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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XIV — Sir George Grey and Rolleston, 1877-79

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Chapter XIV
Sir George Grey and Rolleston, 1877-79

"The many honest and acute men who did not keep step with Grey who were disappointed in him or repelled by him and embittered against him were not always wrong"—

W. P. Reeves.


The contrast between Grey's brilliant career as a Governor and his failure as a politician is well known. In his earlier years he rightly earned an illustrious reputation as one of Britain's greatest Proconsuls; not only in New Zealand but in various parts of the Empire he had proved himself a great administrator, who displayed the highest qualities of courage, diplomacy and resourcefulness. For some years his mana among the Maoris stood high. When in 1868 he was not reappointed by the Duke of Newcastle it was regarded by the people of New Zealand as a humiliating dismissal. Many writers refer to the incident as if Grey had been recalled, but in fact Grey's term of office had expired. Nevertheless, the circumstances were such that a spontaneous burst of sympathy poured in from all quarters, demonstrating the esteem and admiration in which at that time he was held by the people of New Zealand. Not only the members of the Ministry but both branches of the Legislature and many public bodies presented him with addresses of confidence and admiration. But the triumphs won by Grey as a great Governor and Imperial Proconsul he could not repeat in the arena of party politics. It is true that in 1877 he became Premier, and in the lives of most statesmen that is regarded as the climax of a successful career; but in the case of Grey, his occupancy of that high page 130office was a melancholy and inglorious anticlimax. Indeed, the very qualities that had served him in such good stead as Governor were now distorted and perverted in such a way as to bring about before long his humiliation and downfall. His firmness, dignity and courage as Governor were now converted into obstinacy, arrogance and petulance as Premier. As Gisborne truly said in discussing the career of Grey: "The leader of a political party may become in a certain time autocratic, but he must first, as it were, stoop to conquer." This Grey could never learn to do, and so his parliamentary career was a pathetic series of bitter conflicts, not merely with his enemies but with his colleagues and supporters. Whenever he toured the country he could arouse vast crowds to a frenzy of wild enthusiasm by what Reeves calls "his cloudy eloquence". But this grandiosity was entirely unsuited to the parliamentary arena. "The honourable gentleman", said Rolleston, "labours under the constant belief that the rest of the world is sworn to persecute him. At one time it is the Colonial Office, at another time it is the Generals, at another time the Governor and the Legislative Council, and now the honourable gentleman on this side of the House are sworn to persecute and destroy him." He quarrelled with his able Treasurer, Ballance, who resigned from the Ministry. He became estranged from his Attorney-General, Sir Robert Stout, who went back to his legal practice on the plea that his partner was failing in health. His conflicts with the Governor were incessant, and finally his followers lost faith in him to such an extent that he not only had to give up the Premiership but had to surrender, or at any rate refuse to accept, the leadership of the Opposition.


But if Grey was a disappointment as Prime Minister, on the other hand Atkinson was not proving satisfactory as Leader of the Opposition. It was being urged in some page 131quarters that he should be replaced by Rolleston or Fitzherbert.

J. D. Ormond to Rolleston, 12 April 1878:

I entirely agree with you as to the necessity for arrangement for united action next session and also think with you that whether it gives Grey a victory or not we are bound to put on record our protest against his action in the matter of the Land Bill and it ought to be done by an amendment on the address.

Now first as to united action—the question that arises is who is to lead. There is as far as I can gather a general feeling that change in the leadership is desirable. Atkinson since the close of the session has buried himself at his farm. I hear from all his late colleagues that he writes to no one and answers no letters. I wrote to him two or three times but got no reply and can't understand what he means unless it is that he has retired. If that be so he should have told his friends—for to leave the party as it is now without organisation through the recess is not playing the game at all.

Now the first question for us to consider is the selection of a leader. From Wellington I hear that old Fitzherbert desires to come out of the chair and lead the Opposition, but I doubt very much whether our side would have him. His conduct last session was so bad that several leading men on our side were thoroughly disgusted with him. Still in some respects he would answer the purpose and the question for our side to consider is whether we should use him….

The man I would like to see leader is yourself if you can be induced to undertake it. I believe you would be the most acceptable to the party. George McLean was here yesterday, and he declared nothing would induce him to follow old Fitzherbert but he would gladly follow you. He thinks that a change is necessary and agrees that you would do it best. I had a letter a few days ago from Pollen—he also advocated a change but did not suggest anyone.

It is very important for us to come to some decision but it is difficult to settle it until we can ascertain what the party would be satisfied with.

Thanks for what you tell me about the meeting at Christchurch. I have seen with disgust the apparent success that has page 132attended old Grey's stumping tour. From what you tell me, however, the meeting was not the unanimous and enthusiastic affair it has been described. The same may be said of nearly every meeting I have heard of. It may be he would win if we had a General Election now, but time is working against him. Already people everywhere are complaining of unfulfilled promises and with the present pecuniary difficulties in which they are placed it is impossible for half the promises to be carried out.

A year later J. D. Ormond renews his complaint about Atkinson's leadership.

J. D. Ormond to Rolleston, 9 June 1879:

Like yourself I have been much exercised lately as to the course to be pursued at Wellington. As you say the great want is that of a leader whom the party will follow. From all quarters I hear that Atkinson would not be acceptable again—but unfortunately no one else seems to be generally acceptable either. I will tell you what I have gathered.

First, it is said the Auckland men of our party wish Whitaker to lead. I have no personal objection to Whitaker but do not think he would be acceptable to the party in the House or the country—we have to fight a General Election and a very great deal depends on having a leader who stands well with the country. I think now as I did last year that of all the men on our side you best meet the requirements of the case and would best satisfy the country. John Hall has been talked of and next to yourself I think Hall is the best man to select. It seems however that, like yourself, Hall is doubtful of accepting the position. I don't think Hall would make half as good a fight as you would, but he would have the advantage of standing well with the public as a man who could be trusted.

I see you name Fox—now no one knows better than I do how thoroughly loyal and nice he is to his colleagues—but his unfortunate craze on the liquor question puts him out of the question—at least it would be starting on a hard fight with all the interest of the Licensed Victuallers against us and they are too powerful a body to be ignored. Moreover, I doubt if Fox would accept the position or if the party as a whole would accept him.

I am positive you would best meet the case, and I think the party as a whole would go for you.

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I have written to both Pollen and Atkinson. Pollen will follow anyone the party as a whole will accept—he would gladly take you or he would agree to Hall. Atkinson only says he will do what the party wishes. I told him very plainly that in my opinion the leader to be successful must be chosen from outside the late Government.

These discussions and speculations are of interest as showing the disorganised state of the Opposition and the esteem in which Rolleston was held. But, as will appear later, although Sir William Fox led the debate which caused the downfall of Grey, at the bitter election which followed he himself was defeated by Ballance and was therefore not available as leader of the party which was about to come into power. Even had he been elected his ardent advocacy of temperance rendered him unpopular with the House and his tongue was too caustic to allow of his reconciling contending factions. The problem of leadership was ultimately solved by Sir John Hall resigning from the Legislative Council and obtaining a seat in the Lower House.

Grey seemed to inspire Rolleston to a degree that produced from him more forceful and brilliant speeches than he ever achieved before or at any later date. Indeed, the contrast between Rolleston's speeches when he was engaged in conflict with Vogel in earlier years and those which he delivered in his contest with Grey is remarkable. His earlier speeches had displayed a certain aridity and coldness, but in fighting Grey his style of speech became transformed. He now dealt sledge-hammer blows with a fiery and sustained passion which must have surprised his friends. It is clear that the two men were poles apart in temperament and outlook. Grey was emotional, and careless in his statements, and was carried away by the magic of his own fluent oratory. Rolleston, on the other hand, was methodical and careful and was (almost) prosaic in his manner of speech. In view of the fact that both Grey and Rolleston were ardently desirous of preventing land monopoly it may page 134surprise the reader that it was around this question that their conflict mainly centred; but we have seen in an earlier chapter that Rolleston always regarded Grey's land regulations of 1853 as a grave blunder. Under those regulations, which he issued on his own authority, he reduced the price of Crown Lands and thereby enabled speculators to acquire enormous areas or pick out the eyes of the land. It has been contended on behalf of Grey that his real object was to cheapen land in the interests of the poor man, but however good the intention may have been most authorities hold that its effect was exactly the reverse.

It would be wearisome and unprofitable to go into all the phases of this controversy during the time Grey was Premier, but a brief reference may be permitted to Rolleston's speeches. One of these was famous for many years and was known as the "splendide mendax" speech. It occurred on the Land Tax Bill of 1878.1 During the recess, Grey had toured the country, and in the course of his speeches had declared that the Canterbury lands were locked up in the hands of the runholders. He alleged that the lands had been given to them at 9d. a head. In reply Rolleston pointed out that this was the minimum and not the maximum. Moreover, the runholders had merely grazing rights and under the legislation the Government could, at any time, throw open the land for sale on deferred payment. He complained that Grey either did not know the Land Act or had grossly and wilfully misrepresented it, and that no more dishonest course was ever taken than that taken by the Premier in raising such a cry to the people. Incidentally, it may be pointed out that the chief grievance against the Land Tax Bill was that it imposed the same tax on the runholders as if they were freeholders. Even those members who had no leanings towards the runholders admitted that this was a real injustice.2

1 Hansard, vol. xxix, p. 396.

2 See Saunder's speech, Hansard, vol. xxviii, p. 519.

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But the most famous passage in this speech occurred while he was dealing with the ineptitude and maladministration of the Grey Government.

We had a Premier lately (he said, meaning Vogel) leading the people onward to a revolution under a banner which has been aptly described as having upon it the words "aere alieno" [on borrowed money].1 We have now a Premier (Grey) who has gone abroad fostering, as I think unwisely, feelings as between different classes of society. I think that considering the promises he has made, considering the way in which he has entirely failed to carry out these promises, and considering the way he has thoroughly deceived the people the inscription which he may put on his banner is "splendide mendax".

In all his speeches the spearpoint of his attack centred on the land question. It is easy to realise that Rolleston's unceasing efforts to promote land settlement, which had rendered him so unpopular with the squatters, made him deeply resentful of Grey's accusations. In 1879 on the eve of his defeat Grey alleged that 4,000,000 acres were held by the greedy squatters of Canterbury, thus depriving the people of their right to settle in happy homes. Rolleston reiterated that the land was held only on grazing tenure and not on lease and that Grey could at any time have sold the lands under the deferred payment system. He complained that Grey was well aware of the position and had failed in his duty.

Elsewhere he pointed out that the three great guarantees of liberty, namely, the Press, the judiciary and a well-administered Civil Service, had all been flouted by the Government. It had sought to make the Press pander to it by giving advertisements only to papers that supported the Government. It had played fast and loose with the judiciary with a view to getting political support. It had

1 A classical scholar suggests that this may be a witty double entendre alluding to Vogel's foreign extraction and meaning "with foreign brazen-facedness".

page 136dismissed tried and faithful Civil Servants without justification and rewarded political supporters by placing them over the heads of old and tried officers. Finally, he declared that in Native Affairs no greater mess had ever been made than in the last two years. The people of New Zealand had been humiliated by the great feasts, gluttonous gorges and indecent orgies of Ministers of the Crown.

To add to all these grounds of criticism the benefits of the Vogel policy of heavy loan expenditure were now wearing off. Henry Sewell wrote to Rolleston on 16 April 1879 deploring the position of the public finances:

I am satisfied (he wrote) that we are approaching the end and that a financial disaster is impending. The current expenditure upon public works and immigration last quarter was £700,000. How long is this to go on? The whole available cash in London and the Colony was £232,000 to meet a current expenditure going on at the rate of more than a million a quarter, The Colony must somehow or another be roused up to a sense of its true condition.

Soon after this the Grey Government was defeated. The attack that led to his downfall was launched by Sir William Fox in a devastating speech that was long remembered. After some political manœsuvring the Hall Government took office, with Rolleston as Minister of Lands. Rolleston had now raised himself to the front rank of New Zealand public men. While he had been unsuccessful in his earlier contests with Vogel it seems clear that his powerful indictment of the policy and administration of Grey played a large part in bringing about the downfall of that eminent statesman.