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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



By the year 1876 after abolition of the Provinces had been carried he found himself with nowhere to go politically, unless he remained in opposition with the remnant of the anti-abolitionists, Sir George Grey, Stout and Fitzherbert. At this stage his old friend C. C. Bowen, Minister for Education in Vogel's Government, seems to have become genuinely concerned about Rolleston's political future and tried to find a way of escape for him. With Vogel's consent he offered him the post of Colonial Under-Secretary, which at that time was the richest prize in the Civil Service. The letter conveying this offer gives interesting glimpses of the general situation.

Hon. C. C. Bowen to Rolleston, 5 May 1876:

At the risk of your being unnecessarily suspicious I cannot but put before you what I think would be a great benefit to the Colony and not disadvantageous to yourself.

Don't quote the Bible to me now, but consider what I have to say carefully and try to believe that although a member of the Government I am not a rascal…. The Under-secretaryship will now be the most important office in the Colony and will grow both in importance and pay with the growth of the Colony. It is essential that the office should be held by a first rate administrator and without flattering you you know my opinion as to your capacities in that line…. If you are inclined to take the office and let me know, Vogel will write you a letter which you can show to your friends if you wish to consult them. If you take the office the salary will be put at £900 a year for the present.

Bowen went on to make the offer as tempting as possible. He pointed out that Rolleston would not be a departmental Under-Secretary but would be in charge of any departmental Under-Secretaries there might be, and would have an assistant Under-Secretary to relieve him from irksome page 121details. "In fact it would be the most interesting administrative office in the Colony bar none."

Now as to your present position…. I assure you that the Grey-Macandrew party is not one with which you will like to be associated … you said in your note to Fitzherbert you can fairly look on the party of last session as broken up (i.e. the antiabolition party). What is to succeed it we don't know yet. Nor do you.

It is all nonsense to talk about party government in New Zealand. A party may be formed on a particular question—such as that of abolition for instance. You don't seriously want to see Sir George Grey in office declaring war with England—or ordering His Majesty's ships off the coast. It is time for all reasonable men to do whatever is the best work that offers, and not to fancy that they are tied up to Macandrew or Grey or any such people because the inexorable pressure of circumstances compelled them to go into the lobby with them for one session.

You have fought out the Provincial question to the bitter end with the three other recalcitrant superintendents. Why should you stay to be put in a false position by the two who won't listen to law or reason?

I have talked confidentially of this to two of your friends and mine, Fenton and Fitzgerald, and they are both very strongly of opinion that you ought to take this office…. Vogel is very cordial about the matter and will write you a handsome letter offering the appointment formally if you will let me know your views on the subject.

I think we have a good Education Act simply providing for Boards all over the Colony. Come and have a hand in it. Hislop of Otago has been here and is very useful.

Rolleston rejected this friendly effort to solve his difficulties. His reply is not extant, but from some notes left by Rolleston it appears that in spite of Bowen's injunction "Don't quote the Bible to me", he could not resist doing so. His first quotation was from Numbers, chapter 22:

And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.

And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak page 122the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me.

For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.

And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go.

He also quoted Proverbs, chapter 28, verse 6: "Better is the poor that walketh in his uprightness, than he that is perverse in his ways, though he be rich."

This is clever sparring, but one hopes that in his full reply he acknowledged Bowen's obviously sincere desire to extricate him from his troubles. But probably he suspected that, though Bowen was a genuine friend, behind him was Vogel, whose real motive might be to get him out of the way politically. Colour was lent to this view by the fact that at the same time Vogel, with his usual astuteness in disarming opponents, had persuaded Fitzherbert to become Speaker of the Lower House. On this Bowen wrote to Rolleston: "The old gentleman (Fitzherbert) is immensely pleased with the offer of the Speakership and is not sorry I think to get out of a false position. He will, I think, make a good Speaker."

This decision by Fitzherbert to accept the Speakership was not arrived at until after he had consulted Rolleston whose reply shows his high opinion of Fitzherbert.

Rolleston to Fitzherbert:

May 1st, 1876.

I write in haste to catch the mail in reference to your telegram about the Speakership. It appears to me that the Speakership ceases to be a party question at all unless the Speaker is nominated by the Party to which he belongs. Under the present circumstances I think it is not a party question and you should act as you think fit. To me it will be a matter of great regret that you should cease to be in active politics as I have looked more to you than to any other public man of late and I feel that your going off page 123the floor of the House means certainly the breaking up of the party of last session.

There are however so many doubtful circumstances connected with the meeting of the new House that I do not feel in any way justified in raising any objection to a course of which you are entitled to be the sole judge.