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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XIII — The Intermediate Period: Sir Harry Atkinson's First Ministry, 1876-77

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Chapter XIII
The Intermediate Period: Sir Harry Atkinson's First Ministry, 1876-77

"Atkinson gained office before the time was ripe for his really liberal views. At heart a man of the people he accepted office among men who looked upon progressive views as dangerous"

(letter to the author from C. A. de Latour, ex-M.P.).


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.

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Although Rolleston fought hard to secure a modified form of Provincialism or some adequate substitute, he had the good sense to recognise that the battle had been lost. He knew well enough that the large squatters of Canterbury had supported abolition in order to get rid of his persistent efforts to promote closer settlement and check land monopoly.

But since abolition had become an accomplished fact he told his constituents: "It is the business of Canterbury members to do their utmost to make the change work satisfactorily in the interests of the public."

To assist in this object he loyally acted as Commissioner or Agent for the Government in winding up the affairs of his Province. It was natural that in doing so he cast many wistful glances back over the admirable results he had achieved as Superintendent of the Province, and the healthy state to which he had brought all its institutions. Some die-hard Provincialists resented what they regarded as his too easy acquiescence in so revolutionary a change, and they murmured at his wise and public-spirited patriotism.

His acceptance of the inevitable by no means implied that he had abandoned his convictions or his right to criticise the Government. What aroused his irony was to see his old colleagues changing their political allegiance "in order to swim with the tide" "I found it necessary", he said, "to strike out on a line of my own; sometimes supporting the Government and sometimes the Opposition." Although he strongly believed in party government and loyalty to a party he could find no leader who would hold to a steady course. Vogel's sudden volte-face against Provincialism he could never forget nor forgive.

He (Vogel) was the pet of the ultra-provincial party for a long time (said Rolleston), and they looked to him as their champion and chief. Then he became the most active promoter of abolition.page 120 It is a fatal evil in the administration of a country when confidence is destroyed by the union of men who are prepared to sink principles which are held most dear by the people of the country.


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.


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.


Atkinson's Budget of 1877 was called "the rest and be thankful Budget". This was due to his statement that the real need of the country was political rest. Certainly Atkinson himself might reasonably hope for a rest. For in carrying through the abolition of the Provinces and all the legislative changes consequent thereupon he had carried page 125out an immense task. It is difficult to-day to realise the great complications with which he had to cope.

Moreover, once the new order was established all parties broke up in confusion. To add to Atkinson's troubles his great Native Minister, Sir Donald McLean, died. This damaged the Government severely, owing to the fact that the public had had faith in his administration. In fact, his presence was practically essential to the existence of the Government. "There was a thorough paralysis of political feeling", said Rolleston. "There was no clearly defined line of parties. The Government did not know from day to day even among their own friends where to turn for support."

Another factor which injured Atkinson's Government at this time was the general feeling of disappointment. The reality of the effects of abolition did not come up to expectations. It was felt too that the Ministry was merely the shell of the old Vogel Government, drawing even on the Opposition for recruits.

As may well be supposed Rolleston with his constant scruples and too finely balanced mind found the political situation puzzling and obscure. He described the Ministers as his personal friends—as "men of integrity who deserved well of the country". Nevertheless he realised the general desire for change. The Government had been too continuous and had become tarnished by time.

At this stage a curious position developed. A new middle party arose which Rolleston considered as of questionable value. Yet he could not follow Grey on account of the futile desire of Macandrew and Grey to urge separation. He was equally loath to join Atkinson as he had just fought him on the abolition of the Provinces. Hence he was reluctantly driven to vote with the middle party, which, like himself, would support neither Atkinson nor Grey. Indeed, at that time he thought there were enough men available to form a good stable Ministry apart from either of these leaders. But he was mistaken. For though this middle party page 126succeeded in ousting Atkinson, the man who moved the vote of no-confidence was Larnach—"a. man unknown to the political world", said Rolleston. Larnach was powerless to form a Ministry and to the great annoyance of the middle party Grey's followers availed themselves of the confusion and forced Grey on the House as Prime Minister. The position was almost farcical, for all those who believed in the unity of the Colony resented the accidental victory of Grey. Indeed, he had actually been on the point of sailing to England with Macandrew to present resolutions for the creation of Otago as a separate Colony, as a result of what was called The Otago Convention. It was only Grey's ill-health that had blocked this strange adventure.

When the middle party realised the mischief they had done they joined with Atkinson in an endeavour to oust Grey. But they were too late. Grey was in office, and though not very safe in the saddle he survived the attack. Rolleston voted against Grey and fully expected to see him defeated. "It was by a fluke", he said later, "that the vote of no-confidence in the Grey Government was not carried."


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.