that arrangement.
“It has been stated that the leader of the Opposition will guarantee to control the member for Kumara. Now, anyone page 125 who knows the member for Kumara must pronounce that statement as being devoid of truth. I think the leader of the Opposition knows me too well, and Ministers know me too well, to suppose that there is anyone who can control the member for Kumara except the member for Kumara himself and his constituents. That is the only control which is held over me in this House, or ever shall be as long as I have a voice in the legislation of this country.”
Having vindicated his unrestricted independence and liberty of action, he announced that he entirely agreed with the compact, and sat down amid the cheers of those who had been working with him to reduce the Government's estimates.
* The objects of this Association were:—
To unite the whole public service throughout the colony in the bonds of an association by which its interests can at all times, and under all circumstances, be judiciously and wisely considered and advanced; to establish an organisation by means of which the voice of the service can be expressed; to promote a competent and acknowledged authority to pronounce the opinions of the whole service upon every matter affecting it, and to provide means also for the full discussion before settlement of all such questions; to vindicate the rights of the service and uphold its claims; to disseminate a better conception of the work of the public service; to promulgate the uncontested opinions of statesmen of all ages that a country which does not respect and fairly treat its public services, opens the door to maladministration and corruption and saps at the root of that energy, zeal, and high standard of performance of duty without which no country can be well served or well governed; to urge that the record of the public service of New Zealand has been such as to give no cause for detraction; to claim that the public service of the colony should open a well-assured and honourable career., and that the attainment of distinction therein by long and faithful duty is deserving of at least as much honour and reward as are accorded to those who become eminent in any other profession; to obtain recognition of the principle that there is no higher field of duty for a man than to faithfully serve the country; and its corollary, that the position of such a man should be held in the esteem and given the consideration due to it; to promote by every possible means and influence the passing of such a constitution as has been granted to the civil and public service of England, and of nearly all her colonies—a constitution that shall establish, once and for all, the position, rank, and status of the New Zealand service, and of all its various branches and members; shall lay down comprehensive and well-defined lines of classification, promotion, salaries, organisation, and general service; shall free the service from the injurious influence of patronage and from the possibility of unnecessary and uncalled-for interference, at the instigation of political or party motives; and shall ensure that just and honourable independence which is already granted in other parts of the Empire; to collect forthwith all the Acts and Statutes, papers, reports, etc., dealing with the organisation of the public service in other countries, so as to enable the same to be carefully studied and collated by a committee of the Council of the Association, in order that the broad outlines, if not the details, of a measure may be laid down which shall promise to achieve the results already pointed out as so desirable, and which may be agreed to by the service of the whole colony before the meeting of the new Parliament.