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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 XXVI. — The Coates Ministry, 1925-1928

page 245

Chapter XXVI.
The Coates Ministry, 1925-1928.

The election of 1925—The Ministry is reconstructed—Letters from Bell to Ministers—Bell resumes office—The political sky darkens.


Bell's prediction that the Coates Government would carry the election held at the end o£ 1925 and have a large working majority over both the Liberal and Labour parties was amply fulfilled. But before the election took place Bell said farewell to the Legislative Council on the assumption that he was now about to leave active politics:

"The time of my useful service—if there has been any use in my Cabinet office—is ended. I will not be present next session. The term of my appointment to the Council ends in May, 1926, and even if reappointed I shall, if fortune favours, be in another country, and a new Leader will have taken my place. For the last time I have presented a message from His Excellency, the Governor-General."*

But his valedictory speech was premature, as he had still much, work to do both abroad and at home. In fact, 1926 was one of his busiest years, for in it he

* Bell's speech, in Legislative Council, October 1, 1925.

page 246attended the League of Nations in Geneva and the Imperial Conference in London. The story of his work at these Conferences will be dealt with in the next chapter.

Soon after Bell's departure, Coates set about the difficult task of reconstructing his Ministry. The work was carried out in piece-meal fashion spread over several months. This slow process aroused strong criticism even on the part of papers that supported the Government. In February, 1926, Sir James Parr left the Ministry to become High Commissioner in London. By May four new Ministers had been appointed, and there had been a general redistribution of portfolios.

Some extracts from Bell's letters at this period will show with what keen interest he followed political events in New Zealand during his absence abroad:

Bell to Coates, London, May 28, 1926:

"Dear Prime Minister,—A day or two ago, the newspapers published a list of the reconstruction of the Government, but Reuter's list was not the same, and I am still not sure of the exact position. One matter seems certain, and that is that you have chosen Wright as the Wellington member. He has one overwhelming claim as against the other expectant, and that is that he has been a loyal supporter of us from the first, whereas the other was on the wrong side to begin with. It is obvious that you will make other adjustments of portfolios later. I am rather glad that Stewart has given up the Attorney-General-ship to Rolleston, especially as Rolleston is best equipped to manage the legislation in its drafting. Stewart, of course, would have done that excellently, page 247but with Finance he really could not have given it the necessary attention. It is all very interesting to me, and I await the final adjustment with certainty that you will spread out the portfolios far better than I could … I am to be sworn next Tuesday. I send you enclosed a copy of the instructions for that ceremony, so that you may know in advance and be able to bear with more fortitude than myself the observances required. Getting a frock-coat, which will be useless afterwards, seems to be a necessary penalty of 'greatness'."

Bell to F. J. Rolleston, M.P., Attorney-General and Minister of Defence:

"I am anxious to offer the very sincere congratulations of the penultimate Attorney-General to the actual holder of that high position. It gives me especial pleasure to anticipate that you will be worried by a new Chairman of the Statutes Revision Committee, and have some of the stuffing cut out of your Bills by that irresponsible body. But honestly I have always recognized the value of the hard work you have put in as Chairman, and the help you gave to the Government in legislation which was of general importance. But for you, I could not have got through the Chattels Transfer Bill, or the last Land Transfer Bill—both pieces of legislature which I wanted to complete before I went out … I am concerning myself with the matters of retaining counsel for the Government in the flour-milling case, Rex. v. Distributors, Ltd., and I hope that I am not thereby infringing any of the privileges of your office. As you know, I argued the case when Attorney page 248General with the Solicitor-General, and have had something to do with the direction of the preparation of the papers to go to England from New Zealand. I told Stewart before I left that I meant to have, as one of the juniors, a young lady lawyer because of the enormous amount of evidence and the necessity of getting somebody at a reasonable cost to master (or mistress) it for the conferences of counsel, and have, after conference with the Government solicitors in London, sent preliminary papers, including the evidence, to Miss Clarkson, who is a grand-daughter of Sir John Gorst, and a daughter of a lady born in New Zealand. She will not, of course, be heard in the Privy Council, but she is already doing what I wanted and mastering the evidence. My difficulty in previous cases which I have had to control in the Privy Council has been to have the counsel coached in the facts. I have written to the solicitors that I would prefer to have Sir John Simon to lead, if he has not been retained on the other side. I do not know Simon personally, but I have made inquiries of men who know what would be best in such a case as ours, and they generally point to Simon … The case is really an important one because if we lose it in the Privy Council, and have Sim's judgment restored, it seems clear to me that you will have to legislate to prevent a recurrence."*

Bell to W. Nosworthy, M.P.

" If the cables have given a correct list of the last reconstruction, you are Postmaster-General and also

* The Government lost the case in the Privy Council. The judgment of Sim, J., was restored.

page 249Minister of External Affairs, and I am most sincerely glad that those offices, each of which is a ministerial prize, should come to you. There will be less labour and more dignity for you in the future … Strikes, and demands on my time from the High Commissioner and lawyers, have made the first month of my London stay less pleasant than I hope to make the rest of the weeks till I go to Geneva. At all events, I am fully earning my pay from the Government at present."


In 1927, after his return from the Imperial Conference, Bell resumed his old role as Leader of the Legislative Council. He apologized for his reappearance in view of the fact that he had bidden farewell at the end of 1925, and had intended" to relinquish all semblance of office." His explanation was that it had been thought desirable that he should remain in the Executive while representing New Zealand at Geneva, and "the invitation to so remain was conveyed to me in terms which made it impossible for me to refuse. I was invited to continue my association with the Prime Minister at the Imperial Conference."

But his resumption of office hardly needed an apology, for his experience and judgment were of immense value to Coates and the country, and public affairs were still the dominating interest of his life.


During the short period of the Coates Government many new political problems emerged. The Dairy Control Board got into difficulties through its attempt page 250to control London prices. The turmoil in Samoa became so acute that power had to be taken to deport white people and half-castes without trial. A Licensing Bill introduced by the Prime Minister caused a violent conflict in Parliament and in the Government Party, even though it was declared to be a non-party measure. Finally, due to falling prices, there was a decline in prosperity, and a rise in the figures for unemployment. Although Bell took his share in dealing with these various problems, they relate to matters that are now past history and hardly call for special comment or explanation.

To Arthur Bell, November 18, 1928.

"I am still in the Government for my sins and am taking without salary a portfolio or two for my colleague, Anderson, Minister of Labour, who has gone to England for heart cure. The session will soon be on and keeps me occupied. Then the General Election in November and then exit from public life."