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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XII — Abolition of The Provinces, 1874-76

page 111

Chapter XII
Abolition of The Provinces, 1874-76

"At the time the Provinces were abolished no other four men could have been found in public life who were the superiors of Sir George Grey, Wm. Fitzherbert, Rolleston and Macandrew—the Superintendents of Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago"

C. A. de Latour to the author in 1890.


The rapid progress of events which led to the abolition of the Provinces has been fully recorded in various New Zealand histories. But it is often not recognised at what an early date the seeds of their future destruction were sown and how inevitably linked up were all the successive changes in policy which led to their abolition. For it did not become a simple contest between those who believed in centralism and those who believed in provincialism until the final denouement. The root cause of abolition can be traced back to a date far anterior to the period when it became a dominating issue in politics.

When a demand arose in the early 'sixties for the taking over from the Imperial authorities (as represented by the Governor) of the control of Native Affairs this raised a question of national and not merely provincial importance. Colonial self-respect was urgent that this great question of native policy should be controlled by its own politicians. It was not perhaps realised at the time that all the Provinces were concerned and that this was in fact the first step to-wards unifying the nation.

Again, when the Provincialists demanded in 1865 that the seat of Government should be removed to Wellington for greater convenience and accessibility they perhaps did page 112not realise that this in turn helped to defeat provincialism by making it easier to develop the powers of the Central Government.

Finally, the various Provinces entered on a borrowing policy and some of them became embarrassed financially. In due course the Central Government had to take over or guarantee their liabilities. At the same time it laid down the rule that in future Provinces must not borrow without the consent of the Central Government. This restriction of Provincial borrowing naturally called for some substitute in carrying out public works and immigration. Thus by an inevitable process we reach the introduction of the Vogel public works and immigration policy of 1870, not as a matter of choice but of necessity. Once this stage had been reached it was easy to argue that the reason for the existence of the Provinces had ceased to operate. In short their abolition was the natural culmination of all the preceding steps.1


It is doubtful, however, if anyone but Vogel could have precipitated the abolition of the Provinces on so slight a pretext as proved sufficient for that powerful autocrat. In 1874 he brought in a Bill to establish a proper system of forestry conservation. The Bill met with no serious opposition and indeed was passed by both Houses without a division. But in the course of the debate some criticism was offered as to whether the legislation might not restrict the control by Provincial Councils of such areas of land as might be affected by forestry activities. To the surprise of the House, Vogel seized on this criticism to make open war on the Provinces. In an elaborate speech he moved a resolution to the effect that the provincial form of government in the North Island should be abolished but that page 113localisation of the land revenue should be continued in accordance with the compact of 1856.

This resoltuion was launched with such precipitate haste that his own colleague (Sir) Maurice O'Rorke made a violent attack on the Premier and said that the proposal had never been discussed in Cabinet; not only so, but he announced his own resignation and dramatically walked across to the opposition benches. However, the majority in favour of the resolution was so large that it was clear the time was ripe for a general measure abolishing the whole system of provincial government in both islands. Accordingly when Parliament met next year (1875) this task was taken in hand. A Homeric battle raged between centralism and provincialism in a classical debate that lasted for three weeks. Vogel must have regarded the result as a foregone conclusion, as he had gone off on another financial mission to England. He left (Sir) Harry Atkinson in charge to bear the whole burden of piloting the Bill through the House. This Atkinson did with great skill, sagacity and patience. At some stage in his long career he earned the reputation of "wearing hobnailed boots", that is, of forcing legislation through the House. But on this occasion he showed himself to be reasonable and tactful. Sir George Grey had emerged from his retirement in order to lead the opposition to abolition. With him were Rolleston, Macandrew, Stout and other champions of the Provinces,


Rolleston in a lengthy speech traversed the achievements of the Provincial Councils and reiterated the beneficent results of "a healthy conflict between localism and centralism as essential to good government". As indicated in an earlier chapter, though he was fully alive to the defects of the provincial system, he urged that what was wanted was not abolition but economy and simplification "leaving to page 114the localities such functions as they could best perform, with the Central Government still exercising a general superintendence and control without destroying, without abolishing and without tyrannising".

He denounced the inefficiency of the Central Government and their gross neglect of the gaols, asylums and other social institutions. He ended a lengthy and well-reasoned speech by saying: "Do not let it be said of us all that we hastily sanctioned a measure resigning our privileges and all that we have worked for at the instance of one who chose to say that he was tired of the Provinces." The Bill finally passed by a large majority, but was not to operate until Parliament met again the following year. In the meantime an election was held (in December 1875) and it clearly proved that Parliament had correctly gauged popular opinion in legislating for the abolition of the Provinces.


Sir David Monro was out of politics at this time, seeking to regain his health by a quiet country life. Although he was a strong supporter of abolition he was in full accord with Rolleston's opinion on Vogel and his borrowing policy.

Sir David Monro to Rolleston, 15 July 1874:

I have been reading a speech of Waterhouse's. It is very clever and amusing. I had no idea that Waterhouse had so much fun in him. There are some capital hits in it—what a pity that Sewell left the Legislative Council. I fancy Vogel wants to drive Featherston out of his office (as Agent-General). These letters of his are exceedingly coarse and offensive and when one thinks of Featherston's antecedents and public services it is deplorable to see him bullied by such a snob as Vogel. The career which Vogel has cut out for himself I can fancy to be as follows; he will go home as Agent for the Colony and after a year or two he will endeavour to get into the British Parliament. He has brains enough to see that the time for leaving New Zealand is drawing nigh.

I am told that at the present moment the credit of the Colony is very high in England and that we can get any amount of money page 115we choose to ask for. This must come to an end before long. The Colony is living at a fearful pace which is becoming faster … there will be lots of money for everybody and the goal will be reached all the sooner….

I suppose there is no opposition and I really think there would be very little use in having one. The Colony cares only about one thing and that is money—no matter where it comes from so long as there is an ample supply.

Sir David Monro to Rolleston, 11 December 1875:

On one account, if not on more, I am not sorry that I was not in the House of Representatives last session, for if I had been there although on the great majority of questions I should have been by your side, still on the great question of the elimination of the Provinces I should have been obliged to differ from you; and I can assure you with all sincerity that having the greatest respect for your political views, and with very great admiration of the independence and honesty with which you express them in the Legislature I should have separated from you on this question with much pain….

The question of one Parliament for the Colony or ten parliaments is one that has been in my mind ever since the Constitution of 1853 was launched, and I never could come to any other conclusion than that in the multiplicity of legislation and the extreme subdivision of the colonial resources there was created a most unnecessary amount of machinery and a conflict of interests. All this appeared to me to give to the colonial parliament the character of a body compound of a number of squads pursuing local objects and rendered it quite impossible that it should exhibit those characteristics of strength and public spirit, without which a parliament is hardly entitled to any respect whatever. I have the most affectionate respect for the institutions of the old country and feel perfectly certain that its machinery of local self government is at the bottom of its strength and success in the higher efforts of legislation. But local self government as understood in England means nothing more than the administration by a locally constituted body of a law made by the one parliament of the country. Such a thing as the manufacture of laws for the British people by ten parliaments never entered I should think into the page 116head of the most locally minded British subject. I don't think there is the smallest reason to fear that we shall have a sufficient amount of local self government…. What I fear most is the bribery of the General Government and the corruption thereby engendered…. New Zealand has been demoralised by the Vogel policy. Little of its self-respect is left. Backstairs influence and log rolling and successful beggary are the influences which are invoked….

Is the credit of New Zealand nearly exhausted? I fancy that it is: and I am very happy to think that such is the case. Without borrowed money Vogel is nobody; a Samson without his locks. The collapse of that mountebank is not very far distant and his name in a very few years will be mentioned in a very different tone from that in which it is sounded at present. But alas for the poor Colony. It has an awful millstone round its neck: and will have to pay dearly for its reckless gullibility.

Vogel arrived back in New Zealand in February 1876 after sixteen months' absence. He was feted and banqueted by immense crowds and was hailed with unrestrained enthusiasm as a national hero. He resumed without question the Premiership and reconstituted his Cabinet.

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J. E. Fitzgerald, first Superintendent of Canterbury and William Rolleston, last Superintendent of Canterbury

J. E. Fitzgerald, first Superintendent of Canterbury and William Rolleston, last Superintendent of Canterbury

1 See "The unification of the Colony", New Zealand Magazine, 1876, David Bruce.