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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 VIII. — Bell Enters Parliament

page 62

Chapter VIII.
Bell Enters Parliament.

The election of 1890—Bell defeated—A by-election in 1892—Bell again defeated—The election of 1893—Bell is elected—He is plaintiff in a libel action—His work in Parliament.


The year 1890 is usually described as a turning point in New Zealand political history. But it may be more correct to say that what occurred was a change of speed rather than a change of direction. It was as if politics had adopted a motor-car as a means of conveyance in place of a buggy. For the Governments that held office both before and after 1890 were each a mixture of individualism and socialism. There was merely a change in the proportion of the mixed economy of private and state enterprise. None of them adopted the view of some modern writers that there is no middle course between individualism and socialism.

It is true that after 1890 there was a remarkable expansion in social legislation, but the present-day assumption that prior to 1890 our politics belonged to the dark or mediaeval ages is erroneous. It is not uncommon to hear speakers recite the bead-roll of New Zealand statesmen as if it began in 1890. To take only one instance. The irony of Atkinson's career was that page 63though an ardent Socialist, he never had elbow-room to try out his ideas owing to the prolonged depression that continually threatened disaster.

At the General Election of 1890 that veteran statesman fought the last fight of his long career. He was desperately ill, and in the preceding session it had been necessary for Sir Edwin Mitchelson to act as Leader of the House. The long depression of the 'eighties had not yet worked itself out, and widespread discontent existed. The great maritime strike of 1890 had brought organized Labour into the political arena, and full manhood suffrage had been completed by the abolition of plural voting in 1889. Moreover, Atkinson's attempt to remedy the depression by. a protective tariff had split his party, and he had been dependent on help from the Liberal Opposition to secure its passage. The result of these and other factors was the defeat of the Atkinson Government, and the accession to office of the Liberal Party under Ballance.


It was at this notable election of 1890 that Bell made his first attempt, which was unsuccessful, to enter politics. He stood as an Independent. He was not a supporter of the Atkinson Government, " but he would not be antagonistic to the Premier whose indisposition could not be regarded other than as a matter for profound regret." At the same time he declared that he was and always would be a supporter of free trade, whereas Atkinson had recently put through a protective tariff.

But what caused most surprise both to friends and foes was his attitude on the land question. He page 64supported Ballance's policy that no more freehold should be parted with, and all Crown lands should be dealt with only on perpetual lease. "Such an assimilation," said the Evening Post, "to the views of Henry George on land nationalization was certainly not expected from him." His father prophesied truly enough what would happen if settlers were denied the freehold:

From Dillon Bell, January 9, 1891.

"I do not concur in your views on the land question, but the less I agree with you the more I admire your tone and your calm and well-reasoned arguments and the magnanimous spirit that ran through all you said. When we meet we shall have it out on the land. In my belief it is an ineradicable instinct in folk of all classes to be the owners of what they have made their homes, and that all legislation which aims at repressing that instinct is sure to fail and break down in the long run. I deny that 100,000 adults now in New Zealand, even if they were unanimous, have the right to say that no man shall make his home his own for ever, any more than to say that no man shall have a glass of beer at his pub. But even if the handful of men now in the country had such a right to-day, its permanent enforcement is futile. No sooner will the people who now express a (very natural) preference for the perpetual-lease system have got over their first difficulties and improved their holdings than the instinct and longing for full ownership will arise, as it has arisen in all ages and countries, and the laws repressing them will be repealed."

It will be seen in a later chapter that it was mainly on this very question of the demand for the freehold that page 65in 1912 Massey came into power. But while Bell agreed with Ballance's land policy he was opposed to the substitution of a Land and Income Tax for the Property-tax, and this was a cardinal feature of the Liberal Policy.

"A man," said Bell, "who put his money into furnishing a house or into diamonds and lace would escape taxation under a Land and Income Tax, and why should he? Surely one who is spending his money upon luxuries is just the man who should be made to pay."

On the other hand, he favoured a system of increasing the death duties.

"If the Colony was bent on progressive taxation for the purpose of bursting up large estates, it would make a mistake by causing all the land to be brought into the market at one time. But if they decided that the estate of a man who died leaving a large acreage of land should pay an increased duty on all beyond a certain area unless the executor sold the extra land within twelve months, then the problem of bursting up without confiscation would be solved."

The result of the election was that Bell came fourth on the poll in the combined Wellington electorate which at that time returned three members. He was beaten by Messrs. Fisher, Duthie, and Macdonald.


Again in 1892 he contested a by-election arising from the resignation of Mr. Macdonald and was defeated by Mr. McLean. The Ballance Ministry realized the importance of the election, and not only the Prime Minister, but Mr. Pember Reeves, who was one of the page 66most brilliant platform speakers of the day, threw their weight in behind their candidate in order to defeat Bell. Those papers which supported Bell denounced the candidature of McLean on the ground that he was a mere Ministerial dummy without any personal or political qualifications, and they urged the electors to "be not like dumb driven cattle." But on that occasion, as on so many others, the fact that a candidate carried the Government hall-mark was sufficient to secure his return, and neither Bell's personal ability nor his wide experience could stem the strong tide of popular support to the Ministry of the day. It was of no avail for Bell to protest against the Government's claim to be regarded as the only true Liberals. He urged that those who sought to bring about mutual respect and goodwill between all sections of the community were more Liberal than those who "for the sake of the triumph of the moment foment passions which it is the business of the highest civilization to subdue." But the bitter class conflict aroused by the great strike of 1890 had not yet died down, and Bell said that it was wrong for the Government "to play upon men's minds with promises that they know they can never perform, and to excite hopes they know cannot be realized."

From time to time in New Zealand politics candidates have urged that their desire is to keep the Government in and their measures out. Bell's attitude was exactly the reverse of this. He supported many of the Government measures, including female suffrage, the perpetual lease, the right of Labour to organize, and the principle of graduated taxation. Nevertheless, he held that taxation should be used only for raising revenue and not for bursting up the rich. He also pointed page 67out what is often still forgotten, that many of the most important Labour Bills introduced by the Government had really been introduced by their predecessors, and that the credit for the measures belonged to the Atkinson Government, even though they were actually passed by Ballance.


At his third attempt in 1893, Bell succeeded in being elected to the House, the three Wellington members being Sir Robert Stout, Bell, and Duthie. This election was interesting as being the first held under women's suffrage, and both Bell and Stout declared that they owed their victory to the newly enfranchised women. The wonder is, not that Bell had to stand three times before he could get himself elected, but that he ever got elected at all, for he was a bad platform speaker and the papers complained of his prosiness, his dogmatic style, and his irritability with questioners or interruptions. One paper described him as a rather frigid individual, dogmatic and self-contained, and said that he too often lost his temper under the raillery of his opponents. He was regarded, too, as a representative of the wealthy Conservative interests, in spite of his emphatic claims that he was a Liberal; indeed he openly declared that he was a Radical and a Socialist. Moreover, he was not at heart a strong Party man, and he admitted that he agreed with most of the Government's policy and legislation, It was their administration and dictatorial methods that he chiefly resented. What probably secured his election in spite of these many handicaps was the fact that, after his first defeat in 1890, he had been elected Mayor of Wellington, and had done such page 68conspicuously valuable work in that office that it went far to render him acceptable to the democracy in the wider sphere of general politics. Elections in those days were carried on with far more spectacular enthusiasm than is now the case, as the following extract from his speech of thanks may illustrate:

"When Mr. and Mrs. Bell arrived, the cheers were long and loud, and when Mr. Bell succeeded in gaining a hearing, he, with evident feeling, heartily thanked those present for the flattering position he held. Although second, he was content to be behind so able a leader as Sir Robert Stout. He had especially to thank the ladies to whom his victory was mainly due, and to her who stood beside him, to the exertion she had used on his behalf, was due more than he could say on that occasion. Mrs. Bell also, in a few graceful words, modestly thanked them for the honour done her and her husband. After receiving the congratulations at his Committee-room, the horses were detached from Mr. Bell's carriage, and the delighted admirers of the successful candidate pulled the carriage with its occupants along Lambton Quay lay Moles worth and Hill Streets to Mr. Bell's private residence "Golders Hill." Here he was serenaded by a brass band playing appropriate airs. Mr. Bell said it was the proudest moment of his life. Reluctantly the crowds left the residence, the band playing ' We won't go Home till Morning,' &c."*

But this election led to a libel action in which Bell was plaintiff. After the election a paper called Fair Play quoted him as having spoken of his defeated rivals

* Evening Press,November 29, 1893.

page 69as "froth and scum, whom the city had very properly rejected," and went on to suggest that though he had stood as a Prohibitionist he "must have been exhilarated by something other than his victory." A newspaper controversy arose as to what Bell had actually said, but he explained that his remark had been misreported, and what he had actually said was " that the electors had put aside the scum and froth of political addresses, and chosen their representatives on solid considerations."

At any rate, on the statement that he had been "exhilarated by something other than his victory," Bell immediately issued a writ for libel, and stated that he would accept no apology. A heavy bar was engaged, and Sir Robert Stout, Gully, and A. R. Atkinson appeared for Bell, while Jellicoe appeared for Fair Play. The amount of £501 damages were claimed in order to secure a jury. The case was tried before Judge Richmond.

It is often said that a lawyer makes a poor witness, and, if the account of the trial printed in the defendant's paper is correct, it would appear as if Bell startlingly illustrated the truth of this maxim; for in crossexamination Bell said that " he was not a teetotaller, and that it was his habit to have a whisky and soda at lunch and at dinner … He had a big cellar … On election day he gave a dinner party at his house to the members of his Committee. He had a glass of wine, but was not sure if he had taken any more. His mind was a perfect blank as to whether he had drunk any more that night. He was never more exhilarated by the liquor he drank than he would be by a glass of water." This shows how sinister a complexion can be put on innocent actions by an astute cross-examiner, page 70for Bell was well known throughout his life for his moderate and almost abstemious habits. It is not surprising, however, in view of his evidence that the verdict was for £1 damages and costs on the lowest scale.

Many years later when Bell was in England at an Imperial Conference he had to give evidence in a motorcollision case in a small County Court. But on this occasion an amusing tribute was paid to him as a witness. As he stepped out of the witness-box the local constable who administered the oath whispered to him, " Splendid sir, you couldn't have given your evidence better if you'd been a lawyer!"


At the time when Bell entered Parliament, Seddon was beginning his long and triumphant reign as head of the Liberal-Labour Government, a position which he held until his death in 1906.

During his short term of three years in Parliament as a member of the House of Representatives, Bell was a leading member of the Opposition under Captain Russell. At first it was clear that he found the waste of time irksome and exasperating, and he expressed his impatience as a new member. The Prime Minister showed his resentment at what he called, " the hectoring and lecturing, suffered from the medium member for Wellington," and advised him to adopt another tone.

It is probable also that Bell felt galled by the rough and tumble of abusive attacks and personalities, for during that period feeling was running high in the House. The Minister for Lands, (Sir) John McKenzie, is reported as saying:

"If I were asked to describe the honourable gentle-page 71man (Bell) I would say that I look upon his very appearance, his very tone, and his speech, as typical of the high English Tory. By the time he has been three years in the House he will change a good deal of that ' high-toned falutin' way, which we have seen this evening."*

From Dillon Bell, October 5 1894.

"I was only most sorry and not surprised at what you tell me about the House and your disgust at the politics and the debates. It is lamentable that even in your first session you should feel such disappointment and wish so much to be out of it, and there can be little chance of your finding the House any less wearisome hereafter … My constant thought is of your own vexation at the turn things took, and the probability of your refusing to stay any longer with such leaders of your Party as unhappily exist. Stout's position seems to me so ridiculous as well as so powerless that there remains no hope of any concerted action between you."

It was during this period that important and urgent legislation had to be passed dealing with the banking crisis, and the Government had to come to the rescue of the Bank of New Zealand. A great burden was thrown on the Opposition as they were called upon to concur in banking legislation without any adequate opportunity of investigation.

Both on this question and many other subjects, Bell spoke with great force and lucidity, and it was not long before the Prime Minister began to pay attention to what he said and to regard him as a powerful critic. Most of the controversies relate to subjects that are

* Hansard, Vol., 83, p. 330.

page 72now past history, and there is little to be gained by an attempt to describe in detail the part played by Bell. But occasionally he laid down general principles which are of permanent interest, and we may quote as an example some remarks he made on the Government Railway Bill in 1894.

This Bill was brought in by Mr. Seddon to give a seat to the Minister of Railways on the Board of Railway Commissioners, and his only reason for not bringing the Railways fully under State control at that stage was that he did not think public opinion was yet ripe. Bell objected to what he called a hybrid Board, and said that he had experience of sitting on such a Board as an elected member of the Government Insurance Board, which sat under the presidency of the Colonial Treasurer. But, in his opinion, the Board was useless because of the political power of the Colonial Treasurer,

"which we could neither successfully fight nor submit to nor surrender to … The idea that democracy means the administration by the House of the commercial undertakings of the State is essentially erroneous. The only hope for the organization of social effort by the State consists in the separation of that social effort from political management. There is no safety against corruption but in a separation of the control from politics … If you are to discount the fear of corruption, which is the chief argument against Socialism, you must have separate control apart from political management … As one who sees without fear the accumulation of effort into the hands of the State as against that of the individual—as one who believes that towards that end all our legislation is tending—as one who desires page 73to aid that end, and to safeguard the path we are taking I protest that the only hope for success is that the men who have charge of the commercial undertakings of the State should be independent of party or politics, and should be servants of this House, holding office during good behaviour."

At the present day these views on the dangers of political control of State undertakings are not in favour. But with each fresh incursion of the State into the sphere of industry it will become more obvious that in this respect Bell was a wise counsellor.

At the expiry of his first Parliament Bell did not offer himself for re-election. He did not re-enter Parliament till 1912. Probably in the interval his whole time was devoted to his legal practice except in so far as he was engaged for a second time in municipal affairs in 1897. The next chapter will deal with his work as Mayor of Wellington.