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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XX — In Parliament

page 245

Chapter XX
In Parliament

Shapes of all sorts and sizes, great and small,
That stood upon the floor or by the wall,
And some loquacious Vessels were, and some
Listened, perhaps, but never talked at all.

When we come to look at the men as distinct from the measures of the Parliament of New Zealand between 1870 and to-day, the first interesting and curious feature is the Continuous Ministry. With some approach to accuracy it may be said to have come into office in August 1869, and to have finally expired in January 1891. Out of twenty-one years and a half it held office for between sixteen and seventeen years. Sir Edward Stafford turned and kept it out for a month in 1872; Sir George Grey for two years, 1877–9; Sir Robert Stout for three years, 1884–7. None of the Ministries which thus for longer or shorter periods supplanted it ever commanded strong majorities, or held any thorough control over the House. The Continuous Ministry was a name given to a shifting combination, or rather series of combinations, amongst public men, by which the Cabinet was from time to time modified without being completely changed at any one moment. It was possible because New Zealand was still more or less of an oligarchy. The franchise was broadened from time to time. The masses were getting votes. But not until 1890 did they begin to be organized or self-assertive. The Continuous Ministry might be likened to the pearly nautilus, which passes, by gradual growth and movement, from cell to cell in slow succession; or, more prosaically, to that oft-repaired garment, which at last consisted entirely of patches. Like the nautilus, too, it had respectable sailing and floating powers. The continuous page 246 process was rather the outcome of rapidly changing conditions and personal exigencies than of any set plan or purpose. With its men, its opinions and actions underwent alterations. Naturally the complete transformation which came over the Dominion during the two decades between 1870 and 1890 had its effect on the point of view of colonists and their public men. The Continuous Ministry began by borrowing, and never really ceased to borrow; but its efforts at certain periods of the second of these two decades to restrict borrowing and retrench ordinary expenditure were in striking contrast to the lavishness of the years between 1872 and 1877. At its birth under Sir William Fox its sympathies were provincial and mildly democratic. It quickly quarrelled with and overthrew the Provinces, and became identified with Conservatism as that term is understood in New Zealand. From 1869 to 1872 its leaders were Fox, Vogel, and McLean. Fox left it in 1872; Major Atkinson joined it in 1874; Vogel quitted it in 1876; McLean died in 1877. Put out of office by Sir George Grey, it was for a short time led once more by Sir William Fox. It came back again in 1879 as a Hall-Atkinson-Whitaker combination. Hall retired in 1881, but Atkinson and Whitaker, helped by his advice, continued to direct it to the end.

More interesting and less of a passing phase was the appearance on the stage of definite Liberalism. Rallying under Sir George Grey in 1876, the beaten Provincialists formed a party of progress, taking the good old name of Liberal. Though Sir George had failed to save their Provinces, his eloquent exhortations rapidly revived in the House of Representatives the democratic tendencies of some of the Councils. Hitherto any concessions to Radicalism or Collectivism made by the House had been viewed in the most easy-going fashion. Vogel in his earlier years had adopted the ballot, and had set up a State Life Insurance Department, which has been successfully managed, and has now seventeen millions assured in it. More interesting and valuable still was his establishment of the office of Public Trustee. So well has the experiment worked that it may be said as a plain truth that in New Zealand, the best possible Trustee, the one least subject to accidents of fortune, and most exempt from the errors which beset man's honesty and judgment, has been page 247 found by experience to be the State. The Public Trust Office of the Dominion worked at first in a humble way, chiefly in taking charge of small intestate estates. Experience, however, showed its advantages so clearly that it has now property approaching thirty millions' worth in its care. Any owner of property, whether he resides in the Dominion or not, wishing to create a trust, may use the Public Trustee, subject, of course, to that officer's consent. Anyone who desires so to do may appoint him the executor of his will. Anyone about to leave, or who has left the country, may make him his attorney. The Public Trustee may step in and take charge not only of intestate estates, but of an inheritance where no executor has been named under the will, or where those named will not act. He manages and protects the property of lunatics. Where private trust estates become the cause of disputes and quarrels, between trustees and beneficiaries, the parties thereto may relieve themselves by handing over their burden to the public office. The Public Trustee never dies, never goes out of his mind, never leaves the Dominion, never becomes disqualified, and never becomes that extremely disagreeable and unpleasant person—a trustee whom you do not trust. That the Public Trustee is gaining more and more the confidence of the public is evidenced by the fact that in 1923 the number of wills deposited with him was more than five times greater than in 1914. Naturally, the class which has the most cause to be grateful to the Public Trust Office is that composed of widows and orphans and other unbusinesslike inheritors of small properties, persons whose little inheritances are so often mismanaged by private trustees or wasted in law costs.

Another reform carried out by Vogel had been the adoption of the Torrens system of land transfer. Henceforth, under the Land Transfer Law, Government officers did nearly all the conveyancing business of the Dominion. Land titles were investigated, registered, and guaranteed, and sales and mortgages then became as simple and almost as cheap as the transfer of a parcel of shares in a company.

Even earlier the legislature had done a creditable thing in being the first in the Empire to abolish the scandal of public executions.

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1877 may be accounted the birth year of more militant and systematic reform.

Grey's platform speeches in the summer of 1876–7 brought home the new Radicalism to the feelings of the mass of the electors, and to the number, then considerable, who were not electors. To back him Grey had Stout and Ballance. For the first time a group of leaders appealed to the mass of the colonists with a policy distinctly and deliberately democratic. The result was awakening. Then and subsequently Grey advocated triennial Parliaments, one man one vote, a land tax, and a land policy based upon the leasing of land rather than its sale, and particularly upon a restriction of the area which any one man might acquire. The definite views of the Radicals bore fruit at once in the session of 1877. It was necessary to establish a national system of education to take up the useful but ill-jointed work done piecemeal by the Provinces. A Bill—and not a bad Bill—was introduced by Sir Charles Bowen, a gentleman honourably connected with the founding of education in Canterbury. This measure the Radicals took hold of and turned it into the free, secular, compulsory system of primary school-teaching of which the people are to-day justly proud, and under which the State educates thirteen-fourteenths of the children of the Dominion. Now, in 1924, out of an estimated population of about 1,377,000 all told, some 280,000 are at school or college. Of children between ten and fifteen years of age the proportion unable to read is but 0.43. The annual average of attendance is much higher in New Zealand than in any of the Australian States. The primary school system is excellent on its literary, and equally so on its technical side. Nearly three-fourths of the Roman Catholic children do not take advantage of it. Their parents prefer to support the schools of their church, though without State aid of any kind. These, and a proportion of the children of the wealthier, are the only exceptions to the general use made of the public schools. It is not likely that any change, either in the direction of teaching religion in these, or granting money to church schools, will be made. Each political party in turn is only too eager to charge the other with tampering with the National system—a sin the bare hint of which is like suspicion of witchcraft or heresy in the Middle Ages.

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Grey gained office in 1877, but with a majority too small to enable him to carry his measures. Ballance, his Treasurer, did indeed carry a tax upon land values. But its chief result at the time was to alarm and exasperate owners of land, and to league them against the Radicals, who after a not very brilliant experience of office without power fell in 1879. Thereafter, so utterly had Grey's angry followers lost faith in his generalship, that they deposed him—a humiliation which it could be wished they had seen their way to forego, or he to forgive. Yet he was, it must be confessed, a very trying leader. His cloudy eloquence would not do for human nature's daily food. His opponents, Atkinson and Hall, had not a tithe of his emotional power, but their facts and figures often riddled his fine speeches. Stout and Ballance became estranged from him; others of his friends were enough to have damned any Government. It is impossible to acquit Grey of blame for the anti-climax with which his only term of office ended. Stout, though a fiery Shetlander, was a man of honour and a reasonable and sincere politician. Ballance was a placable, almost gentle, colleague. The leader of a colonial party should have certain qualities which Sir George Grey did not possess. He may dispense with eloquence, but must be a debater; whether able or not able to rouse public meetings, he must know how to conduct wearisome and complicated business by discussion; he must not only have a grasp of great principles, but readiness to devote himself to the mastery of uninteresting minds and unappetizing details; above all, he must be generous and considerate to lieutenants who have their own views and their own followers, and who expect to have their full share of credit and influence. A man may be a very successful Premier without having quite all these qualities, but he cannot afford to be without every one of them. Nevertheless, one of Grey's courage, talent, culture, and prestige was not likely to fail to leave his mark upon the politics of the country; nor did he. Though he failed to pass the reforms just mentioned, he had the satisfaction of seeing them adopted and carried into law, some by his opponents, some by his friends. Only one of his pet proposals has been altogether lost sight of, his oft-repeated demand that the Governor of the Dominion should be elected by the people.

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John Ballance, of whom a brief sketch will be given later, died thirty years ago. Sir Robert Stout, the last survivor of the politicians of the seventies, still lives in New Zealand where he holds the distinguished position of Chief Justice. A man who after beginning life as a schoolmaster in a remote northern islet crossed the earth to a country where he became in turn leader of the Bar, Prime Minister, and Chief Justice must have the stuff that commands success, and Sir Robert has been very successful. But for one obstacle he would—so far as politics are concerned—have been more successful still. His difficulty was that he was unable to devote himself to public life continuously. He had to try and serve two masters, both equally exacting. No sooner had he made his mark in the House than the claims of Advocacy took him back to the law courts. After returning to Parliament for some years he had the bad luck to lose his election when Prime Minister. That misfortune could soon have been repaired, but once out of the House he had again to yield to the pressure of professional duties for a long term. And though in 1893 he came back a second time, absence caused him to miss the leadership of his party. Nevertheless from 1876 to 1899 he was, whether in office or out, in Parliament or outside it, a force to be reckoned with and an influence which made itself felt. When at his best, say about 1887, he had no real rival as an all-round public speaker. For he was equally good on the platform and in the House. When facing a public meeting his strong physique, good presence, and obvious courage put him on terms with his audience at once. He wasted no time over circumlocution, went straight on with the case that he had to state, and stated it in good plain English, delivered with plenty of action and vigour. Without Grey's emotional art and thrilling tremolo, he trusted to carefully arranged arguments, driven energetically home, and usually, though not invariably, paid his audience the compliment of appealing to their reason. In the House too he was a fighter, “as het as ginger and as stieve as steel.” Prompt, intensely combative, and with an advocate's knack of scoring points, he had the advantage of a strong memory and a knowledge of procedure and statute law. Other assets were the fiery energy that compelled attention, and a lucidity page 251 which very rarely deserted him. He was a trenchant critic, who with a touch of humour and a little lightness of treatment would have been a great rhetorician. As it was, he was a most formidable antagonist—how formidable those knew best who had to cross swords with him. He was just as undaunted too when an almost solitary critic on a cross bench as when speaking as a Prime Minister able to put on the Government boots and use them. Of his five years' parliamentary duel with Mr. Seddon—that long encounter between Norse fire and horse sense—nothing need be written here: it belongs to the past.

Quis justior induit arma
Scire nefas.

Suffice it to say that when in 1898 he quitted Parliament for the last time, his departure left the House both a more pacific and a much less interesting place.

The Grey Ministry had committed what in a Colonial Cabinet is the least pardonable of crimes—it had encountered a commercial depression, with its concomitant, a shrunken revenue. When Hall and Atkinson succeeded Grey with a mission to abolish the land-tax, they had at once to impose a different but more severe burden. They also reduced—for a time—the cost of the public departments by the rough-and-ready method of knocking ten per cent, off all salaries and wages paid by the Treasury, a method which, applied as it was at first equally to low and high, had the unpopularity as well as the simplicity of the poll-tax. That retrenchment and fresh taxation were unpleasant necessities, and that Hall and Atkinson more than once tackled the disagreeable task of applying them, remains true and to their credit.

Between 1880 and 1890 the colonists were for the most part resolutely at work adapting themselves to the new order of things—to lower prices and slower progress. They increased their output of wool and coal—the latter a compensation for the falling-off of the gold. They found in frozen meat an export larger and—ultimately—more profitable than wheat. Later on they began, with marked success, to organize co-operative dairy factories and send cheese and butter to England. Public affairs during the decade resolved themselves chiefly into a series of expedients for filling the treasury page 252 and carrying on the work of land settlement. Borrowing went on, but more and more slowly. Bad times grew no better.

In 1885 and 1886 the industrial outlook was perhaps at its worst. In 1887 Atkinson and Whitaker, coming again into power, with Hall as adviser, administered a second dose of taxation-cum-retrenchment. They cut down the salaries of the Governor and the Ministers and the size and pay of the elected chamber. They made efforts, more equitable this time, to reduce the cost of the public departments. They stiffened the property-tax, and for the second time raised the Customs duties, giving them a distinctly Protectionist complexion. The broad result was the achievement of financial equilibrium. For twenty-five years there was no deficit in New Zealand. Apart from retrenchment, Atkinson had to rely upon the Opposition in forcing his financial measures through against the Free Traders amongst his own following. This strained his party. Moreover, in forming his cabinet in 1887 he had not picked some of his colleagues well. In particular, the absence of Mr. Rolleston's experience and knowledge from the House and the Government weakened him. Mr. Rolleston had his limitations, and his friends did the enemy a service when, after his return to public life in 1891, they put him at the head of an angry Opposition and tried to make a guerilla chief out of a scrupulous administrator. But he was a capable and far-sighted Minister of Lands, and his value at that post to his party may be gauged by what they suffered when they tried to do without him. The lands administration of the Atkinson Cabinet became deservedly unpopular, and the discontent therewith found a forcible exponent in an Otago farmer, Mr. John McKenzie, a gigantic Gael, in grim earnest in the cause of close settlement, and whose plain-spoken exposures of monopoly and “dummyism” not only woke up the Radicals, but went home to the smaller settlers far and wide. It may be that these things hastened the breaking-down of Sir Harry Atkinson's health in 1890. At any rate fail it did, unhappily. His colleague, Sir Frederick Whitaker, was ageing palpably. Nor did Sir John Hall's health allow him to take office.

With their tres Magi thus disabled, the Conservative Party page 253 began to lose ground. More than one cause, no doubt, explains how it was that up to 1891 the Liberals hardly ever had a command of Parliament equal to their hold upon the country. But the abilities of the three men just named had, I believe, a great share in holding them in check. Sir John Hall's devotion to work, grasp of detail, and shrewd judgment were proverbial. He was the most businesslike critic of a Bill in committee the House of Representatives ever had, and was all the more effective in politics for his studiously conciliatory manner. Astute and wary, Sir Frederick Whitaker was oftener felt than seen. But with more directness than Whitaker, and more fighting force than Hall, it was Atkinson who, from 1875 to his physical collapse in 1890, was the mainstay of his party. He carried through the abolition of the Provinces; he twice reorganized the finances; he was the protagonist of his side in their battles with Grey, Ballance, and Stout, and they could not easily have had a better. This chief of Grey's opponents was as unlike him in demeanour and disposition as one man can well be to another. The two seemed to have nothing in common, except inexhaustible courage. Grey had been trained in the theory of war, and any part he took therein was as leader. Atkinson had picked up a practical knowledge of bush-fighting by exchanging hard knocks with the Maori as a captain of militia. Grey was all courtesy; the other almost oddly tart and abrupt. Grey's oratory consisted of high-pitched appeals to great principles, which were sometimes eloquent, sometimes empty. His antagonist regarded Parliament as a place for the transaction of public business. When he had anything to say, he said it plainly; when he had a statement to make, he made it, and straightway went on to the next matter. His scorn of the graces of speech did not prevent him from being a punishing debater. Theories he had—of a quasi-socialistic kind. But his life was passed in confronting hard facts. Outside the House he was a working colonist; inside it a practical politician. It was his misfortune to hold office almost always in years of depression. When, with tragic suddenness, he died in harness, in the Legislative Council in 1892, there was not alone sincere sorrow among the circle of friends and allies who knew his sterling character, but, inasmuch as however page 254 hard he had hit in debate it had never been below the belt, his opponents joined in regretting that so brave and faithful a public servant had not been spared to enjoy the rest of which death robbed him so soon after his fighting had ceased.

Mr. Rolleston, referred to above, was a different and much less pugnacious person. He was a dignified figure in public life for at least thirty years. A man who can remain in the arena for that time can do good service, and who, when he quits the field, does so with the respect of friends and foes, cannot be termed altogether unlucky in politics. Yet in some respects Mr. Rolleston was an unlucky politician, and in one respect his ill-luck was a very bad thing for his country. He first made a name for himself as Superintendent of the province of Canterbury where, for many years, he controlled affairs, both in bad times and good, with care, prudence, and most punctilious honesty. In the House of Representatives he managed to profess unpopular opinions without forfeiting confidence, and as his administrative gifts were too valuable to be ignored he became in due course Minister of Lands. Still he was more often than not in opposition, where he prophesied evil things of the Public Works policy of Sir Julius Vogel and the “socialistic” measures of the Ballance and Seddon Ministries. An intelligent, diligent critic may be of service even when on the losing side, but it was Mr. Rolleston's peculiar misfortune to be baffled even when in office. He was that interesting politician, a Conservative by instinct, who, as the result of practical experience, becomes a reluctant but convinced Reformer. Mr. Rolleston became a Reformer where the land question was concerned. He convinced himself that the ideal method of disposing of the Colony's public estate was to let it on perpetual lease subject to periodical revaluation. Unhappily, though he had converted himself, he was unable to convert most of his own party or even the whole of the Liberals of the other side. I have often wondered what he might have done if he had possessed the gift of persuasive and impressive speech. A gentleman and a scholar, who could quote Horace more than respectably, he gave us conscientious speeches that contained good matter and, without any surgical aid from the Hansard staff, read well enough. But few people read speeches, and Mr. Rolleston was a hard page 255 man to listen to. A spark or two of fire and life, or even a moderate amount of rhetorical skill, and he might have managed to impress New Zealand with what was in truth an excellent case. Like other Britons, New Zealanders profess to despise oratory; yet it moves them, as Grey, for instance, showed. What the rejection of Mr. Rolleston's views has cost the country is not easy to compute. Already a heavy price has been paid for the mistake, and the reckoning is not yet settled.

What kind of an assembly, it may be asked, is the New Zealand Parliament which Atkinson's force of character enabled him to lead so long, and which has borne undivided rule over the Dominion—as it is now—since 1876? The best answer can be found in the story of the Dominion, for the General Assembly, at all events, has never been a fainéant ruler. It has done wrong as well as right, but it has always done something. After the various false starts before referred to, it has, since getting fairly to work in 1856, completed sixty-eight years of talk, toil, legislation, and obstruction. It may fairly be claimed that its life has been interesting, laborious, and not dishonourable. It has more than doubled in size since Governor Wynyard's day. Old settlers say that it has not doubled its ability. But old settlers, with all their virtues, are incorrigible laudatores temporis acti. The industry of the members, the difficulties they had to cope with two generations ago, and the number and variety and novelty of the questions they have essayed to solve in this, are undoubted. Their laws, inasmuch as they are meant to be practical, are soon tested. Many have already borne good fruit, and any that does manifest harm is not likely to cumber the earth long. If laws in colonies are more quickly passed, they are also more easy to amend than in older countries.

The Lower House of a Colonial Parliament resembles, in most ways, the London County Council more than the House of Commons. But in New Zealand members have always been paid—their salary is now £450 a year. Farmers and professional men make up the largest element. In the present Parliament there are 27 farmers, 9 lawyers, 6 agents, and a varied assortment of tradesmen and artisans. In the more page 256 important debates speeches are now limited to an hour, otherwise to half an hour. The length of speeches in committee must not exceed ten minutes. About twenty per cent, of the speaking is good; most of it is made with little or no preparation, and suffers—together with its hearers—accordingly. Bores are never shouted or coughed down—the House is too small, and nearly all the members are on friendly terms with each other. Until the adoption of the time limit in 1894, business was in daily danger of being arrested by speeches of phenomenal length and dreariness. Anthony Trollope, who listened to a debate at Wellington in 1872, thought the New Zealand parliamentary bores the worst he had known. The discussions in committee, though, were quite businesslike, except when there was obstruction, as there frequently was. As elsewhere, special committees do much work and get little thanks therefor. As compared with the House of Commons in the days of Pitt or Peel, the debates would seem to lack dignity; as compared with the proceedings in the Mother of Parliaments in 1923, they would appear mild and spiritless. The House supports a strong Speaker, but is disposed to bully weakness in the chair.

For more than sixty years the Maori race has returned four members to the House. They usually speak through an interpreter. In spite of that, when discussing native questions they often show themselves fluent and even eloquent. Outside local and private Bills, nearly all important legislation is conducted by Government. Private members often profess to put this down to the jealousy and tyranny of Ministers, but the truth is that Parliament, as a whole, has always been intolerant of members' public Bills. There is no direct personal corruption. If the House were as free from small-minded jealousy and party disloyalty as it is from bribery and idleness, it would be a very noble assembly. In character, the politicians have been at least equal to the average of their fellow-colonists. But party ties are much looser than in England. Members will sometimes support Governments for what they can get for their districts, or leave them because they have not been given a portfolio. Attempts to form a third party were incessant but, until the coming of a Labour Party in 1914, unsuccessful. Before 1891 Ministries, page 257 if not strangled at the birth—as was the “Clean Shirt” Cabinet—usually lasted for three years. Since January 1891 there has virtually been but one change of the party in power. Reconstructions owing to death or retirement of a Premier now and then added to the number of apparently new Cabinets. Of the seven or eight Ministers who make up a Cabinet, four or five are usually able and overworked men. The stress of New Zealand public life has told on many of her statesmen. Beside Governor Hobson, McLean, Featherston, Crosbie Ward, Atkinson, Ballance, McKenzie, and Seddon died in harness, and Hall had to save his life by resigning. Most of the Dominion's leaders have lived and died poor men. Parliaments are triennial, and about one-third of the constituencies are pretty certain to return new members at a general election. All the elections take place on one day, and if a member—even the leader of a party—loses his seat, he may be cut out for years. This is a misfortune, as experience is a quality of which the House is apt to run short. Fanatical block votes frequently prevent elections from being fought on the practical questions of the hour. The contests are inexpensive, and there is very little of the cynical blackmailing of candidates and open subsidizing by members which jar so unpleasantly on the observer of English constituencies. Indeed, cynicism is by no means a fault of New Zealand political life. The most marked failings used to be the savagely personal character of some of its conflicts, and a general over-strained earnestness and lack of sense of proportion or humour. Newspapers and speeches of the last century teemed with denunciations which might have been in place if hurled at the corruption of Walpole, the bureaucracy of Prussia, the finance of the Ancien Régime, or the treatment of native races by the Spanish conquerors of the New World. Nor was bitterness confined to wild language in or out of Parliament. The terrible saying of Gibbon Wakefield, many years ago, that in colonial politics “everyone strikes at his opponent's heart,” long had, unhappily, some truth in it.