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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XI — The Waterhouse Interlude, 1872-73

page 104

Chapter XI
The Waterhouse Interlude, 1872-73

"Local Government—Provincialism if you like to call it so—is the essence of successful democracy"—


When Vogel ejected the short-lived Stafford Ministry in October 1872 he announced that the Premier (Sir) William Fox was not prepared to resume office. He took the opportunity of paying a glowing tribute to his retiring chief, in which he said: "It has been under the honourable member for Rangitikei (Fox) that I have gained whatever position in politics I have achieved."

There is an interesting note about Sir William Fox in some manuscript recollections of the 1876 Parliament sent to me by the late Mr C. A. de Latour. "A pleasant picture lingers," he says, "a burly old man, tall and straight and of a homely demeanour with a very little shrunken old lady clinging to his arm as a sure support, walking along to a half empty Methodist Church near the House." It is interesting to know that more than twenty years later Sir William Fox, then an old man in retirement, was responsible for inducing a future Prime Minister, Mr W. F. Massey, to enter politics.

Vogel now induced Mr G. M. Waterhouse, who was in the Legislative Council, to become Premier in the reconstituted Ministry, Vogel himself being content to hold the portfolios of Colonial Treasurer and Postmaster-General.

It has often been remarked that during most of his political career Vogel, like Whitaker, was satisfied to put forward other men as nominal leaders while he himself retained the substance of power in an ostensibly inferior position. Perhaps the true explanation of this curious page 105practice was that Vogel used the high reputation for prudence, caution and integrity of men like Fox and Water-house as a cover to protect from assault and suspicion his own "daring and selfish projects".1 Nevertheless, it is to the credit of Vogel that he did not seek to surround himself with weak colleagues in order to make easy his own domination; on the contrary, he always selected the ablest men available. His incredible ascendancy was due to his own strength and brilliance rather than to the weakness or incapacity of his fellow Ministers.

Waterhouse was an able man of high character and sound views, with a fine record of public service. He was the only public man in our history who enjoyed the unique experience of having been a Premier in an Australian State (South Australia) and at a later date Premier of New Zealand. This is a remarkable record. What is almost equally striking is that he only arrived in New Zealand in 1869 and yet became Premier in 1872. However, it was not long before he found that he was in a false position. He could not acquiesce in the development of Vogel's policy; accordingly, after holding office for about five months he resigned on 31 March 1873 while Vogel was absent in Australia. Pending the return of Vogel, Fox again stepped into the breach and thereafter Vogel became the nominal as well as the real head of the Government (8 April 1873).

Of these rapid changes in the personnel of the Ministry Rolleston was an interested observer and his letters throw some light on the course of events.

Rolleston to Sir David Monro:

March 28th, 1873.
The cry of economy is an excellent one but it does not apply to individual cases. I have never believed that the folly of the (public works) scheme would be apparent till the decree goes out for all the world to be taxed. The people will then make themselves felt as they don't now, our Government being the worst

1 Saunders, vol. ii, p. 482.

page 106form of oligarchy living by purchase. Your election is one of the most hopeful signs of the times.1

The more I think of it the more assured I feel that the support of the runholders has been given to Vogel and Macandrew simply in the hope that their scheme will keep the power centralised in Wellington in the hands of the few who can afford to spend three months there yearly and will choke the growing cry of the people for the utilisation of the public lands. I think there must be something more than we know of in the matter of Waterhouse and shall expect that he will make statements which will to some extent make his case better than it now appears. Reeves' charge of disingenuousness against Vogel is very amusing. Strange that he should have sat still and allowed Vogel's compliments to pass in the House. He was severely handled by his constituents. If the Legislature stand the return of Fox to the Ministry they will stand anything. I am not hopeful and my tendencies are very provincial.

The reader will notice that in this letter Rolleston refers to "the few who can afford to spend three months yearly in Wellington". This points to an important fact that we are apt to forget. In those days there was no annual salary for members but a sessional payment and travelling allowance. Hence it was only men with private means or some other source of income who could afford to enter politics. For example, presumably Rolleston was helped by the fact that he had a salary or honorarium as Superintendent of Canterbury. But no doubt the power of the large runholders of which Rolleston so frequently complains was due to the fact that they were almost the only class that could afford to enter politics without pay and could spare time to be absent during the winter months while there was little work on their runs. Another factor that helped to make politics a close preserve was the restricted franchise. Before 1879 there was a property qualification of £50 freehold with certain other miscellaneous voting rights for miners,

1 Monro had been elected for Waikouaiti in place of (Sir) George McLean, who had resigned.

page 107business licenses, etc. Most of these were swept away in 1879 in favour of a residential qualification of one year in the Colony and six months in the electorate. Even then plural voting was not abolished till 1889. It would be interesting to know if plural voting had much real effect in elections. I have heard from old settlers amusing stories of men of property dashing about in buggies from one electorate to another to record their votes.

The reader may begin to think that the course of the narrative is being obscured by too many extracts from letters. But I am anxious to allow Rolleston to speak in his own words where possible. Accordingly I insert here extracts from a letter to Mr T. B. Gillies, who was Superintendent of Auckland Province and served in several ministries. He became a Judge of the Supreme Court in 1873 and died in 1889. Gisborne, says Gillies, was "shrewd, logical and incisive in thought and in speech. In politics he had not much breadth and liberality of view…he had too strong an individuality ever to become a good party man." He was, however, undoubtedly able and within its range his mind was strong and accurate.

Rolleston to Gillies, 24 April 1873:

All Colonial matters are becoming so distasteful that I am always glad to keep out of them and devote myself to what is more congenial in local administration. I have just been in Wellington and have heard a good deal of political gossip, but truth is very hard to arrive at. Re Waterhouse: I think his crime is weakness that in an ill-advised moment he yielded to the very improper pressure brought to bear upon him by the Governor and that all his future false steps hang upon that; he has a sensitive conscience, knew all the while that he was in a false position and fretted himself from bad to worse. I am sure from what he told me that he was right to get out of it but he floundered in doing so. He confided a good deal to me, but evidently not all. I believe that if the whole truth could come out there would be a good deal of sympathy with him and the statements circulated by the other Ministers infringing his veracity are so wrong that page 108there must be a reaction which will save him from utter annihilation. I told him that the country would not take as an excuse that Vogel had a stronger will than he when Parliament had left him in the same position and that anything will be forgiven in public men but the letting down of their office. It is quite untrue that there had been no difference in the Cabinet and from all I gathered that letter of the other must have been and was disingenuous and suppressive of much. I have heard what would fill pages but the stories are hard to reconcile. My feeling is that Vogel attempted to force on the Cabinet a cut and dried scheme for making MacLean the nominated Superintendent of the North Island and carrying out some form of separation. (This mind you must not be quoted as a fact or as coming through me.) Waterhouse did not tell me this but I heard it on good authority—and what Reynolds explained to me of his personal views and the manner in which he insisted on their being his personal views only confirms it. Waterhouse told me that he declined to entertain new policies as being pledged to administrative reform. Of course Vogel's game will be to dazzle by something startling and withdraw attention from what is practical and pressing. I don't understand Pollen's joining except that he has previously come on in the fifth act. He is a good administrator, fond of administration and sick of the mess which everything is in around him from causes for which he is not responsible, and so joins he does not quite know why. I find that many men argue "Policies are all swamped. The country through its representatives has twice affirmed the borrowing policy, it has tasted the sweets of money gained without effort. The direction of this policy will be limited by the gullibility of the moneylender and the possibility of borrowing. What is the use of kicking against the pricks?"

You asked me what I think as to the shadows moving ahead. There are several ugly contingencies in prospect on which I don't care now to speculate, but I will tell you what I think myself as briefly as may be.

The conduct of immigration and public works from a centre has broken down. The loss of the money does not much signify, we can bear a good deal of that. What we cannot bear is the utter destruction of all real government throughout the country. The people who are supposed to have the power in their hands are not represented in the General Assembly. With the exception of the page 109Superintendents who are looked upon as black sheep, the classes represented are

(1)The squatters whose single view is to keep power away from the people who here as elsewhere in the world are turning their attention to the question of utilising the public land,
(2)The Merchants—omnivorous birds of prey—in the South, squatters' agents—elsewhere generally desirous of "keeping the people green to feed as they have fed them".
(3)The loafers and billet hunters. Besides these there are a few old settlers and men really interested in the welfare of the country who are becoming fewer yearly from sheer disgust. These last are chiefly men of the Old Colonial Party whose objection to the Provincial Government was that they centralised power and expenditure in the chief towns and neglected the development of the country. They have (I mean the would-be Colonial Party) been so long intent on what have been looked on as antiprovincial measures that they lent themselves to the destruction of the only safeguard against a far worse form of centralism as developed by Mr Vogel. We have now therefore a Government subsisting by purchase and corruption in no way representing the real interests of the people. What we want is to return to local self government as provided for by the Constitution. The only party cry that can now be raised which will meet with responses as against speculation and demoralisation is decentralising. The conduct of the public works and immigration (with certain conditions) must be given to the localities. I cannot see why this should not be done under the general control of the Colony in the same way that our Road Boards act under the general control of the province in the expenditure of funds for which they come to the provincial chest. It is objected that the provinces will job. No doubt they will. It is human nature, but there is a swifter adjustment of accounts and a quicker retribution than in provincial jobbery. That this decentralisation must come I can entertain no manner of doubt. The possibility of being governed by Reynolds, Bathgate and O'Rorke with an occasional interval of Vogel snatched from postal intrigues cannot last long. The line of the change is uncertain. If we are content to return to our Constitution the change will be administrative, if not it will be revolutionary and take the form of separation. Many, myself among them, hold it better to go into life halt and maimed than page 110with both hands to destruction. I cannot see why borrowing, except for certain Colonial undertakings limited in number and which might be definitely fixed, should not be upon special securities, as in the case of the municipalities. No lender is thus consulted as to the paying power of the undertaking which is not the case except nominally in London.

The present office of Colonial Minister is one that no one can be ambitious of, thus anyone is eligible and the work is not done; but if the mass of work which is now attempted were relegated to the Provinces, really national legislation would require and obtain men to do it.

I have written what you will think a curious rigmarole. It indicates generally the bent of my mind; but no desire to detach myself from party ties. If the opposition is to have vitality it needs must have a positive creed and we followers must as between ourselves freely interchange our views. Have you had any communication with Stafford as to his views and intentions?

The following month in a letter to Featherston, the Agent-General, Rolleston says:

We meet in Wellington on 15th June when there will no doubt be a good deal to say re Waterhouse … native matters etc., but there will be no change of ministry as no one is prepared to take office. If the works of these men have a successful issue they will deserve much credit which no one else will. If not they will be bound to work it out to the bitter end. No new prophet will arise till the decree goes out for all the world to be taxed.