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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XXII — The End of the Oligarchy

page 270

Chapter XXII
The End of the Oligarchy

The General Election held in December 1890 brought about a change so marked, and in some ways so lasting, that it warrants a writer sketching the Colony's history in pausing to look backward. Until that year the party struggles in the General Assembly may well have seemed to most observers—especially to those outside the country—confused and petty conflicts between small shifting groups without definite policies or objects lofty enough to drape them with any sort of dignity. After 1890 policies become more definite and interesting and party divisions more permanent, clear and justifiable. Nevertheless, the conduct of affairs during the first fifty years after annexation is neither uninteresting nor unworthy of study. Its broader features are easy to discern, its results were and still are of the greatest moment to the Islands. The politics of the half-century were much more than a series of squabbles between Ins and Outs. The politicians were called upon to lay and—roughly if you will—build upon the foundations of a free and civilized State. Many of them, at least, were quite conscious of this, and to the better sort of them it seemed a noble and inspiring task. The earlier settlers of New Zealand had great difficulties to face. They had to do rough work amid narrow surroundings and to face much that was sordid and disappointing. But the more thoughtful of them were happy in this: that they had an ideal, and with the passing of years could see that progress was being made towards it.

If the Government of the Colony until the end of 1890 is here termed an oligarchy it is not from any desire to discredit those who carried it on by labelling it with an unpopular nickname. The word is merely used to indicate that during page 271 the period named the management of public affairs was in the hands of a minority who, possessing better education and on the whole more knowledge and ability—possessing, too, land, money and the control of commerce and the professions—ruled the country. From time to time they made concessions to the poorer and more ignorant and about the wisdom of these concessions had their doubts. Usually they contrived to govern pretty much as they thought was best for the community. This does not mean that they were lacking in public spirit or that their leaders had no breadth of view. On the whole, until 1891, the young settlements, while exceedingly troublesome to govern were—as Governments go—not governed badly by any means.

The care with which Gibbon Wakefield's settlers were selected and the enthusiasm for colonization which he and his friends managed to evoke in England had this result, among others, that in the first batches of colonists were to be found a good number of men of capacity, education and even social standing. These made their influence felt from the first. As they often belonged by origin to the classes which in those days controlled English politics they regarded it as natural, so soon as self-government was granted, that they and their friends should direct it. With them were linked up self-made men who came up successfully through the struggles of the first decades of settlement. Hard men these sometimes were, but their practical sagacity and energy brooked no denial. Up to 1880 the franchise was restricted. Even when in that year it became very wide the lack of money, organization, and experience combined with provincial divisions to postpone the appearance of any national democratic party: the landowners, financiers, merchants and professional men continued to dominate, though with waning popularity. They trusted, with a good deal of excuse, to the divisions among the smaller folk, and were genuinely astonished when in December 1890 the storm burst and a change came.

Almost the only precaution which they had thought needful or ventured to take to secure themselves had been the fixing of an electoral “quota” greatly to the disadvantage of towns and suburbs. Under this law, passed in 1889 in the face of indignant remonstrances from Sir George Grey, the page 272 rural electorates were given a much larger number of members than they were entitled to on the basis of population. The result was a long disappointment for Conservativism; for more than twenty years the rural vote failed it. Apart from the “quota,” Oligarchy had a reserve force in the Upper House whose members, nominated for life, were almost all elderly men of steadily conservative instincts. Until 1891 they had seldom shown themselves actively obstructive to Government measures and were as a rule content with the cheaper distinction of slaughtering private members' Bills. That they could show their teeth to some purpose when class feeling was aroused was to become evident in the years between 1890 and 1899.

When in the years 1853–6 despotic government gave place to oligarchical, the colonists had a good example of local administration to go by. Sir George Grey and his officials had been clean-handed and competent. Speaking broadly, the colonists kept up the tradition. The poorly paid civil service, unattractive as it was, yet gained a name for honour and reasonable capability. I have already pointed out that the Oligarchs kept politics clean—though, of course, there was a certain amount of class legislation. Their newspapers, again, bitter, narrow and personal as some of the political writing was, were decent in tone and showed a reasonable regard for accuracy. The literary standard of the better sort was good and their advocacy was not for sale. In the long conflict with the Maori the Oligarchs, as we have seen, made mistakes at first, yet in the end they came out with credit. They used victory with moderation, and their gift of citizenship and parliamentary representation to the beaten race was a piece of real statesmanship. They provided the Maori, moreover, with free education, paid a price for the tribal lands acquired for settlement, and so dealt with the tribes that the standard of comfort and therefore of contentment among them became and remained at least respectable. They had foresight enough to keep the railways, telegraphs and telephones of the country in the hands of the State and to make education compulsory, universal and fairly good. Taxes and rates were not heavy, nor was the fiscal system deliberately unjust, though the clumsy property tax was unpopular. Protective Customs duties had been imposed, but the cost of page 273 living was not high. So far from the public administration being extravagant, it was often, if anything, too economical, especially between 1879 and 1891. Local government, though not on the whole as efficient as the central, was by no means contemptible. There were too many local bodies and they were often too small. Their work, therefore, was not always sufficiently interesting to attract able men. The Centralists, when rather prematurely abolishing the Provincial Councils, had carried subdivision too far. Yet in giving the country a strong central Government and in saving it from becoming a group of small federated cantons, they did what public opinion has ever since approved of. And in pushing on a railway system under central control they gradually wore down the rampant local rivalries and jealousies which in the earlier decades of settlement were sometimes a spectacle for gods and men. The legal system was cheap and expeditious, and the poorest could count on absolute justice in the Courts, high and low. No man carried arms; there was absolute security for life and property, though the police force was almost comically small; a more law-abiding population could hardly be imagined. The presence of Imperial regiments and the maintenance of a drilled militia during the long conflict with the Maori had taught New Zealanders what discipline was—hence, perhaps, the high level of it in the contingents sent out in after days to South Africa, the near East and France. The leaders of the Oligarchy, too, though they had not hurried to broaden the franchise, had yielded on the question before it was too late and postponed their downfall by doing so. The very fact that governmentalism was by 1890 coming more and more into favour was some evidence that government had not been a failure. The democracy, by that time armed with the vote, could have had less Government action if they had wanted less: they preferred to ask for more.

The course of New Zealand, then, from the grant of autonomy to the beginning of 1891, was directed by landowners and an upper middle class—if you can speak of middle classes in a country where there is no aristocracy. That this direction was in many ways capable and enlightened I have tried to show. Why, then, was it thrown over and displaced by a more plebeian and democratic regime lasting more than twenty years? Why, page 274 when the more conservative classes at last regained power, did they come back so changed that their political fathers would scarcely have owned them—a party that had renounced stern economy, free trade and individualism, that borrowed millions, lent money to farmers, bought and subdivided great estates, and regulated export trading after a fashion that might have made the conservative New Zealanders of the eighties turn in their graves? The Liberals of the nineties were called reckless Empirics and State Socialists. But they would not have dared to propose the New Zealand Board of Trade Act of 1919. Section 26 of that drastic measure would not have found a dozen supporters in the House of 1891.

The Oligarchs fell through a combination of bad management and bad luck. It was their ill-fortune to hold office in their later years through the longest spell of acute commercial depression which has so far weighed upon their country. As already said, from 1879 to 1896 the prices of the food and raw products upon which New Zealand lives remained at levels which were low, and sometimes ruinously low. Wool-growers suffered, wheat-growers suffered still more. In vain—so it seemed at the time—did sheepowners organize a new export, frozen meat. Such profit as the English middlemen left them seemed all too meagre. Gold-mining might have helped, but gold-mining chose to dwindle just when most needed. The protected manufactures contrived to live, but not much more than live; cheapened English goods still found their way over the tariff wall, while demand slackened in communities where profits shrank, wages and salaries fell and unemployment became chronic. True, living was cheap, almost absurdly so, when compared with the cost of it to-day. But not only was remuneration comparatively poor. Debt or the dread of unemployment or business failure hung like shadows over thousands. Employers could only have recourse to cutting down expenses. Employees were often valued in proportion to their willingness to take low pay. In certain quarters parsimony became a fetish. A race of men arose nicknamed “skinflints,” whose one remedy for public discontents was to cut down salaries. These dismal beings made economy a vice and retrenchment a nightmare. Retrenchment, public and private, was carried to excess: some classes of public servants, page 275 notably the State school-teachers, were grossly underpaid. Yet with all this things grew no better. Low prices, at any rate in a young country depending mainly on the export of raw products, are anything but an unmixed blessing. The financial system of the country was also faulty. The banks were not all strong; some of them were piling up bad debts in a dangerous fashion; money was not plentiful; the rates of mortgage were too high, especially in the case of the smaller borrowers, some of whom had to pay rates which would have been too heavy even in prosperous times. “Money,” it was said bitterly, “was the only thing in the country which commanded a high price.” In the latter eighties people began to leave the Colony; thousands shook the dust off their feet and sailed away to other lands. The sinister and depressing spectacle of steamers crowded with emigrants forsaking New Zealand for Australia was witnessed month after month. It seemed, and was, unnatural that a fertile and healthy young country, not one quarter peopled, should be unable to employ an admittedly very scanty population.

For most of these causes of anxiety and discontent the unfortunate Oligarchs were in no way responsible. They could not make or unmake prices in the world market. They shared in the suffering caused by the fall. But in their internecine political battles they had taught the public to blame the Government of the day when things went wrong. When the years of hope, rapid development and good prices in the hey-day of Sir Julius Vogel's prestige were followed by bad times and a melancholy train of ruined speculators and producers, newspapers had persistently written as though the chief cause of evil had been Vogel's loans. Because, as it happened, Grey, the formidable agitator who had given Oligarchy its first shaking, held office when depression set in during 1879, the opportunity to connect the Grey Ministry with the commercial collapse was too tempting to be resisted. So by 1890 the people, sore, puzzled and in some cases despairing, blamed the men in office, not only for the mistakes that had been made, but for evils that could not be averted. There was, moreover, a strong case for change. The Oligarchs, whether they liked it or no, were definitely committed to the defence of latifundia. The influence, social and political, of the few hundred persons page 276 and companies that owned or leased the many millions of acres held against settlement by the great proprietors was overwhelming among the dominating classes. The more enlightened and thoughtful of their politicians, who recognized that the huge holdings, or most of them, had become an anomaly and ought to go, could only suggest that the country should wait for a voluntary process of subdivision that would come as a gradual result of social change. They had no prompt remedy to offer. Their friendships, their interests, their theories, forbade them to think of using the weapon of of taxation. Committed to a policy of parsimony, they could not consider State purchase. Individualists—where property was concerned—they could not dream of compulsion. The country was in real need of resolute efforts to push on closer settlement. The development of co-operative dairying was already showing how smaller settlers might thrive on the land. Butter and cheese factories were beginning to be seen. What was wanted was not penurious public thrift, but wise expenditure in promoting settlement. But here the great holdings stood in the way. In some districts they would make—or actually made—public works unprofitable. Moreover, one of the errors of the Oligarchs throughout was to underestimate the possibilities of setting up anything like peasant proprietorship in New Zealand. With many of them it was an article of faith that very small farms could only pay when very near to towns. It was not merely political feeling that stood in the way when Ballance, who thought differently, established “village settlements” in 1885–6. Many people thought the scheme economically rotten. Parliament grudged the money and his successors let the settlements languish. And while even to-day the land of the Islands is in far too few hands, the position was incomparably worse in 1890. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that in that year, in the eastern or east-central districts between the Bay of Plenty and Foveaux Straits, a man might walk for hundreds of miles without setting foot ona small holding. Now latifundia are among those evils which do not lurk in hiding. They cannot be missed or ignored. Farmers' sons, workmen who had saved money, all sorts of potential small settlers, disliked them as much as Liberal theorists in the towns. It was no use telling people to be patient page 277 because in a few years the great holders would sell. Time was passing, and there was small sign of subdivision. Even as late as 1891 large holders were adding to their possessions. There was “durmmyism” as late as 1890, though not much of it. As a last straw it happened that in the years 1887–90 the Department of Lands was not well administered. Mr. Rolleston was no longer there, and as already pointed out, his loss to the Oligarchy at that particular moment was very great—much greater than was recognized at the time. Most of the Oligarchs, too, were wedded to that economic bane of Australia and New Zealand the freehold tenure, the progeny of which are speculation, the piling up of mortgages, lasting debt, shifting ownership, and recurring financial crises. It is customary to attribute the political change, which came so suddenly in 1890, lasted so long and effected so much, to the coming into politics of organized Labour. Those who think thus overlook the large part played by the agrarian question.

Springing out of that came another problem—the plight of the seasonal labourers on the farms and sheep stations. These men, busy and well enough paid during summer and autumn at shearing and harvesting, usually found themselves with nothing to turn to as winter drew on. Some of them might be small farmers or sons of farmers, but these were exceptions. Most of them were just landless workmen, many unmarried. They were rough, reckless, unsettled, with a traditional reputation for wasting their summer's earnings in drink. This done, they shouldered their “swags” and roamed the country singly or in twos or threes asking for work. Reaching some homestead at sundown they put the time-honoured question, “Any chance of a job?” When this was answered, as in those days it usually was, with a curt negative, they would ask for “a feed and a shake-down.” These were scarcely ever refused. Next morning the wanderers went forward to the next farm or run. With rare exceptions these men were not tramps or loafers, but genuine rural workers willing and able to earn wages. In brisk times the system could be borne with because the numbers of the swagmen were moderate and employers in the country found some convenience in a trickle of labour past their gates, some of which they might wish to use. But in bad times it became a page 278 real burden to many landowners and the sight of the unlucky seekers for work trudging along roads and rough tracks for weeks and sometimes months was saddening. It was a discredit to the social system. As you watched them bending under their swags, creeping slowly through the territory of the horsemen of the pastoral race—the sheepowners, stockmen, managers, shepherds—your thoughts recalled the terrific satire in which Swift pictured the equine Houyhnhnms lording it over their subjects, the Yahoos. The most drastic regulations to prevent them from being tempted to squander their wages in the sickening orgies that used to be held in wayside public-houses would have been justified, but almost nothing was done. The landless, roaming shearers and harvesters should have been converted into, or displaced by, a sober, settled peasantry. This was recognized, but the efforts to bring it about were fitful and insufficient. The swaggers in their hundreds seemed an incurable evil and their lot irritated Labour and farmer alike, while it gave point to the speeches of the Prohibitionist propagandists who were beginning to find response in town and country. Minor causes helped to bring Oligarchy down. The employing, richer, better-educated sections in the country were almost all on one side. This made them appear a combination to protect class interests. Their motives, even when good, were doubted, and political life became embittered with social suspiciousness and class feeling. In the voting in December 1890 there was an uncomfortable approach to a clean cut between the richer and poorer. The losing side still commanded a considerable number of votes among the poorer electors, but the proportion of men of more than very modest means on the winning side was noticeably small. This division had been slowly growing more marked for years. Instead of alarming the Oligarchs, it had ministered, in the case of most of them, to their self-confidence. They controlled so much of the land, commerce, finance, Press, and education of the country, their men bulked so much larger individually, that they came to believe that they had something like a monopoly of political ability, economic knowledge and organizing and managing power in private life. In the political struggle all but the most acute of them held their opponents far too cheap, and this, leading page 279 as it did to exasperating arrogance among their “back-woodsmen,” came before the fall which it helped to bring about. The only democratic leaders of whom most of them thought anything were Stout and Grey. In 1890 Stout, who had been thrown out in the elections of 1887, was absorbed in professional work. Grey was isolated, hopelessly at odds with his old party, and, outside Auckland, scarcely counted. Then, most of the Conservatives underestimated Ballance, thought nothing of the men round him, and noted that the so-called Liberals were divided in opinion and out of heart. They expected nothing so little as to be faced in 1891 by a united democratic majority provided with a strong and popular policy. Nor, odd as it may now seem, did the Liberals expect it themselves.

The Oligarchy, then, came down largely through mistakes and miscalculation as well as through sheer ill-luck. Yet in any case, even had they held the field in December 1890, they would have had a hard battle in front of them. Times were changing and the ground moving under the feet of the middle classes. A new force was coming into the arena—organized Labour. Between 1880 and 1890 Trade Unionism became a power. The growth of the towns and of a factory system; the decline of the alluvial goldfields, the “poor men's diggings”; the occupation or locking-up of the more fertile and accessible lands; financial enterprise and financial failure—all gradually tended to reproduce in the young country old-world industrial conditions. The labour of women and children was resorted to in the workshops. Sweating was discovered and denounced, yet lurked in holes and corners. The statute-book gave almost no protection to the workers. In an age of individualism very few had looked ahead or troubled to make ready for the coming of Industrialism. Labour had grievances and reason to think that if it did not bestir itself these grievances would grow. Suffering from growing unemployment and falling wages, quite unrepresented in Parliament and the newspapers, it felt that it must awaken its thousands and use the unanswerable argument of its numbers. It had plenty of example to go by. Looking overseas it saw Labour stirring in England, Australia, everywhere. Its leaders read Socialist tracts and humani- page 280 tarian protests. By the autumn of 1890 they had made up their minds to send working men to the House of Representatives as well as to influence the election of friendly Liberals, and were priming their people and getting ready for the battle.

The more broad-minded of the Oligarchs—Atkinson, for example—were not blind to what was coming. Something was thought of to meet the times. One of Atkinson's lieutenants, Hislop, drafted several measures designed to protect workpeople and introduced them in the winter of 1890. Some few of the Liberals supported these. But fortune was against them. The bitterest industrial conflict witnessed until then in the colonies, the Maritime Strike, absorbed attention, confused politics and public opinion, roused a general feeling against Trade Unionism and destroyed any chance of passing Labour Bills. It was the fate of Hislop's measures to be afterwards used by his opponents as the basis of much more drastic changes. Thus the Oligarchs lost their last chance. At the moment it did not seem to matter. Trade Unionism, worsted in every conflict throughout Australia and New Zealand, seemed scarcely likely to do better in elections than by direct action. It did, however, do better. The industrial defeat made it fight more keenly. And as the employers were aligned almost to a man with the more conservative Oligarchs, Labour, perforce, was drawn towards the Liberals. Furthermore, the costly failure of “direct action” left Labour leaders in a chastened and pacific frame of mind. They had asked for arbitration, and the employers had spurned them. They were disposed to think unusually well of arbitration. Had they stuck to strikes as a remedy, an alliance between them and the Liberals would have been impossible. As it was, they were ready to accept protective laws with provision for arbitration in industrial conflicts. They were even converted to welcome compulsory arbitration. The Liberal land and taxing policy attracted them as remedies for unemployment. They were not yet strong enough to form a separate party or to scare the farmers into leaving the Liberal fold. So without any formal negotiations or settlement, without even the dictation of terms, Liberals and Labour drew into an alliance which lasted for some sixteen years and led to a mass of law-making and experiment of unusual interest and importance.