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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XXIII — The Eight Years' Tussle

page 281

Chapter XXIII
The Eight Years' Tussle

The foregoing pages have indicated that the results of the General Election of December 1890 were much more than to change the position of Ins and Outs and put Mr. Ballance in Sir Harry Atkinson's seat. The electors for the most part had been in earnest in voting for a new order. There was lively expectation and among younger men even a touch of enthusiasm. The entrance of Labour on the scene aroused interest. Even the minor fact that of Mr. Ballance's colleagues in the House of Representatives none had held office, stirred curiosity. What would they do? It was noted that the more conservative Liberals were gone, some to the other side, some to the limbo for defeated politicians. For the first time in the Islands a democratic Ministry was in office, with a solid majority behind it ready for action. Grey's Ministry had the will to work changes, but not the power. Ballance now had the power: had he the will?

Conservativism believed Ballance to be mild, almost timid, but was doubtful of those round him. Would their inexperience bring them down quickly, or would their crude energy rouse crowds and help them to work lasting harm? The Oligarchy did not underrate the seriousness of its defeat. A reference to its newspapers will show that for many months it went to the other extreme. Articles and letters appeared, pamphlets and speeches were printed suggesting that the social fabric was threatened, industry endangered, employment diminishing, and capital fleeing from the country. The resemblance between much that was written in England in December and January 1923–4, and much that was written in New Zealand in 1891, is so close as to be comic. The page 282 size of the two theatres differed immensely, but the irritation and apprehension felt and the very words in which alarm and anger were expressed were almost identical. The Ballance Ministry, however, was not a Labour Government: still less was it committed to theoretical Socialism. Most of its members did not know what Socialism was, and if they had studied it would not have agreed with it.

The same might be said of almost all their supporters in and out of Parliament. Whatever may be the case now, the number of conscious and avowed Socialists in the Colony in the nineties was extremely small. Yet the democratic party was about to carry a policy which was to be stigmatized in many countries as the most Socialistic of modern times. And if we are to admit that every measure is Socialistic that enlarges the scope of State interference in social life, extends the State's functions and arms administration with fresh powers, then there is truth in the suggestion. But if real Socialism means the discouragement and repression of private enterprise and the reduction of its energy and total volume, then that was not the intention of the New Zealand experimental legislation. The result, too, has been anything but that. A very brief study of statistics would show that between 1890 and the present time the volume of trade, production, and private wealth has swelled in a very remarkable way, while commerce and industry, so far from being checked and depressed, are far more active, more varied, better organized, and more intelligently managed.

The experimental law-making of the nineties, then, was not bound by any hard-and-fast theories. If the free use of State authority did not scare the majority of New Zealanders, it was partly for that reason. The reforms were brought forward as practical remedies or improvements to be scanned separately and judged strictly by their utility. Moreover, though many educated colonists still thought they were Individualists, New Zealand had in practice already thrown Individualism overboard.

There was nothing novel there in the notion of extending the functions of the State in the hope of benefiting the community or the less fortunate classes of it. Already, in 1890, the State was the largest landowner and receiver of rents, page 283 and the largest employer of labour. It owned nearly all the railways and all the telegraphs, and was establishing a State system of telephones. It entirely controlled and supported the hospitals and lunatic asylums, which it managed humanely and well. It also, by means of local boards and institutions, controlled the whole charitable aid of the country—a system of outdoor relief more needed then than now. It was the largest trustee, managed the largest life insurance business, and educated more than nine-tenths of the children. Nearly all the sales and leasing of land went through its Land Transfer Offices.

It will thus be seen that the large number of interesting experiments sanctioned by the New Zealand Parliament after 1890, though they involved new departures, involved no startling changes of principle. The constitution was democratic; it was simply made more democratic. The functions of the State were wide; they were made yet wider. The uncommon feature of the eight years, 1890–8, was not so much the nature as the number and degree of the changes effected and the trials made by the Liberal-Labour fusion.

The new Premier, Mr. John Ballance, formed his Ministry on 24th January, 1891. The elections had been held on the 5th of December, and by the 7th it was clear that the old order of things was to go. But the beaten Ministry made the mistake of waiting until the end of January before assembling Parliament, and the still greater mistake of persuading the Governor, by arguments that could not hold water, to call seven Conservatives—including the defeated Premier—to the Upper House, which was already almost exclusively Conservative. Personal respect for, and sympathy with, Sir Harry Atkinson, who was broken in health, indeed a dying man, did not prevent the appointments being angrily criticized and disposing many onlookers to welcome change. Ballance, though too quiet and unassertive to be a popular or even a familiar figure to the masses, was solid enough to be respected, amiable enough to be liked by friends, and too unaggressive to be hated by enemies. A working journalist, owner and editor of a provincial newspaper, he was one of the earliest adherents of women's franchise. A leading man, he was a patient student of the political questions that interested him. page 284 His speeches kept a good level, for he was not misled by his gift of fluency into talking unprepared or at random. So without rising to oratory he never descended to nonsense, was fairly condensed and very rarely gave his case or his party away. In theory he was that curious combination an English Radical and a Colonial Protectionist, and though an Irish Protestant by origin, united a belief in Gladstonian Home Rule with a support of Catholic claims for special school grants. At the Treasury he was careful and extremely economical. In agrarian matters he was not a single-taxer or a nationalizer. But he thought Crown lands should be disposed of by lease rather than sale, and his village settlements had recommended him to the more thoughtful of the Labour leaders. Like his friend Stout he took a humane interest in the welfare of the Maori. Neither a Socialist nor with any marked interest in Industrial Democracy, he left Labour matters to his colleague, the Minister of Education. But he recognized that these novel questions must be dealt with sympathetically. So far from embarrassing his lieutenant in his difficult task, he strengthened his hands by making him Minister of Labour and providing him with competent departmental assistance. Then, after watching him closely for a while, he left him free to take his own course. A kind, courteous, considerate chief, always ready to listen, he was regarded by most of those round him with a feeling of personal friendship, in some cases amounting to affection. So, in spite of his gentle bearing, he usually had his way when he wished to have it. His judgment and gift of conciliation attracted and united his party. He was careful in appointing men, even to the Legislative Council. Superior to personal vanity, he was the least jealous of chiefs and tried to gather strong men round him. As for his political courage, it is only necessary to point to the measures brought in by his Government in 1891 and 1892, for all of which he was as Premier responsible, and some of the more important of which were his own. Unhappily, he lacked one most necessary part of a leader's equipment, robust health. Dying unexpectedly and before his time in May 1893, he was cut off in the midst of his work and just as he was winning for the first time serious and adequate approval throughout the country. His death page 285 was a loss to public life there, and his party had lasting reason to regret it. Had he lived to be three-score years and ten, a Progressive Party with ideals, combining what was courageous in Liberalism with what was rational in Labour, might have permanently influenced New Zealand politics. Such a party might, it is conceivable, have prevented that mortgaging of the country's future which has been the worst economic feature of its internal affairs since 1908. It might have settled the Liquor question, educated Labour, and been a buffer against that materialist element that has for fifty years had no much higher view of New Zealand politics than to regard them as a scramble for borrowed money.

Ballance, after obtaining a few months' grace to prepare his policy, brought it forward in the winter of 1891. The Opposition joined battle at once, and a fierce parliamentary struggle, lasting without truce or breathing-space for eight years, began. The Conservatives were not in a mood to take defeat meekly. Though not well led, they had good debaters and influential support outside and could count on the vigorous championship of a host of newspapers of varying size, violence, and ability. Furthermore, eleven-twelfths of the Upper House—including every member of much capacity there—were on their side. They had reason to think that if their speech-makers and journalists could work on public opinion the Legislative Councillors would see to it that they had plenty of time to bring the country round. The result was a good deal of spirited debating in one House and in the other one of the most remarkable exhibitions of wrecking ever given by a Colonial Second Chamber. To say that the “lords” flung themselves into the breach might be to use words rather too suggestive of physical activity. It might be more accurate to say that they sat heavily down in it and refused to get up. Policy Bill after policy Bill was sent up to them, only to be thrown out forthwith or so mangled as to be worse than useless. Several measures of importance were thus put back twice and a Bill to permit local bodies to levy rates on unimproved values three times. Even after the elections of 1893 had given their verdict for the obstructed measures, the Councillors still had some fight left in them. They sent page 286 back the Old Age Pensions Bill, for instance. Not until 1898 did they loss heart. After that they went to the other extreme and for many years almost ceased to influence public affairs. Seddon laid himself out to weaken the Council, and did so thoroughly. It paid for the trouble it had given.

The year 1893 was a critical time for the Liberals. Ballance died, and his successor, Seddon, with hands already more than full, had quite unexpectedly to add to his inherited policy an effort to deal with Liquor Reform, always thorny, and then the most vexed of the various bitterly disputed questions that were dividing the country. After this had been more or less settled for a time by the passing of a drastic and advanced measure of local option, the General Election was surmounted and in the session of 1894 the Liberals reaped their harvest. They were aided in doing this by the rule imposing a time-limit for speeches, which the House accepted that year at the suggestion of the Minister of Labour, who had especial reasons for hastening on the enactment of his Bills. Yet 1894 was far from a tranquil year. The long financial depression came to a climax, and the necessity of saving and reorganizing the Bank of New Zealand led to a battle of a peculiarly trying kind, which dragged on through two sessions. Through 1896 and 1897, again, Mr. Seddon, weakened by the loss of two of his chief lieutenants, had to fight hard against an Opposition which had the powerful aid of Sir Robert Stout in a House where his own side was almost pitiably weak in debating power. By passing the Old Age Pensions Bill in 1898 he saved the situation. Added to that came the retirement of Sir Robert Stout from political life and a marked change in the public temper, due to the revival of prosperity. By 1899 it was clear that the experimental laws and their administration had not ruined the country and were not going to do so. The electors let it be seen very clearly that this was their opinion, and between the sessions of 1898 and 1907 there was a comparative lull in political warfare.

That there should be a lull was natural enough. The rush of legislation had been remarkable, and most of the laws, when administered, as they usually were, in a spirit of something like thoroughness, produced effects that were felt page 287 and noticed. Labour now fully employed was for some years content that the laws passed to protect it should be honestly enforced and sympathetically amended. Its chief discontent, caused by its failure to elect a satisfactory number of Labour members, had not yet led to a breach with the Liberals, and was ignored. This was a cardinal mistake, because if Labour in the nineties owed much to the Liberals, the latter for their part owed very much—more, indeed, than most of them recognized—to the Labour vote that was almost always ungrudgingly given them in town and country.

As for the other wing of the Progressives, that which included most of the smaller farmers, its members had by 1898 had quite enough of change and experiment. As early as 1896 one could detect that many of them thought that the Minister of Labour was disposed to go too fast and too far. The pace, especially that set in 1894, had taken their breath away. They did not want Socialism; they wanted better times, higher prices—even higher prices for land—brisk trade, and more confidence. To good wages and humane conditions for Labour they had no objection, but thought that enough had been done to secure those. When on the heels of the other humanitarian laws came the Old Age Pensions Act, the right wing felt that it was time to attend to more “practical” things. Much earlier even they had shown that they did not mean to be dominated by Labour or led by men too closely identified with Labour. They were well enough pleased with Mr. Seddon as leader. So long as John McKenzie lived they stood staunchly by him. For the rest they gave their confidence to Sir Joseph Ward, whom they welcomed with relief as a “business Minister,” and with hope as a man who might do something to restore prosperity.

Sir Joseph Ward had been one of a group of young men who entered the House on the same day in 1887. These, Sir Joseph Ward, Sir James Allen, Sir Thomas Mackenzie, Sir Westby Perceval, Dr. Fitchett, Sir James Caroll, Mr. George Hutchinson, and the writer of this book, all became more or less well known in the Dominion, but Ward, though the youngest, attracted notice at once. Bright-looking and with a pleasant manner, a merchant page 288 in a large way in the South Island, he could talk with knowledge about commerce and finance, and since his business brought him in touch with working farmers, he understood the wants and difficulties of that important class. As a beginner he very sensibly confined himself to topics within his experience, and having the Irishman's fluency was listened to from the first. He took up Sir Julius Vogel's subject—quicker mail services, especially that through San Francisco. When the Ballance Ministry was formed he was asked to join it without portfolio, and with a laudable desire to be useful became Postmaster-General, taking no salary. Liked by his colleagues and his party, it soon became known that his officers found him a good administrator. Amongst other changes he managed to get penny postage enacted, though in those years the Treasury, which lost at first by the change, could ill spare the money.

On Ballance's death Mr. Seddon made him Treasurer, and he continued to win good opinions in difficult times. He made the graduated Land Tax scientific without increasing its severity. Having the discernment to see that the Dominion was starving for want of capital and the foresight to predict that trade had seen its worst and that better times were near, he had the courage to resume borrowing. The raising of a million in London, mere driblet as it seems nowadays, was something of an achievement in those years of poverty, especially as the net price was no higher than about 3 1/4 per cent. On Ward as Treasurer fell the trying and delicate task of rescuing and reconstructing the Bank of New Zealand. The savage attacks made upon him and the Seddon Government in connection with this are best forgotten; but the skill and caution with which a very complicated and daunting financial scheme was carried through and the complete success which attended it ought to be remembered. By a new and daring departure the Government took a substantial interest in the bank, while securing a measure of control which was real without being meddlesome. Two millions of new capital were provided at a cheap rate by an issue of guaranteed debentures. The bank's creditors did not lose a sixpence, the Dominion escaped a crisis, the tax-payers had nothing to meet, and the Government has never had reason to regret a page 289 very profitable parnership. In taking the responsibility Ward and the Government did a venturesome thing, the happy outcome of which did more than make the bank itself a powerful and very prosperous institution. It undoubtedly helped to clear the way for the revival of business which began in the following year.

Another financial measure, as important and valuable, was the provision of cheap money for farmers by an Act described on another page. This was far more than a popular law useful to the party that carried it. It met a crying need of the producers of the Dominion which was not at that time being met properly. The best vindication of the measure is that it has been in operation for thirty years, and that the politicians who displaced Ward make a far more lavish use of it than he did. It has turned out to be one more of those rash experiments which, while doing real service, have involved the Dominion in no loss whatever.

Vigorous finance of this sort, after fifteen years of parsimony, shocked the economical. Ward was jeeringly called another Vogel. Those who thus nick-named him both stated a truth and paid an extremely high compliment. In their earlier years of office there was a distinct likeness between the two men. When Sir Joseph left politics for some years, just as Sir Julius had done twenty years earlier, his friends could feel that the public had lost a good servant. Up to that date his successes had been striking and his mistakes negligible.

Though in New Zealand between 1890 and 1899 political feeling ran high and the interest taken in public affairs was widespread, it was unevenly distributed so far as its objects went. Land laws and liquor laws were burning questions: so naturally were graduated taxation and State money-lending. The reconstruction of the Bank of New Zealand led to heated controversy, and the Old Age Pensions Act was stoutly contested. On the other hand, female suffrage, considering its immense possibilities and utter novelty, went through the Lower House with astonishingly little difficulty and only at the very last moment roused much feeling in the country. Rating on unimproved values was a subject that scarcely kept the elected chamber awake, and the same may page 290 be said of the abolition of life-membership in the Upper House. Fourteen Labour Bills, regarded by many in those days as strange if not dangerous, were brought in by the Minister of Labour and passed into law between 1891 and 1896. To say that a majority of the Lower House were enthusiastic for these or were greatly interested in them would be absurd. One Bill—dealing with retail shops—was obstructed, but chiefly for electioneering reasons. The potential importance of the Industrial Arbitration Act was not understood. It was thought to be the mere expression of a pious opinion. Most members were never so pleased as when the Minister of Labour cut a debate short by getting a Bill referred to a committee or by promising that some point should be “met by regulation.” With a sort of glum acquiescence they let the Bills go through and hoped to hear as little about them afterwards as possible. It must be said that not a single hostile amendment was accepted or made in them in the House. Nor was the Council permitted to emasculate them, often as it delayed them. They were passed in the form known to be necessary by the Minister, and were not put on the statute-book to please Labour by appearances, but to be effective.

With a Parliament mostly in this sulky temper and with the urban employers against the Labour laws almost to a man, great care was needed and some judgment required. Because many Bills were forced through in a few years it was supposed that they were put together anyhow, and the epithets “crude” and “hasty” were in daily use among their critics. As a matter of fact, very great personal care was bestowed upon them by the Minister in charge, who knew their details by heart, and if they worked when enacted it was because no trouble had been spared to fit them to do so. The Arbitration Act, for instance, was completely drafted or re-drafted three separate times, and between whiles had a multitude of amendments inserted in it by or at the instance of the Minister, who in addition to law-making had to give the closest attention to the completely experimental department of Labour and to the troublesome question of unemployment.

Furthermore, both the laws and the department owed much to the good sense and loyalty of the Trade Unionists and page 291 of the small but compact group of Labour members in Parliament. Organized Labour can easily make the life of a Liberal Minister in charge of Labour matters a burden to him. In New Zealand in 1891 and thereafter Labour, luckily for Labour and everyone else, preferred to be helpful. The organizations accepted a policy which they did not dictate and gave their Minister the fairest of fair play. They neither clamoured for the impossible nor jeered at what was done. They knew that they had reason to be satisfied and were not above saying so. The Labour members in particular, of whom a good deal was asked in the way of loyalty, moderation, and self-restraint, were fully equal to their new responsibilities. At the outset much curiosity was felt about them as the first specimens of a new parliamentary race. Had they been thirsty for notoriety they could easily have got it by a few rowdy speeches and scenes. They preferred to be orderly businesslike, and fair-minded. Faithful to their class and keen to secure help for it, these leaders took a broad view of the interests of the community. Furthermore, instead of badgering the Minister of Labour, they did everything to make his task easy, took charge of and carried many of his amendments for him, spoke or remained silent as tactics required, and reasoned with the impatient among their own friends. Above all, they never pestered him to perpetrate petty jobs. For themselves they asked nothing, but sank personal considerations in their work. The result was that solid work was done and advantages gained which could never have been obtained by a class war. The ideal of the Minister, that Labour in the Colony should not merely have existing grievances remedied, but be secured against any future invasion of the worst evils of European industrial life, was achieved. Labour itself made an excellent parliamentary start. Nervous curiosity soon wore off, and the Labour member became a natural and creditable figure in public life.

Outside Parliament the public for the most part shrugged its shoulders at Labour legislation. The farmers believing, not quite rightly, that it would not touch them, thought no more of it. The proprietors and editors of Liberal newspapers grew pensive when it was mentioned. Even when the Liberal policy became popular, the Labour Bills were regarded as page 292 its poor relations. Liberal leaders did not talk about them overmuch. The Minister of Labour had much platform work to do, but in five years he was never once asked to give a speech devoted to the Labour Bills and department. When he wished to talk of such subjects to his own constituents, an ably-led militia of local Anti-Bacchanals—with hilarious help from uproarious larrikins—put up a barrage of howls. Only after the laws were fully at work and social students came from other countries to study them did New Zealanders begin to think that they might be something better than a pile of raw rubbish palmed off on the public by an ignorant demagogue. Gradually the laws were voted useful, though the demagogue was not forgiven. Such is the story of the fourteen Labour Bills passed while the public were thinking of other things.

What of the Oligarchs throughout these years of controversy? In two General Elections, those of 1893 and 1896, they were badly beaten, but fought on, and with the aid of the Prohibitionists kept the Liberal leaders fully employed. They had, however, no alternative policy to offer the country, and a third and crushing defeat in 1899 knocked most of the wind out of them for several years. Sir William Russell, a leader whose honourable qualities were not rewarded by success, went down a few years afterwards. A large landowner, he was the last of the old Oligarchs to head a party. Thereafter the Opposition slowly changed. It did not “suffer a sea-change” so much as a land-change. Always more or less agrarian, it found the dominating influence within it shift from the diminishing number of great proprietors to a host of small farmers and dealers in land. Thus recruited and with new points of view, it regained office at last in 1912, and has stayed there. Like other parties, it has strong and weak qualities. The strong it showed during the Great War when, coalescing with the Liberals, it helped New Zealand to play a fine part. It has prudence and wisdom: but, hitherto, the prudence has hardly been shown in its finance or the wisdom in its Land Policy.

I do not wish to suggest that the intense feeling the party showed in opposing almost all the proposals of the Liberals in the nineties was assumed for party purposes. Most of it page 293 was perfectly genuine. The changes and experiments passed during these years of hard-fighting were looked upon with suspicion, alarm, contempt, or anger by a large class of wealthy and influential New Zealanders. It is but fair that, in a sketch like this, some emphasis should be laid upon their dissent and protests. The personal attacks of which a very great deal of their criticism consisted are, happily, forgotten. A summary of the then Conservative view of the progressive work ought, however, to have a place. Disqualified as I might be thought to be from attempting it, I prefer to make use of an account written and published in 1896 by an English onlooker, Sir Anton Bertram, mentioned elsewhere, who, in the years 1894–5, spent many months in the Dominion studying with attention its politics and public temper. As his social acquaintanceships lay chiefly among the Conservatives, he had no difficulty in getting frank expressions of their views. In the following sentences he sums up the more moderate and impersonal of these, as he heard and analysed them:—

…It must not be supposed that the Conservatives of New Zealand, any more than those of the Mother-country, are apologists for “sweating.” Indeed, as Mr. Reeves himself has acknowledged, the Labour legislation with which he is associated was inaugurated by the Government's predecessors, and in carrying his Bills he had the cordial support of Captain Russell, the leader of the Opposition. At the same time it is urged that this protective legislation has been carried to an unreasonable extent, and people allege, no doubt with a certain amount of exaggeration, that they feel themselves regulated in all the relations of life. The measure which has created the most irritation seems to be the Shop Assistants Act. Employers say that Mr. Reeves has made every man “a walking lawsuit,” and that they are chary of having one about their premises. Moreover, this constant succession of Labour laws, and the language of some of their supporters, have created, so they say, in the minds of the working classes the impression that the squatters, manufacturers, and the classes with which they associate, are tyrants and oppressors, and their lives are embittered by the feeling that they are regarded as enemies of the people. Further, they say that the administrative action of the Government tends to keep up the price of labour, that the price of labour is unreasonably high, and that this fact, coupled with the necessity of keeping all the provisions of the Labour laws in mind, and the spirit which they have generated, makes them disinclined to employ labour in the improvement of their lands. As to the Government's land policy, while it is admitted that page 294 small settlers are desirable, it is not admitted that large properties are necessarily a curse. What is resented more fiercely than anything else is the fact that they are liable to have their own properties appropriated at the arbitrary will of the Minister of Lands, and though the Government promises to work the law reasonably, neither this nor any other of their declarations is regarded with confidence. It is asserted that the Government is flooding the country with incompetent settlers, who imagine that anyone can get a living out of the land; that the resumed properties have been purchased and cut up in such a way that a cry for a reduction of rents will soon become inevitable, and that the Cheap Money Scheme has created a class of debtors, who, in conceivable circumstances, might be able to apply effectual political pressure for the reduction of their interest. In point of fact they do not share the Progressist idea, that much can be done by legislation to ameliorate the condition of the masses of the population, nor do they see that in a country like New Zealand, where labour is dear, food cheap, and the climate mild and equable, their condition need necessarily be deplorable. They still cherish the old theories of individualism. The humanitarian ideals of Mr. Reeves, not being idealists, they regard with little interest. What they see is the Government of their Colony, which they had been accustomed to control, in the hands of men whose characters they despise or detest, and the House of Representatives, which was once the most dignified and distinguished assembly in the Colonies, now become (in their circle at any rate) a byword of reproach—full of men who vote themselves for a three months' session salaries which many of them would be unable to earn in any other walk of life.