William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman
By 1876 all the major questions that had occupied the political arena since Rolleston entered the House had been disposed of. The Maori War had been finished; the Provincial system of Government had been abolished; the Colony had adopted as part of its routine policy a plan of heavy borrowing for public works and immigration.
On the departure of Vogel from New Zealand in August 1876 Atkinson became Prime Minister. This change brought a sense of relief to Parliament. For Vogel's health had become precarious. He no longer commanded the attention of the House. "When he rose in former years", said Montgomery, "the House greeted him with cheers. Now his speeches were received coldly and when he sat down there was little applause. He was not the man he had been in former years, nor the trusted leader of an enthusiastic party."
Nevertheless the absence of Vogel's vivid personality left politics rather stale and flat. "The session of 1876", said Rolleston "was one of the weariest ever spent in my life." There was a mass of detailed drudgery to be dealt with consequent upon the abolition of the Provinces.
Moreover, the personnel of the House had been greatly changed at the election of 1876. It no longer consisted almost entirely of men of property and leisure. The new Parliament was probably more truly representative of the people than any of its predecessors.
One of the first conflicts was caused by Whitaker, who joined the Cabinet after the departure of Vogel. He attempted to make the land fund part of the Colonial revenues. page 124Both Canterbury and Otago denounced this as daylight robbery. For while the North Island had been selling land at 10s. or 5s. an acre and dissipating the proceeds they had pursued a more virtuous course. They had not only insisted on a higher price for their lands, but they had carefully applied the proceeds in promoting public works and immigration. Hence they stoutly, and for the time being successfully, resisted the attempt to throw their patrimony into the common pool.
At the same time Rolleston was far-sighted enough to see that once Vogel's public works' policy of 1870 was adopted it must result in a large share of the land fund passing over to the control of the Central Government. "The country received with acclamation", he said, "the proposal to expend large sums on railways and to a great extent thereby gave up the power of appropriating the land fund." The land revenue was part of the system of railway construction. The only question was what share should the Government take?
Whitaker's proposal having been defeated the next innovation was proposed by Sir George Grey. He advocated a scheme of separation under which each Island would be a Province under a Federal Government in Wellington. "The real meaning of this", said Rolleston, "is that the greater part of the South Island would be governed from Otago and all the North Island from Auckland." This proposal was also rejected.