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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter X. — Bell Becomes a Minister of the Crown, 1912

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Chapter X.
Bell Becomes a Minister of the Crown, 1912.

The Massey Government takes office—Bell joins the Cabinet—His views on land tenure—The graduated land-taxImmigration and tourists—Lord Bledisloe's views.


After Bell had completed his second term of office as Mayor of Wellington in 1898, he was able to devote himself entirely to his legal work. He was now at the height of his fame as a barrister, and on various occasions he went to England to conduct important cases before the Privy Council. This continued until 1912, when a change of Government afforded him the opportunity to re-enter politics.

It will be remembered that Massey and Bell both entered Parliament in 1893. From that time onwards Massey remained in Parliament, and finally became Leader of the Opposition in 1904. He slowly fought his way to power against what appeared almost overwhelming odds, and finally in 1912 he defeated the Mackenzie Ministry and was called upon to form a Government. Ever since the death of Seddon in 1906 there had been a process of disintegration going on in the page 82Liberal Party more or less continuously, and this discontent and disruption came to a head at the election of 1911.

Nevertheless, the result of this election was indecisive, and the early months of 1912 were marked by various attempts to reconstruct the Liberal Government. The detailed story of political manoeuvring, intrigue, and bitter recrimination that went on for some time is perhaps best forgotten. Its chief result was to create sympathy for Massey, who finally reached the Treasury benches in July, 1912.

In some quarters it was declared that Massey's victory marked the occurrence of a revolution in New Zealand political history. It is true that for the first time since 1891 the Address-in-reply to the Governor's Speech had inserted in it an expression of want of confidence in the Government. But the change hardly implied any revolutionary alteration in policy; indeed, it may be said that the only marked differences in policy were that the Massey Government stood definitely for granting the freehold to the tenants of the Crown, and also wished to remove the Public Service from political patronage and control. No doubt these items of policy had influenced the electors, but probably a more potent factor was that the country had grown tired of the long reign of the Liberals.

On July 10, the new Ministry was announced as follows —:

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Of these nine Ministers, five—namely Bell, Herdman, Fisher, Rhodes, and Pomare—had been born in New Zealand. Three of the Ministers—Bell, Allen, and Herries—had been educated at Cambridge University, and Rhodes was an M.A. of Oxford.

All the members of the Ministry were experienced politicians and proved to be able administrators. But there was no appointment that caused more satisfaction than that of Bell's, whose profound knowledge of legal and constitutional principles rendered him almost indispensable to Massey during his long and troubled period of office.

The only surprise expressed when the Ministry was formed was that Bell had not been appointed Attorney-General, since he was undoubtedly the leader of the Bar and held the entire confidence of the members of the legal profession throughout New Zealand. It is well known that Massey was politically embarrassed in page 84the first allocation of portfolios, and it was not till 1918 that the opportunity arose of making Bell Attorney-General.

"The inclusion of Mr. F H. D. Bell, K.C," said the New Zealand Herald, "as Leader of the Legislative Council, indicates that the new Prime Minister has set himself to the task with a keen appreciation of the importance of raising the Council to its legitimate place as a revising Chamber. For many years the value of the Legislative Council to the nation has been steadily diminishing as its value to the Party in power has increased. Unsuitable appointments made for Party purposes, and as rewards for partisan services, have steadily reduced the usefulness of the Council till, as it stands to-day, it puts to shame the New Zealand supporters of two-chamber government. The appointment of Mr. Bell will strengthen our Party system at its weakest spot, and his inclusion in the Ministry, combined with a position of authority in the revising Chamber, will introduce the much-needed element of sound draftsmanship into our legislation."— (July 11, 1912.)

Bell took his seat as Leader of the Legislative Council on July 10, and was welcomed by his fellow-members. In his reply he pointed out that he was the only man of those appointed to the Council, since the Liberals came into office in 1891, who was associated with the other side in politics.

It is a strange commentary on the vicissitudes of politics that, had it not been for Massey's rise to power, New Zealand might never have had the benefit of the page 85pre-eminent qualities of Sir Francis Bell as a great constitutional lawyer and a statesman with an Imperial reputation.


As the Government took office in the middle of the session. Ministers were soon working at high pressure in getting ready their legislation for the consideration of the House. Indeed, Massey pushed on his legislative programme with a haste that caused some surprise. He had good reasons, however, for the course he adopted. He knew that his majority was precarious, and that when the recess arrived the Opposition would have time to rally its forces and select a leader. His best course, therefore, was to get his policy measures through without delay, and thereby consolidate his party, and impress the country with the fact that it had a stable Government.

Accordingly, he spent many long days and nights in seeking to get legislation through which would give effect to his election pledges. The main proposal of his Land Bill was to grant the right of purchase to the Crown tenants, and this had been his chief battle-cry during the election. The strength of his position lay in the fact that everyone had come to recognize that the lease-in-perpetuity for 999 years at an unalterable rent was not only a bad bargain for the State, but was not satisfactory to the tenants. They feared that some day a Labour Government would alter their contract to compel a reappraisal of rent at stated intervals. But in any case the experience of both Australia and New Zealand has demonstrated that all attempts to create a large State tenantry are doomed to failure. So soon as the page 86tenants become numerous enough to be politically powerful, they demand the right to purchase the freehold. For years the Liberal Party had temporized and compromised in an effort to satisfy its divided followers. But the members of Massey's party were almost without exception supporters of the freehold, and so his task was made easy by united followers and a divided opposition.


Bell does not appear to have been so much interested in the question of tenure as in making ample lands available for settlement by the subdivision of large estates. He realized the political importance of such action.

"The present Government," he said, "is in no sense allied with or a friend of the large land-owners. It is allied with and hopes to be regarded as the friend of the small settler. But it will not begin its administration by treating the large land-owner as necessarily the public enemy."

A few days after the Government took office, Bell presented to a caucus of the Party a lengthy statement of his views. His main principle was "that as the population increased the lands under private ownership must be subdivided and made available for close settlement." Past Governments had enforced that principle by two methods, first, compulsory acquisition and subdivision, and, secondly, graduated taxation to force subdivision. But the first method was inadequate, "for the debt of the Dominion had been increased to such an extent that it was impossible to contemplate without alarm any great extension of borrowing for the purposes page 87of State acquisition." On the other hand, the graduated land-tax was applied indiscriminately whether land was suitable for subdivision or not, and even where sub-division was impossible.

Bell, therefore, set himself to devise a system which would avoid the necessity of large Government loans to buy estates for subdivision and yet would automatically bring into the market a constant supply of land for settlement in suitable areas at reasonable prices. How was this desirable end to be achieved? His plan was highly ingenious. In the first place he proposed that the Land Boards or the Land Purchase Board should be called on to advise the Government what properties in each district ought to be subdivided. The Government would thereupon notify the owners that their land was required for subdivision. If the owners proceeded forthwith to subdivide their land into areas approved by the Government, and offered it on terms and at prices approved by the Government, then no further coercion or increased progressive taxation would be applied. This would mean that lands would be open for settlement to the same extent as if the Government purchased and sold. If the owner failed to comply with this plan, the Government could still acquire the land compulsorily, or the graduated land-tax would be increased on such properties.

Bell wrote a long personal letter to the Prime Minister on July 25, 1912, elaborating his scheme for promoting closer settlement without large Government loans being necessary, and without increasing the graduated land-tax except where the properties were suitable for subdivision and were being withheld from the market. The subsequent legislation shows the influence of his page 88views, both with regard to encouraging voluntary sub-division, and increasing the graduated land-tax on owners whose properties were suitable for subdivision. Even at the present day his carefully constructed proposals might well receive further consideration, as an indiscriminate application of high graduated land-tax works grave injustice both in town and country. Applied in the method designed by Bell, it would promote the maximum of settlement with the minimum of hardship.


One of the portfolios held by Bell was that of Immigration. His work in this connection was valuable and constructive, and an incident occurred in 1914 which showed his ability and resourcefulness.

At the time when the Reform Government took office, immigration was restricted to farm labourers and domestic servants. The only alteration the new Government made was to allow a resident in New Zealand to nominate his relatives as immigrants irrespective of the nature of their employment, provided the nominator entered into an agreement to ensure the employment of his relatives on arrival. The reason for the change was that, although previously the nominee was required to be a domestic or farm labourer, the requirement was inoperative because the nominator would invariably describe his relative as one or the other.

In 1910 the previous Government had operated what was called the "Sedgwick plan," which was an Imperial scheme to bring out poor boys from the English cities. Some of these did well and were located under the Labour Department, but there was no legal page 89control of the boys, and a considerable percentage of them went wrong. Bell made a careful study of the question, and of the comparative merits of country boys and town boys for immigration purposes. He found that the city boy was

"somewhat sharper in his habit of thought and quicker in acquiring a new habit, but he was apt to find the early part of his life on a farm irksome and dull.

"The class of boy," said Bell, "who suits the farmer is not generally the town-bred boy, all of whose life has been spent in the purlieus of the cities and towns. There is more necessity for keeping the city boy in hand and under control than there is the country boy who had a start over the city boy in his knowledge of farming."

Bell, therefore, decided to concentrate on securing country boys, and on making provision for their proper control and protection. He amended the law so that the boy was fully protected against unscrupulous employers and was properly bound in his own interests, otherwise it would not have been possible to perform the obligation the Government had entered into with the parents or guardians of the boys. He did not discard the Sedgwick scheme, but he thought both schemes might go side by side and hand in hand provided there was proper legal control. When the first batch of fifty boys was brought out in the Ayrshire there was a loud outcry in a certain section of the Press to the effect that Bell was initiating boy-slavery. Members of the Federation of Labour met the Ayrshire and tried to get the boys to break their engagement, telling them, what was perfectly true, that they were not legally page 90bound. Even after the boys disembarked these hostile advisers boarded the trains on which they travelled, in order to persuade them that they were being ill-used. But when the next ship, the Suffolk, arrived, no such effort was made.

"I will tell you why," said Bell, "I had the pleasantest experience of my life. I went to Auckland and met the boys on the Ayrshire. I met fifty of them on the deck—manly little fellows … I told them that they were not bound, as in fact they were not at all. ' You are all minors,' I said. 'You are under age. There is no law which compels you to perform your agreement. The Government has paid your passages. You have entered into certain engagements. You are English boys—I ask you to stand by your word.' Out of 100 there are now only three who are not with the farmers to whom they were allotted. The boys stood up and asked me questions, for they had been supplied with newspapers calling them boy-slaves. Quite clever questions they put to me, and at the end they gave me three cheers and they later told the Labour interviewers to go elsewhere."

Bell went on to show that in most cases the boys were already earning far in excess of the wages they were legally entitled to.

"I have had the great pleasure," he said, "of seeing the experiment so far as it has gone entirely successful, both from the point of view of the boy and the farmer."

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While Bell was keen to bring into New Zealand the best class of immigrants, he by no means acquiesced in the popular demand that we should encourage the tourist traffic. His views on this subject were not recorded till towards the end of his career, but it will be convenient to insert them at this point.

He often declared that he had no wish to turn New Zealand into a second Switzerland. When somebody replied that the tourists from overseas always leave a good deal of money with us, Bell's answer was that they "did good only to the publicans and the photographers."

He protested against what he called,

"This abominable demand for the advent of tourists to provide New Zealand with wealth."

"If the tourists like to come here," he said, "well and good, but why on earth we should advocate a process by which every scenic resort where there is comfort is filled with tourists from abroad to the exclusion of New Zealanders who wish to travel, I cannot understand. The Dominion ought to be hospitable. Having the scenic attractions, it should keep its doors open. But why we should spend our time and money in providing discomfort for New Zealanders for the benefit of people from abroad I have never been able to understand. It is degrading and contrary to the spirit of a free country. Switzerland is an example for us to avoid. There the free and independent Swiss are touching their hats to the tourist. The prosperous Swiss are the publicans, the photographers, the waiters, guides, and taxi-drivers. If we are going to be turned into a country to page 92accommodate the brewers, the waiters, and the guides, in comparison with providing for the comfort and convenience of New Zealanders, then I shall regret that provision is made for concrete or bituminous roads."

Lord Bledisloe, after the expiry of his term as Governor-General, wrote to Bell on March 18, 1935:

"About the deer-stalking and the tourist traffic let us agree amicably to differ. About the former, however, I would like you to know that no one welcomes more profoundly than I do (and I have all the best sportsmen of England behind me) your decision to exterminate the deer, especially as so complete a process is impracticable. But having made the attempt I still hope that you will take your 'cullers' off for one month while the few remaining large-headed stags are roaring. You will thereby save your bush and your farm crops and some stalking that is really worth doing. As to the tourist traffic, I think that it is indisputably hard luck on the rest of the world, and especially on us old hand Britishers, that such perfectly magnificent and varied scenery should remain a closed book to the bulk of humanity."