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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



During these tempestuous years Rolleston's reputation had steadily risen in public opinion. His speeches had always attracted attention. It was now generally believed that his great abilities must ere long be availed of if any change of Ministry occurred.

Sir Walter Buller to Rolleston, 26 April 1877:

In the event of ministerial changes next session I hope you will see your way to accept a portfolio. If Gisborne succeeds in getting a seat, and his chances are improving every day, you will find him a thorough-going supporter.

But it was 1879 before Rolleston became a Minister of the Crown. The intervening period (apart from the passage of Bowen's Education Act 1877) is one of the most desultory and least edifying in our political history. I will therefore page 127pass quickly over this period, except to remark that Rolleston was busily and successfully advocating various social reforms.

The most notable of these was the creation of the Deaf and Dumb Institute at Sumner. This was the direct result of Rolleston's persistent efforts both in and out of Parliament. In 1878 he carried a resolution for the establishment of such an asylum and for financial provision to be made during that session. Up till that time the Government considered that this work should be done by voluntary subscriptions aided by subsidies. Rolleston rightly claimed that it was wholly the duty of the State. "There is no doubt", he said, "that the education of those of its members afflicted with these infirmities is as much the duty of the Colony as the education of the healthy members of the community."

Rolleston went further and urged the need of an asylum for the blind as well as for the deaf and dumb. He had made a close study of the best methods practised in various parts of the world for giving humane and helpful treatment to the blind, deaf and dumb and to orphans.

Before Rolleston brought about this great reform the practice was to send deaf and dumb children to the Melbourne Institute. But Rolleston said the Colony should pay four or five times the cost in maintaining a local asylum rather than send children away for an indefinite period to what was for all practical purposes a foreign country.1

His humane views on the treatment of the indigent poor must also not be overlooked. The Government in 1877 brought in a Charitable Institutions Bill. In this legislation they sought to throw the burden on to voluntary contributions subsidised by the Government. The Minister argued that if a poor rate was imposed or the cost met out of taxation "the class requiring assistance would begin to page 128consider that they had a right to demand the money collected by means of the poor rate, whereas they ought rather to feel that any assistance was given as a charity". He quoted Whateley's maxim, "that if you pay a man to work he will work, and if you pay him to beg he will beg".

Rolleston indignantly repudiated this line of reasoning and declared that the whole Bill was radically wrong.

The question of poor relief (he said) is just as much a national matter as education. State action will not dry up private benevolence. I deny that the poor should be forced to regard assistance as a matter of charity or favour. In the City of Christchurch alone, there are no less than forty widows who are receiving assistance. I should be very sorry to think that because they receive assistance it should in any way cause them to lose their self respect. I think the world is coming to have a better idea on subjects of this kind…. I think the time is coming when we should look upon those members of the community who have been earning their bread by the sweat of their brow—when they fall into distress and have been unable to provide for their families—we should look upon them as persons whom we are bound to provide for as a matter of duty and not as a matter of charity.

Rolleston considered the term "poor law" unfortunate, and said no Board administering the system should carry with it an objectionable title.

It seems to me (he said) to be against every principle of public policy or proper government that any body of men should be able by putting their hands in their pockets to buy the power of administering the taxation of the country. It seems to me against every principle of justice that a few charitable gentlemen should be able to go and manage these institutions, perhaps not solely in the interests of the institutions themselves, and that they should be able to control their administration.

On these and other questions Rolleston revealed himself as a keen social reformer. No one can read his urgent protests against the overcrowding of lunatic asylums and other similar evils and remain content to regard him as a conservative or as one who believed in leaving social problems alone.

1 The results of Rolleston's untiring efforts can be read in an article by the expert directors of the Sumner Institute, see Lyttelton Times, 9 July 1921.