The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times
Chapter XIII. — The National Government, 1915
The National Government, 1915.
Political stalemate—Party negotiations—Bell offers to resign—Lord Liverpool's appeal for unity—National Government formed.
The election held in December, 1914, a few months after the outbreak of War, was a bitter disappointment to Massey. Apparently at that stage the electors had not realized that it was of vital importance to return a strong administration to cope with the immense problems that might be expected to arise from a long war. After various recounts and election petitions had been cleared up, and a Speaker elected, it appeared that the Government would have a majority of only one or two against the combined Liberal and Labour opposition acting under Sir Joseph Ward. This could by no means be regarded as a working majority.
But this political stalemate was due not merely to the failure of the electors to realize the serious magnitude of the War, but to the action of the Government in allowing to be brought into the political arena two questions that always arouse fierce strife. The first was the Bible-in-schools controversy. Sir James Allen had brought in (but not as a Government measure) a Bill page 118to provide for a referendum on Bible in schools. This was dropped when the War broke out, but the Government Party was assumed to be in favour of it, and at the election it caused a line-up of religious opinion that lost the Government the votes of all those who were opposed to the Bill.
The other subject of bitter controversy was the licensing issue. Massey brought in a Bill proposing various amendments of the law, and although this Bill was not proceeded with its mere introduction was sufficient to arouse the most violent conflict in all parts of the country.
But in April, 1915, the realities of the War came home to New Zealand in full force. The Anzacs had made their landing on Gallipoli, and were engaged for some months in fierce and costly fighting. The electors awoke to the danger of a political deadlock or of an administration unable to make quick decisions on questions of War policy. They demanded the cessation of party warfare, and the creation of a National Government. A precedent for this was the formation of the Coalition Government in Britain. When the session opened Massey announced that the Government was prepared to discuss and favourably consider any reasonable proposal to establish a National Cabinet. Ward's reply was not enthusiastic, and he said that the proposal came as a complete surprise to him, and that he could not "in any off-hand way discuss a subject so farreaching in its bearings." The formation of a National Government, which looked so easy to the electors, was full of difficulties to the politicians. Ward claimed half the portfolios on the ground that the Opposition was practically equal in numbers with the Government page 119Party. But this Opposition consisted of thirty-two Liberals and seven Labour members, and none of the latter would take office.
The negotiations dragged on till the beginning of August, and, when all hope of success seemed futile, Lord Liverpool, the Governor-General, called a conference and appealed for unity. At the same time Bell and Heaton Rhodes with patriotic self-sacrifice handed in their resignations to Massey to help the formation of a National Cabinet. On the first anniversary of the declaration of war, Massey announced that the formation of a National Cabinet with equal representation from both sides had been agreed on, and Parliament adjourned for a fortnight to enable the Ministry to be selected.
At first Bell evidently assumed that his proffered resignation would be accepted, for on August 4, he assured members of the. Council that he would always bear in grateful remembrance the way in which they had helped or supported him while he had been leader of a party administration in the Council. But on August 17, in detailing the composition of the National Cabinet, he explained that his resignation had not been accepted, although he had fully anticipated that his place would be vacant when he made his earlier statement.
On August 7, the personnel of the new Cabinet was announced. There were six Reform members and six Liberal members, Pomare also remaining as a member of the Executive representing the Native race. The allocation of portfolios was as follows:—
- Reform: Massey, Prime Minister, and Labour; page 120Allen, Defence; Herries, Railways; Herdman, Attorney-General; Fraser, Public Works; Bell Leader of the Council (a few days later he took the portfolio of Immigration).
- Liberal: Ward, Finance, Post and Telegraph; McNab, Justice and Marine; Myers, Customs and Munitions; Macdonald, Agriculture and Mines; Russell, Health and Internal Affairs; Hanan, Education.
"The Massey Government wound up the election, with a majority of two clear over Liberal and Labour combined. But we all thought it best to form the National Government and take in Ward, Myers, Russell, and Macdonald. Rhodes and I retired to make way, but I remain as honorary Minister and retain the leadership of the Council. Parliament adjourned and has not yet met since we took over our new offices. Generally speaking, I think the new move has public approval and we shall be able to do more in union than by party."
This National Government, which should be described more correctly as a Coalition Government, lasted until near the end of 1919. It suffered from the defects of all such Governments. Its critics complained that it was weak when strength was required, and unyielding and obstinate when it was necessary to make reasonable concessions. It could only act when its members were unanimous.
"It was cumbersome in action and perpetually agitated by intrigues and dissensions."
Nevertheless, it did furnish a stable Government and suspend party warfare. No party by itself would have had a working majority, and without such a Government it would not have been possible to carry many of the measures rendered necessary by the War. Indeed, it had not been in existence for more than twelve months before some newspapers began to urge that a permanent fusion should be possible. They viewed with alarm the prospect of a return to three political parties.
I do not think Bell was at any time enthusiastic about the National Government, but he recognized its necessity, and on one occasion he told me that some of the Liberal Ministers were more loyal to Massey than to their own chief, Ward.
Bell's work as Leader of the Legislative Council carried increased responsibilities, for he had thenceforward to pilot through the Council the Bills of the larger Cabinet constituted by the National Government. These Bills nearly all dealt with War measures, including War taxation and borrowing, more liberal soldiers' pensions, a Discharged Soldiers' Settlement Act to enable land to be bought for soldiers, War Regulations, and many other matters. In addition to these an Act extended the life of Parliament, and another Act postponed the operation of the Legislative Council Reform Bill.
But more striking and important than any of these was an Act adopting compulsory military service, in other words, conscription, for the currency of the War. On this last measure Bell took a strong stand in favour of the exemption of religious objectors, and it will be worth while to devote the next chapter to his attitude on this question.