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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



We have already seen from Rolleston's letters written in 1871 that he was looking to Stafford as the only possible man to check the unrestrained power of Vogel. It is clear that uneasiness was growing in various quarters. Sewell, who was a member of the Fox-Vogel Ministry with a seat in the Upper House, resigned on 27 October 1871 owing to his disagreement with the Government's policy. Moreover, Waterhouse, who replaced him, said frankly that he had agreed to act only until the end of the session in the hope that thereafter a stronger and more permanent administration might be formed.

During this period there was a growing note of pessimism in Rolleston's letters and speeches, and he found himself in constant conflict with the members of the Ministry. His chief complaint was, not so much against the public works policy as a policy, but that Vogel was plunging ahead without any real attempt to reconcile the programme of the Central Government with any proper system of local administration. Rolleston saw clearly enough that the central public works policy necessitated a complete review of the system of Provincial Government. He argued that unless that system was carefully recast to fit in with the new policy the result must be the centralisation of all power into the hands of the Central Government. "This", he said, "is calculated to cripple the energies and destroy the individuality and enterprise of the people of the page 95country. Every new Government function converts more and more the active and ambitious part of the public into hangers-on of the Government." Indeed he shared the view which was widely held that if the powers and duties of the central and local authorities were not clearly defined the only alternative left would be the separation of the two islands.

As time went on his attacks on the Fox-Vogel Ministry became more and more violent. For in his view they had gained office by false pretences. They had come in professing to be the friend of the Provinces and a policy of prudence and caution and abstinence from borrowing. But in Rolleston's view they had entirely departed from the policy upon which they came into office, and subsequently carried measures of a totally different character.

These persistent attacks called forth a bitter reply from the Premier, Mr Fox. He jeered at Rolleston's

doleful and gloomy vaticinations, for it is a faculty of that honourable gentleman that he is always brooding over what is doleful and lamentable; ever lugubrious and filled with the gloomiest anticipations…. During his career as a Provincial Superintendent and as a member of a Provincial Council as at the present moment it was always the same dolorous cry; the same dreadful forebodings of evil and woe. Never anything cheerful. Never anything of the true spirit of the colonist. Nothing British. Nothing manly or energetic. Always croaking and foreboding.1

These are strong words. But it would be a mistake to suppose that Rolleston was a voice crying in the wilderness or that his views did not find ready support. It is of particular interest to note that he found a strong champion in Stafford. This again illustrates the kaleidoscopic changes in political grouping in view of the fact that only two years before Rolleston had helped to oust Stafford from office. Nevertheless when Rolleston was thus attacked for his doleful views we find Stafford complimenting him on his

1 Hansard, 1871, vol. xi, p. 1096—Debate on Appropriation Bill.

page 96"superb foresight" and expressing a desire to associate himself with the views and forebodings uttered by Rolleston. Stafford solemnly declared that during his long and continuous public career he had never felt so despondent about the future. But Rolleston was not so much concerned with Fox as with Vogel. On one occasion he stated that every member of the House recognised Vogel's earnestness and honesty of purpose, his indefatigable industry and great ability, but added

having said this much it will be readily believed that I have no personal feeling in saying that I look upon him as the impersonation of all that is reckless, of all that is mischievous in the Government of the country…. One of the greatest evils that has ever befallen the country.1

In his reply Vogel passed by Rolleston's commendation of his earnestness, industry and ability and uttered some vitriolic sentences about his critic:

He (Rolleston) is one (said Vogel) who is never pleased or satisfied with any party, with any person, or with any section of the community or of the House. He is nothing if he is not at war. I really believe that if fate should cast him an Enoch Arden upon some desolate island he would quarrel with the beasts of the field, with the birds of the air, and even with the fishes of the sea. He could not be at peace…. If he ever gets into power he will again set out on that weary mill-road of fault finding to which he has devoted himself ever since he entered the House.2

Finally, it is interesting to quote the opinion of Gisborne, who was a member of the Fox-Vogel Ministry, and afterwards wrote an admirable book entitled New Zealand's Rulers and Statesmen. Speaking in 1871 he spoke of Rolleston's "spirit of conscientiousness" as being perhaps too potent for him and added:

Why! Since my honourable friend has taken a seat in this House he has been the proteus of politics. Three years ago he joined the party then led by the honourable member for Rangi-

1 Hansard, 1872, vol. xii, p. 702.

2 Hansard, 1872, vol. xii, p. 728.

page 97tikei
(Mr Fox), whom he now vilifies in opprobrious terms. After having succeeded in turning out the Stafford Ministry he for a time, like Achilles, sulked in his tent, and now from the midst of his former foes he turns his guns upon his former friends. I have no doubt my honourable friend always acts with the best intentions and errs from excess of virtue; for good' men whose goodness is not tempered with discretion; who have no practical knowledge of the world; who make no allowances for the comparative failings of others are apt to occasion more mischief than persons of far inferior stamp in character and ability.1

This criticism by Gisborne is extremely interesting, because, although it was made in the heat of debate, he undoubtedly came near to the truth when he attributed Rolleston's attitude to too great a spirit of conscientiousness and what he calls "an excess of virtue". Rolleston's speeches and letters show again and again that he possessed a degree of intellectual scrupulosity that made his political path thorny and difficult. At this time the Press of his own city complained that he was becoming a political Jeremiah. There was certainly plenty of evidence to support this charge. It is true that in later years his friends declared that throughout his life he was a persistent optimist. But there is little sign of optimism in the following letter.

Rolleston to Featherston (Agent-General in London), 15 February 1872:

I have scarcely known what to say about public matters, being thoroughly disgusted with the Government, the Assembly and politics generally. Were it not that socially in respect of institutions and other things affecting the happiness of a large number of people one's position enables one to continue an influence not altogether barren of good results, I should throw up the whole connection with public affairs, I have not time today to write much, but I will state the matters on which my spirit is most vexed.

(1)The Brogden (railway) contracts. Vogel dealt wrongly with the country and wrongly with Brogden in leading him on as

1 Hansard, vol. xi, p. 1101.

page 98he did and the engagements which if report is true are now being made are simply flagitious.
(2)Government is flooding the country with officialism, ignoring existing authorities, neglecting no opportunity of over-riding and putting affronts upon the heads of Provinces who don't support them and is allying itself to the basest order of men in order to compass its end.
(3)There is little doubt that the railways are being so scattered and made the subject of political scramble that there is not a chance of any one of them paying.
(4)It is actually proposed to introduce Chinese to do public works. I shall take the first opportunity of appealing to the public sympathy against so gross a wrong to what has been variously called the "heroic", "noble", "great" policy of colonization.

I cannot understand how the people of this island can tamely submit to such a state of things. The Resident Minister's appointment is a practical admission of the impossibility of management from Wellington. The only choice will be between ultra-provincialism and separation. My own mind runs in favour of the last. The Government is entirely overridden by Vogel.

Efforts were now being made to rally together sufficient forces to oust the Fox-Vogel Government. To accomplish this object men of the most diverse views came together. Stafford was leading the official opposition which was made up of the remnants of what was known as the Old Colonial Party. As we have already seen he favoured abolition of the Provinces. On the other hand Sir William Fitzherbert was the leader of the ultra-provincialist party. The union of these two parties enabled them to overthrow for a few weeks the Fox-Vogel Government.

Rolleston's letters to various correspondents throw some light on these curious negotiations.

Rolleston to Wakefield:

May 29th, 1872.

I have your letter marked Private and Confidential. My own opinion in respect of a union of Stafford and Fitzherbert is not favourable, but of course I should wait to hear from Stafford page 99before expressing any opinion. Reader Wood speaks of a "coalition" of Stafford and Fitzherbert with some of the present Government, which would be worse still. For my own part I see no light until taxation commences when the people will awake and make themselves felt in a fresh election.

Rolleston to Stafford:

June 8th, 1872.

I have held for some time past that till the money is spent no honest man can meddle with public life. It does not seem to me that to help Fitzherbert to make useless railways at the expense of the south in union with Bunny would redound to anyone's credit. However, I will suspend judgment till I hear from you. I should like to know the programme which is to be put forward. If it is merely a question of the part of the country where money is to be wasted, I don't see anything to be gained by turning out one set of men to put in another and do the same thing.

Please let me hear what is intended.

Rolleston to Stafford:

June 12th, 1872.

I have your letter upon the present political position which is a very peculiar one. My own position is this, that I have a strong distrust of the present government thinking that they have taken office under false pretences, have held their seats by unparalleled purchase, and are utterly incapable of giving effect to the proposals they have initiated. I intend to speak my mind very plainly in the House in opposition to the Government on those grounds. At the same time I have felt for some time past that Central Government from a centre taking upon itself local administration as well as matters of general concern has been rendered impossible. The alternative seems to me to be Insular Administration (to which I myself strongly incline) and an ultra-provincial revival. Sooner or later the people will assert their right to have a more direct voice in their own Government than they have now and they will strongly rebel against the monies raised by these taxations being spent under such monstrous Acts as the Immigration and Public Works Acts which practically remove all control from the people. No other cry than that of local control in one or other of those forms will satisfy the people when the inevitable taxation comes page 100on. The present Government have committed themselves to centralising in Wellington and I shall not cease to oppose them. I should like to go in for an Island policy but I doubt whether that is sensible in the present state of the House. Failing that, I believe that some modification of Fitzherbert's proposals is the only cry that can be raised to oppose the wasteful expenditure of the present borrowing heresies. They must go (that is the monies) and until they are gone there can be nothing but confusion. The repentance which will come afterwards may be turned to good account. In the meantime anything which tends to lessen the number of the Provinces whether to two or five is a step to the good.

There seems to me to be no hope of a satisfactory party until we can get a dissolution. I wish you saw your way to leading an Insular Party. I see nothing ahead as yet but a certain prospect of being tumbled up with atrocious sweeps.

What does Monro say to this? Since writing the above I see that "he also has come into this place of torment". It would be a great mistake to take any action without him. Your position would be very strong with him in accord with you. I think you should be very careful to have it understood that Fitzherbert comes in to you, not you to him.

June 14th.

Stevens has just shown me his letter to you. It is clear and he has the advantage of speaking without trammel and ab extra. He appears to me to have come to the same conclusion that I have by a different process, viz. that Insular Administration is on the whole the only real change which would be a profitable move; that any modification of present Provinces, however good, would be merely matters of detail, but could not be dignified with the name of a policy.

The real facts we have to deal with are that the South Island looks (and rightly I think) on the Provinces as their last tie to their land and the south will not give up either its land or its local government at any one's lead. Vogel is taking them away by stealth and Otago and Canterbury are basely trying to get temporary help out of this "grand scheme" and to keep their land. This requires to be exposed clearly and the insular policy follows. I don't agree with Stevens as to a general education scheme, that page 101Bill of last year is damnable, nor do I believe in reducing all parts of the country to one level and with one uniform administration destroying individuality and reducing the different communities to the position of a flock of sheep to be fleeced by a central tyranny.

You will understand that I am entirely desirous of working with you to counteract a policy and a Government which I mistrust and believe that a party can be found of great weight for the purpose. We must however thoroughly understand what we are going to do. Please write again when you have thought it out. I will come up at the beginning of the session.