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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XIV — Learning to Walk

page 189

Chapter XIV
Learning to Walk

Some therefore cried one thing and some another; for the Assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together.

The constitution under which the colonists were granted the management of their own affairs was partly based on Grey's suggestions, though it was drafted in England by Mr. Adderley under Gibbon Wakefield's supervision. Its quality may be judged from its duration. It worked almost without alteration for twenty-two years, and in the main well. Thereafter it was much cut about and altered. Briefly described, it provided the Colony with a dual system of self-government under a Viceroy appointed by the Colonial Office, who was to be Commander-in-Chief of the Queen's forces in the Dominion, and might reserve Bills for the consideration of Her Majesty—in effect for that of the Home Government. Under this proviso laws restricting immigration from other parts of the Empire or affecting mercantile marine have, it may be mentioned, been sometimes reserved and vetoed. Foreign affairs and currency were virtually excluded from the scope of the Colonial Government. The Viceroy might use his judgment in granting or withholding dissolutions of Parliament. Side by side with the central Parliament were to exist a number of provincial assemblies. The central Parliament was to have two Chambers, the Provincial Councils one. Over the Parliament was to be the Viceroy ruling through Ministers; over each Provincial Council, a Superintendent elected, like the Councils, by the people of his province. Each Superintendent was to have a small executive of officials, who were themselves to be councillors—a sort of small Cabinet. The central Parlia- page 190 ment, called the General Assembly, was to have an Upper Hcuse called the Legislative Council, whose members were, Grey suggested, to be elected by the Provincial Councils. But in England, Sir John Pakington demurred to this, and decided that they should be nominated for life by the Crown. Their number was not fixed by law. Had Grey's proposal been carried out, New Zealand would have had a powerful Senate eclipsing altogether the Lower Chamber. The thirty-seven members of the Lower House were, of course, to be elected—on a franchise liberal though not universal. To be eligible, a member must be qualified to have his name on an electoral roll, must not have been convicted of any infamous offence, and would lose his seat by bankruptcy. Until 1880 the ordinary duration of Parliament was five years. The Provinces numbered six: Auckland, Taranaki, Nelson, Wellington, Canterbury, and Otago. The Maori had no special representation. They might register as landowners, and vote with the White electors, but as a matter of fact not many did so, and after a foolish and unfair delay of fifteen years they were given four members solely chosen by Maori, and who must themselves be Maori or half-castes. Two of their chiefs were at the same time called to the Legislative Council.

In 1853, the year of the land regulations, the Governor was entrusted with the task of proclaiming the constitution. He took the rather curious course of bringing the Provincial Councils into existence, and leaving the summoning of the central Parliament to his successor. He left the Dominion in December of the same year, praised and regretted by the Maori, regarded by the settlers with mixed feelings. Nevertheless, it would not be easy now to find anyone who would refuse a very high meed of praise to Governor Grey's first administration. It was not merely that he found the Colony on the brink of ruin, and left it in a state of prosperity and progress. Able subalterns, a rise in prices, the development of some new industry, might have brought about the improvement. Such causes have often made reputations for colonial rulers and statesmen. But in Grey's case no impartial student can fail to see that to a considerable extent the change for the better was due to him. Moreover, he not only grappled with the difficulties of his time, but with both foresight and page 191 power of imagination built for the future, and—with one marked exception—laid foundations deep and well.

If the Colonial Office did not see its way to retain Grey in the Colony until his constitution had been put into full working order, it should, at least, have seen that he was succeeded by a capable official. This was not done. His successor did not arrive for two years, and meanwhile the Vice-regal office devolved upon Colonel Wynyard, a good-natured soldier, unfitted for the position. The first Parliament of New Zealand was summoned, and met at Auckland on the Queen's birthday in 1854. Many, perhaps most, of its members were well-educated men of character and capacity. The presence of Gibbon Wakefield, now himself become a colonist, added to the interest of the scene. At last, those who had been agitating so long for self-government had the boon apparently within their grasp. In their eyes it was a great occasion—the true commencement of national life in the Colony. The irony of fate, or the perversity of man, turned it into a curious anti-climax. The Parliament, indeed, duly assembled. But it dispersed after weeks of ineffectual wrangling and intrigue, amid scenes which were discreditable and are still ridiculous. Those who had drawn up the constitution had forgotten that government, through responsible Ministers forming a Cabinet and possessing the confidence of the elective Chamber, must be a necessary part of their system. Not only was no provision made for it in the written constitution, but the Colonial Office had sent the Governor no instructions on the subject. The Viceroy was surrounded by Patent Officers, some of whom had been administering since the first days of the Colony. No place of refuge had been prepared for them, and, naturally, they were not going to surrender their posts without a struggle. Colonel Wynyard was wax in the hands of the cleverest of these—Mr. Attorney-General Swainson. When the Parliament met, he asked three members to join with his old advisers in forming a Cabinet. They agreed to do so, and one of them, Mr. James Edward Fitzgerald, a Canterbury settler of brilliant abilities, figured as the Colony's first Premier. An Irish gentleman, an orator and a wit, he was about as fitted to cope with the peculiar and delicate imbroglio before him as Murat would have been to conceive page 192 and direct one of Napoleon's campaigns. In a few weeks he and his Parliamentary colleagues came to loggerheads with the old officials in the Cabinet, and threw up the game. Then came prorogation for a fortnight and another hybrid ministry, known to New Zealand history as the “Clean-Shirt Ministry,” because its leader ingenuously informed Parliament that when asked by the Governor to form an administration, he had gone upstairs to put on a clean shirt before presenting himself at Government House. The Clean-Shirt Ministry lived for just two days. It was born and died amid open recrimination and secret wire-pulling, throughout which Mr. Attorney Swainson, who had got himself made Speaker of the Upper House while retaining his post as the Governor's legal adviser, and Mr. Gibbon Wakefield, who was ostensibly nothing but a private member of the Lower House, pulled the strings behind the scenes. Wakefield began by putting himself at the head of the agitation for responsible Ministers. When later, after negotiating with the Governor's entourage, he tried compromise, the majority of the House turned angrily upon him. At last a compromise was arrived at. Colonel Wynyard was to go on with his Patent Officers until a Bill could be passed and assented to in England establishing responsible government; then the old officials were to be pensioned off and shelved. At one stage in this singular session the Governor sent a message to the House written on sheets of paper, one of the leaves of which the clerk found to be missing. Gibbon Wake-field thereupon coolly pulled the missing portion out of his pocket and proposed to hand it in—a piece of effrontery which the House could not stomach. On another occasion the door of the House had to be locked to prevent the minority running away to force on a count-out, and one honourable member assaulted another with his fists. Australia laughed at the scene, which, it may here be said, has never been repeated in the New Zealand Legislature. The greatest man in the Parliament was the greatest failure of the session. Gibbon Wakefield left Auckland unpopular and distrusted. Soon afterwards his health broke down, and the rest of his life was passed in strict retirement in the Colony which he had founded and in which he died.

The Colonial Office snubbed Colonel Wynyard and Mr. page 193 Swainson, and informed them that responsible government could be initiated without an Act of Parliament. A year, however, passed before the General Assembly was summoned together, and then it merely did formal work, as the Acting-Governor had taken upon himself to ordain that there should be a dissolution previous to the establishment of responsible Ministers. This put everything off till the middle of 1856, by which time Colonel Wynyard had left the Colony. To his credit be it noted that he had kept out of native wars. Moreover, in his time, thanks to the brisk trade caused by the gold discoveries in Australia and the progress of sheep-farming in the South Island, the country was waxing prosperous.

The second Parliament met in 1856, and still for a time there was confusion. First, Mr. Sewell formed a ministry which lived for thirteen days; then Sir William Fox another which existed for thirteen days more. After that, Sir Edward Stafford took the helm and made headway. A loan of £600,000 was the fair wind that filled his sails. Judgment in choosing colleagues and officials, very fair administrative abilities, attention to business, and an indisposition to push things to extremes in the House were some of the qualities which enabled him to retain office for four years, and to regain it more than once afterwards. Until 1873 he and his rival, Mr. Fox, were considered inevitable members of almost any combination. Native affairs were in the forefront during that period. Mr. Fox, the most impulsive, pugnacious, and controversial of politicians, usually headed the peace party; Sir Edward Stafford, much more easy going in ordinary politics, was usually identified with those who held that peace could only be secured by successful war.

The other principal moving cause in public affairs between 1856 and 1876 was the Provincial system. That had had much to do with the confusion of the sessions of 1854 and 1856. Then and afterwards members were not so much New Zealanders, or Liberals, or Conservatives, as they were Aucklanders, or men of Otago, or some other Province. The hot, vigorous local life which Provincial institutions intensified was in itself an admirable thing. But it engendered a mild edition of the feelings which set Greek States and Italian cities at each others' throats. From the first many colonists were convinced page 194 that Provincialism was unnatural and must go. But for twenty years the friends of the Provinces were usually ready to forego quarrelling with each other when the Centralists in Parliament threatened the Councils. There were able men in the Colony who devoted their energies by preference to Provincial politics. Such was Dr. Featherston, who was for eighteen years the trusted Superintendent of Wellington, and who, paternally despotic there, watched and influenced Parliament, and was ever vigilant on the Provinces' behalf.

In truth the Provinces had been charged with important functions. The management and sale of Crown lands, education, police, immigration, laws relating to live-stock and timber, harbours, the making of roads and bridges—almost the entire work of colonization—came within their scope. By a “compact” arrived at in the session of 1856 each Province was in effect given the entire control of its public lands—an immense advantage to those of the South Island, where these were neither forest-covered nor in Maori hands. On the other hand, it would have been grossly unfair to confiscate them for general purposes. The Wakefield system in Canterbury would have been unbearable had the £2 paid by the settlers for each acre been sent away to be spent elsewhere. The Wakefield price was a local tax, charged and submitted to to get a revenue to develop the lands for which it was paid. As it was, half-a-crown an acre was handed over by each Province to the Central Treasury as a contribution for national purposes. Loans were also raised by Parliament to buy native land for the North Island Provinces.

On the other hand, the Provinces enjoyed their land revenue —when there was any—their pastoral rents, a dog tax, and such fag-ends of Customs revenue as the central Government could spare them. Their condition was quite unequal. Canterbury, with plenty of high-priced land, could more than dispense with aid from the centre. Other Provinces, with little or no land revenue, were mortified by having to appear at Wellington as suppliants for special grants. When the Provinces borrowed money for the work of development, they had to pay higher rates of interest than the Colony would have had to pay. Finally, the colonial treasurer had not only to finance for one large Colony, but for half a dozen smaller page 195 governments, and ultimately to guarantee their debts. No wonder that one of her Premiers has said that New Zealand was a severe school of statesmanship.

Yet for many years the ordinary dissensions of Liberal and Tory, of classes and the parties of change and conservatism, were hardly seen in the Parliament which sat at Auckland until 1864 and thereafter at Wellington. Throughout the settlements labour as a rule was in demand, often able to dictate its own terms, nomadic, and careless of politics. The land question was relegated to the Provincial councils, where round it contending classes and rival theories were grouped. It was in some of the councils, notably that of Otago, that the mutterings of Radicalism began first to be heard. The rapid change which bred a parliamentary Radical party after the fall of the Provinces in 1876 was the inevitable consequence of the transfer of the land problem to the central legislature and the destruction of those local safety-valves—the councils. Meanwhile, the ordinary lines of division were not found in the central legislature. According as this or that question came into the foreground, parties and groups in the House of Representatives shifted and changed like the cloud shown to Polonius. Politics made strange bed-fellows; Cabinets were sometimes the oddest hybrids. One serviceably industrious lawyer, Mr. Henry Sewell, was something or other in nine different Ministries between 1854 and 1872. The Premier of one year might be a subordinate Minister the next; or some subtle and persistent nature, like that of Sir Frederick Whitaker, might manage chiefs whom he appeared to follow, and be the guiding mind of parties which he did not profess to direct. Lookers-on asked for more stable executives and more definite lines of cleavage. Newly arrived colonists impatiently summed it all up as mere battling of Ins against Outs, and lamented the sweet simplicity of political divisions as they had known them in the Mother-country.