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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 5 (August 1, 1934)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 17 John Ballance the Great Liberal Premier

page 17

Famous New Zealanders
No. 17 John Ballance the Great Liberal Premier.

The Hon. John Ballar.ce (1839–1893) was one of several great Irishmen who took leading parts in the political drama of New Zealand. He came to the Colony in the mid-Sixties; he became a vigorous newspaper writer; he served in the Colonial military forces in the Maori War, as a cavalryman; he gave his country many years of service in Parliament, and he died in the midst of his labours as Premier, when he was only fifty-four. He was the most progressive statesman of his day in Liberal legislation, following on Sir George Grey's impassioned advocacy of the people's rights, and on his death his policy was continued and extended by his colleague and comrade, Richard Seddon. Ballance was a victim of overwork and neglect of self in the country's interest; so, too, Seddon, thirteen years later, died because he preferred strenuous public toil to the rest he needed.

John Ballance

John Ballance

No better colonists ever set foot on New Zealand shores than the men from the North of Ireland. Two typical pioneers from that part of the British Isles were John Ballance and William F. Massey. They differed greatly in temperament, training and political creed and outlook: they were alike in their honesty of purpose, their tireless industry, their efforts to leave their country the better for their presence in it. Ballance was the adventurous progressive type; he saw far ahead of his time; he was a champion of the common right of all to a share in the source of all wealth—land; he advocated the rights of labour, the rights of women to the franchise, the bettering of social conditions for the mass of workers and their families. He led the Opposition against a strongly entrenched Conservative administration; when success came at last, fortythree years ago, he gathered into his Cabinet a band of men who after his untimely death carried on his crusade that turned the world's eyes on New-Zealand as the most advanced of all lands in State experiments for the public betterment.

Early Life in Ireland and England.

John Ballance was born at Glenavy, County Antrim, on March 27, 1839. His father, Samuel Ballance, was a tenant farmer on Lord Hertford's estate. He had no opportunity of following up his education in a National primary school with a college or university course. He was apprenticed to an ironmonger when he left school, and in this occupation he removed to Birmingham, where he spent eight years. There he was in the heart of the Radical movement, and also in the midst of the new progressive crusade which was filling the youth of the great industrial places with a craving for self-improvement. That was where he began to develop his powers of expression in public debate. He read much; he exercised body as well as brain and while he learned to use the English tongue with accuracy and force he became also a skilful boxer in the gymnasium. It was in Birmingham, therefore, in one way and another, that his real training for life's work began.

With this activity of mind and muscle there came presently a desire to see more of the world than his life in Birmingham afforded, and he read of the British colonies and the possibilities there for young men of spirit, as the old phrase went. He decided to emigrate to Australia, and took passage in a sailing ship for Melbourne. That was in 1866, when he was twenty-seven years old.

Pioneer Life at Wanganui.

Victoria did not hold him long. He crossed to New Zealand with the intention of becoming a sheep-farmer. The Wanganui district was his selected field, but being without capital or experience he quickly realised that the life of the wool-grower was not for him. In England he had acquired the taste for writing, and especially controversial writing, which naturally follows upon a course of debating-society activities. In Wanganui he saw an opportunity of engaging in journalism as editor-proprietor, and he started a newspaper, the “Wanga- nui Heralri,” in which he was able to give full play to his steadily growing talent for self-expression with the pen. He had more than the gift of expression; he had ideas and ideals; his leading articles brought a healing breath of salt and fire into the community. So he began the campaign of agitation for political and social reform which before long carried him into the Legislature.

The Cavalryman.

In the meantime there was a call for action in another field, the great adventure of military life. The Maori Wars were on; there was enlisting and drilling, and all the stir and thrill of soldiering. Titokowaru and his Hauhaus, having defeated Colonel Whitmore at Moturoa, towards the end of 1868, were raiding down the Coast; at one time they were within a day's march of Wanganui town. John Ballance was prominent in the page 18 formation of the Wanganui Cavalry, a troop which with the Kai-iwi Cavalry, composed chiefly of settlers and their sons, gave excellent service on the frontier of those days. Lieutenant (afterwards Captain) Finnimore commanded the Wanganui troop, in which John Ballance enlisted.

Lieutenant John Bryce was appointed to the command of the Kai-iwi troop. Ballance and Bryce were two men destined to fill important places in their country's councils. Bryce was an experienced farmer and frontiers-man, and he was naturally well quailfied as leader of a mounted corps. Ballance being a tyro in colonial life was content with the rank of a trooper; but after some weeks of training and a skirmish at Nukumaru, he became corporal and later was promoted to cornet—a junior commissioned officer of the old-time cavalry.

But a rude ending came for the volunteer soldiering life that he was thoroughly enjoying. He had been writing for his paper while at the front “own correspondent” accounts of the campaign, in which he criticised the methods of the local high command. These candid opinions gave offence to the military heads. Superior officers must not be criticised by a mere subaltern. Ballance presently found himself relieved of his commission; and was free, in conesquence, to write even more frankly of the military men and the delay in taking effective measures against the Hauhau war parties which had held command of a large part of the coast for several months.

Wanganui's M.H.R.

Six years of life in Wanganui had brought John Ballance well into the public eye and there were requests that he. should stand for Parliament. The first constituency he chose for contest was not Wanganui, however, but Egmont. He soon discovered that the veteran Major Atkinson was too strongly entrenched in the Taranaki people's favour to be displaced by a newcomer, and he retired before election day. Next time he selected a seat nearer home and in 1875 he entered Parliament as member for Rangitikei. He represented that district until 1880 when he was returned for Wanganui. With a three years' interlude, a defeat by Mr. W. H. Watt, he held the seat until his death in 1893.

The young Irishman with an English radical training soon attracted attention in the House of Representatives and gave proof of ability to think logically and to express his thoughts with force and directness and an adequate command of English. He became a follower of Sir George Grey, in fact that great statesman's most advanced disciple in the new democratic crusade that opened with Grey's Premiership.

In the Ministry.

He was offered a portfolio, Education, when he had been only three years in Parliament. He held this for a few months, then became Colonial Treasurer; but Grey was a difficult man to get on with, as most of his colleagues discovered sooner or later, and Ballance resigned after eighteen months' experience of ministerial life. That was in the middle of 1879. (It was in that year that Richard John Seddon first entered the House.) In 1884 Ballance was in the Cabinet room again, this time as Minister for Native Affairs in the Stout-Vogel Government; to this responsibility was added the administration of Defence and Lands. Ministries rose and fell rapidly in that era of New Zealand's political life. It was in 1891 that the great opportunity came. John Ballance was called upon, to form a Ministry. He was Premier for only two years before death cut short his work and plans; but short as it was that period of extraordinary legislative vigour was long enough to enable Ballance and his party to bring in and pass into law an instalment of the great Liberal policy measures which attracted world wide attention to New Zealand.

Land Laws Reform.

It was as Minister of Lands in the Stout-Vogel Government that Mr. Ballance first had an untrammelled hand in shaping a settlement policy of a liberal and in fact revolutionary character, the beginning of the socialistic programme which Richard Seddon and John McKenzic expanded and elaborated in the Nineties. He consolidated the land laws, and framed additions which made the land more accessible to settlers. Village settlements were from the beginning a pet scheme with Ballance. The plan generally was good; the reasons why such methods of attaching small-farmers to a land sometimes failed was that unsuitable and remote districts were chosen for the experiments. But he succeeded in giving many working-men near large centres an opportunity of obtaining suitable areas of land where they could grow food and develop their longings for a healthy self-reliant life for themselves and their families.

It was in the late Eighties, when Ballance was foremost in opposition to the Atkinson Government, that a number of afterwards notable men formed a strong Young New Zealand Party. John McKenzie, Joseph Ward, W. P. Reeves, James Mills were among its most prominent members; Ballance and Seddon by this time were veterans of the Liberal cause.

Premier of the Colony.

When the Session of 1891 opened, a division on the election of the Speaker gave the Liberal party a majority of seven-37 against the Conservative party's 30. The Government resigned on this decision, and Mr. Ballance was requested by the Governor to form a Ministry. He did so, and chose the following members of his Cabinet: —Mr. W. P. Reeves, Minister for Education and Justice; Mr. Seddon, Minister for Public Works, Mines and Defence; Sir Patrick Buckley, Attorney-General, Colonial Secretary and Postmaster-General; Sir John. McKenzie, Lands, Immigration and Agriculture; Sir Joseph Ward, Post and Telegraph Department; Sir Alfred Jerome Cadman, Stamp Duties. In addition to the Premiership, Mr. Ballance took over the duties of Native Minister and Commissioner for Trade and Customs. (These Cabinet members were, of course, all plain “Misters” then; the knighthoods came later.) This was the sturdy “band of brothers” who pioneered the great political reforms and social improvement policy of the New Thought in New Zealand affairs.

After a stormy first season, during which the much-detested property-tax was repealed, but other Liberal reforms were obstructed by the Conservative die-hards in the Legislative Council, the Government made twelve new appointments to the Council in order to get its measures passed into law. This was not done without a bitter struggle for the Colony's rights of self-government, for the Governor of the day, Lord Glasgow, refused to approve of more than nine new members of the Upper House. Mr. Ballance required the twelve in order to give his party a working majority. The controversy created a great stir in the country; the situation turned on the right or otherwise of a Governor to ignore the advice of his Ministers on such a question. It was tolerably clear that there would be a serious difference with the Imperial authorities if a Governor was to be permitted to flout the constitutional rights of the. people. The dispute was referred to the Secretary of State page 19 for the Colonies, who decided that the Governor must accept unreservedly the advice of the Government. This victory for the Liberal cause assured the steady progress of the Liberal legislation.

Ballance was not the first land laws reformer. Mr. Rolleston, in a previous administration, had introduced the perpetual-lease system of tenure. Ballance's special service was in the village settlement scheme which he developed during his period of office as Minister of Lands in the Stout-Vogel Government.

Votes for Women.

Another direction in which he strongly advocated progressive legislation was in connection with electoral rights. He strenuously worked, from 1879 onward, for women's franchise. A Bill to this end had been introduced in Parliament several times without success. When he became Premier he gave a pledge that the franchise would be made a Government measure, and on his death Mr. Seddon took up the Bill and it was passed into law in September, 1893. Ballance's spirit should have rejoiced at this crowning triumph of many years of struggle for women's rights.

Illness and Death.

It was in the latter part of 1891 that the Premier's state of health. after long-continued ominous signs of impending trouble, at last compelled him to leave the duties of leadership to his colleague for a while. He had been working very long hours, at high pressure. While he was ill Mr. Seddon led the House. The Premier heroically returned to his duties before he was really well enough for the physical effort and mental labour. Ht suffered internally from an intestinal complaint; he had often to retire to his room in agony. Repeatedly he returned to the House to pilot through his measures, in particular the Electoral Bill. During the whole of 1892 he was suffering greatly, with too brief periods of relief from the duties of his position. He should have resigned, as his friends begged him. and abandoned his Parliamentary duties in the cause of health. Of course he would not: his reply to the doctor who pointed out the necessity for a complete rest after an operation, and possibly a long sea voyage. was that he would rather die at his post than abandon the cause to which the people had called him. He likened himself to a soldier on the battlefield who could not desert his comrades. A reply that revealed the heroic soul, but it was heroic folly. He insisted on carrying on with preparations for (he session of 1893, but an operation became urgently necessary. In his greatly weakened state he sank, and died, on the 27th April.

Like many another great and honest man he was a martyr to duty. But, like Seddon after him. he was perhaps obsessed, as ill-health increased, with the idea that he was indispensable to his cause and party. He was only fifty-four years old. Like another good colonist and statesman, Sir Donald Maclean, the great Native Minister who died at fifty-six, he was a victim to the responsibilities and anxieties of an harrassing public life.

Ballance's death was peculiarly pathetic, as Mr. James Drummond put it in his “Life of Seddon.” “He had spent many of his best years in a struggle against heavy odds. At last he had been victorious, with a greater victory than anyone had thought the Liberal party would ever achieve. He was taken away at the very moment when his position was assured; and he did not live to see the fruition of his schemes. The colony now looks upon him as one of its heroes, a simple, broad-minded cultured gentleman, with a large heart, which beat in sympathy with the people's needs and aspirations. The task he had undertaken in leading the country was not too much for his abilities, but it was too much for his strength.”

Richard Seddon's Tribute.

Mr. Seddon's affectionate testimony to the work and nobility of his departed chief was expressive also of the popular estimate of Mr. Ballance's character, irrespective of political issues and parties. “He has been a good, true and faithful servant to the colony,” he said. “He was ever generous alike to opponents and friends. He was a wise counsellor and had the entire confidence of those whom he led. I can go further and say that he was loved and respected by all; and I might truthfully say that we shall never see his like again. His life proves that he sought not riches; but what he did seek, and what he obtained, was the goodwill of his fellow-men. His example is one that our young men might wisely follow. To the nook profession of journalism he was an ornament, and the great power at his command was always used in the interest of those around him, and in the interests of the country.”

After Sir George Grey. john Ballance. as James Drummond so accurately says, was Mr. Seddon's political hero. Seddon never tired of speaking of the real greatness and goodness of heart of Ballancc, whose views for the amelioration of the people's lot and in particular the use or the land were so far in advance of other men's.

As was fitting John Ballance was buried with military honours, in the town which he had helped to defend in the days of the Maori Wars, by active service on the near frontier. His comrades, the veterans of the old Wanganui Cavalry, were at the graveside. The whole colony mourned for the chief, taken away in the midst of his labours; but the sorrow of Wanganui was the most acute and profound of all, for in that town John Ballance had spent nearly half his life.

The two Crusaders.

I have a memory of Mr. Ballance as was in his early days of the Premiership, when he and Sir John
(Photograph taken by Lord Bledisloe) Lake Mspourika (near Waiho Gorge) and the Franz Josef Glacier, South Island, New Zealand.

(Photograph taken by Lord Bledisloe)
Lake Mspourika (near Waiho Gorge) and the Franz Josef Glacier, South Island, New Zealand.

page 20 page 21 (then Mr.) McKenzie visited Auckland and foregathered sociably one evening with a party of newspaper men. They were a burly pair, and cheerful. John Ballance was probably suffering even then from the physical ills that carried him off, but he always man-fully tried to show a happy face to the world. Ballance was not a small man by any means, but the big broad-shouldered Highlander towered a head above him. One would like to have seen him in the tartan of his clan tossing the caber at the Highland sports—or wielding the claymore in a charge on the Sassenach foe. But Jock McKenzie's claymore was the Liberal party's land legislation that cut asunder the too-huge estates of the sheep-graziers, and gave opportunity to the landless men, the men 'who longed for a life on the land, and obtained their heart's desire.

An Impression of Ballance.

In the little book of often uncomplimentary character sketches, “Political Portraits,” by “Quiz” published in Wellington in 1892, there is a word-picture of John Ballance which, in part, is the best description of the man that I have read. But it has its acid touches. I quote the more accurate and fair portions of the sketch from the pen of “Quiz.” otherwise Joseph Evison; I omit the rest because it exhibits a spirit of malice in which the author of “Political Portraits” often indulged at the expense of those with whose politics he disagreed. Here is Ballance in his early days as Premier: —

“A tall, but not very tall man. Physically, a large man—large all over. Head, well developed; hair, smooth and iron-grey; eyes of pale or neutral tint, eyes which look out cautiously, sometimes suspiciously, at times timidly, from beneath penthouse brows; features massive and marked, Hibernian in cast; shoulders, large and round—rounded, may be, by the cares of State or the burden of leader-writing when there was nothing to write about; arms, long; hands, small and, seen from the distance, delicate. Garb these proportions in seemly broadcloth, tweed, and fair linen, and you have, roughly speaking, the Premier of New Zealand. Very roughly, of course, because the paragraph descriptive of the passport or Police Gazette variety, merely sketches, so to speak, the rind of the person advertised. At first glance Mr. Ballance undoubtedly gives the impression of strength, of physical and mental sturdiness. Those, however, who have learned to distrust first impressions, and to note physical and mental characteristics, apparently trifling, but really useful, might perhaps hesitate before they credited the Premier with bodily or mental robustness of the first order

“In manner Mr. Ballance is generally agreeable. When he is having everything his own way he is very-agreeable. Many people are like that. When he is nice, he is very, very nice. It has been said of him that his methods are sometimes saponaceous. Wherever or however obtained, Mr. Ballance is in possession of a vast variety of useful information. There is a certain amount of useful information of which he is not in possession. This frequently happens even with celebrated persons. Largely self-taught, many of Mr. Ballance's errors and mistakes spring from the fact that his studies have never been judiciously directed, that he has not digested all that he has read, and that many of his opinions arc, not unnaturally, crude. He, like Sir Robert Stout, is too prone to take up raw theories elegantly propounded in British or American magazine articles, the writers of which little think what may be amusement to them may he seriously swallowed, without proper mental mastication, by some well-meaning gentleman, who holds for the time being the destinies of his country in the hollow of his hand. Without writing the Hon. John Ballance down as a political failure I think that he would have been a better, a more useful, and a far happier member of society had he never rushed into political life. He, a man of peace, fond of the acquisition of knowledge, enjoying many pleasant and semi-scientific hobbies, has, somehow or another, drilled into the political Donnybrook, where skulls are broken, nose? spoilt, and limbs fractured, just for pure diversion. Being there, and not caring for hard knocks, he saves his head as much as possible by clever skirmishing and scheming, makes up for his deficiencies as a fighter by the loudness of his encouragement to his followers, clips an enemy over the head with a black-thorn when safe opportunity offers, would hugely prefer to be out of the scrimmage altogether, and will get out of it the first moment he can, with decency or with profit to do so.” It all depend, of course, on the point of view, the political view; “Quiz” wrote before Mr. Ballance had had an opportunity of fully proving his usefulness to the nation. But one thing is certain: he would have lived far longer had he refrained from the fascinating but sometimes fatal game of party politics.

Wanted to Sell.

Well-built six-roomed house close to Christchurch and Addington Railway Stations. Would make a very desirable residence for a railway man. Has, ail modern conveniences; well-appointed bathroom; modern gas cooker. Brick garage, tool-shed. The section is a ¼-acre. One tram section to town and within one minute's walk of two. tram routes. The owner is now in Australia. Apply P.O. Box 325, Christchurch.*

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