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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



The reader is now in a position to gauge with some precision Rolleston's political temperament and attitude. He was in effect, as already stated, Horace's "just man". He was not an extremist in politics. It is easy to be an extremist. The difficult role is that of the man who tries to be constructive and to remedy evils without destroying what is worth saving. Hence we see that Rolleston was not a blind opponent on either of the two great questions that came up for decision between 1870 and 1876, namely the public works policy and the abolition of the Provinces. His powerful qualities as a critic are apt to obscure the fact that his criticism was not merely destructive. If proof is required let the reader recall the fact that he approved of the borrowing for public works and railways. But he wanted safeguards to avoid waste and extravagance. He wanted definite plans and calculations submitted to the House as to how loan moneys would be spent. He saw clearly that once public works' expenditure ceased to be provincial and passed under the control of the General Government it would not be long before the Provinces lost their jealously guarded land funds. A still graver peril threatened his own highly successful immigration policy, page 118to which he had devoted so much patient care. For the key to his system was that migration should dovetail into closer land settlement. But if a flood of immigrants was rushed into Canterbury while land was locked up in the hands of large squatters it must inflate the wealth of the squatters and leave the migrants landless. "The more I think of it", he wrote to Monro on 26 March 1873, "the more assured I feel that the support of the runholders has been given to Vogel or 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 for the utilisation of the public lands."

These were surely sound and reasonable objections, and the glamour of Vogel's bold and spectacular proposals should not blind us to Rolleston's wise caution.

The same applies to the hasty abolition of the Provinces. The failure to substitute a well-planned system of local government has led to many mischievous evils that persist to this day. All modern proposals for remedying our system of local government bear a striking resemblance to Rolleston's schemes of over fifty years ago.1

1 Indeed Sir John Salmond when Solicitor-General in 1912 drew a Local Government Bill which in effect recreated the provincial system with twenty-four provinces. The Provincial Councils were to control hospitals, education, harbours, roads, rivers and bridges, etc. But the scheme was considered too ambitious. Later attempts to amalgamate local bodies in regional areas have so far been thwarted by local jealousies. The time to have created a sound system of local government was, as Rolleston urged, on the abolition of the Provinces in 1876. But his advice was ignored, and we have paid the penalty ever since. Could we have combined Vogel's bold imagination with Rolleston's patience in working out administrative details the results would have come nearer to perfection. But unfortunately it was impossible to yoke these two men of such opposite temperaments in the same Cabinet. Both had their contribution to make—and the part played by Rolleston was the more difficult.