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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



It was not until 1882 that Rolleston launched a major change in policy which was to arouse fierce controversy and a degree of alarm which seems strange in retrospect at a distance of more than half a century. "My advisers are of opinion", said the Governor's speech in 1882, "that a plan for leasing agricultural lands, with fixity of tenure upon reasonable terms, may with advantage be incorporated into the general system of administering the Crown Lands of the Colony, and a measure will be submitted to you with this object." This intimation of Rolleston's new land proposals seems innocent and harmless enough. But without waiting for the Bill to be produced a debate began a few days later on the Address-in-Reply, from which it was clear that these leasing proposals were regarded as a revolutionary change. It was said that Rolleston "had thrown himself into the arms of the Radicals",1 and he was denounced as a faddist. "We know very well", said Mr Montgomery, "that what are called the advanced Liberals or Radicals have advocated the leasing of public lands, and we know that the Government were opposed to it." A typical sentence from the speech of a freeholder will suffice to exemplify the line of opposition. "I believe", said one speaker, "in a man having a place of his own. A place on which he can spend the best strength and effort of his manhood. His toil is meanwhile sweetened by the knowledge that he will enjoy it in his declining years and that those dear to him will inherit the fruit of his labours. A place around which will clutter happy memories and sacred

1 Hansard, vol. xli, p. 32.

page 143associations, unblighted by the withering thought that strangers may intermeddle therewith and the link of connection be severed."

On these lines the subject was thrashed threadbare before the Bill was introduced. One of the strongest critics of the new policy was the Premier Sir John Hall, and perhaps this was the real cause of his resignation. For shortly before he resigned he said that a system whereby the cultivators of the soil were Crown tenants would be exceedingly injurious to the country. He made a long and vigorous protest against the idea to his constituents at Leeston. On the other hand, Atkinson pointed out that some of the Ministers, including himself, had long held the opinion that it was better to lease the lands instead of selling them and he said: "There are amongst us members who held that opinion for many years and have fought and worked to give it effect."

When Rolleston finally introduced the Bill on 7 July, it was clear that there was nothing revolutionary in the measure, and that he did not ignore the desire of settlers for a freehold home. He said:

Nobody who knows and realises the feeling of pleasure that exists in a freehold would willingly ignore that desire so far as it can be reasonably gratified, and I think in administering the Act the system of alternation of sections of freehold upon which people could live and thus gratify the desire for freehold, and the attachment of leasehold sections to the freehold would be the form which would meet very largely the wants of the country.1

In fact he suggested that the leasehold should bear a certain proportion to the freehold and deferred payment land in any district not exceeding one-third or one-fourth. The speech in which he set out his proposals is one of the most forceful and earnest speeches that he ever made. He paid a tribute to the great work of Donald Reid, whose Deferred Payment

1 Hansard, vol. xli, p. 170.

page 144Bill of 1876 he described as "a Bill of true liberality introduced by a gentleman whose name will be for ever prominent in this Colony as one of the first to take a liberal view of the land question, and who worked it out with an earnestness and zeal that will not be readily forgotten".

His criticism of the deferred payment system was that while it was meant to enable people who had no capital except their industry, knowledge and experience to settle on the land yet the danger was that capitalists, storekeepers and moneylenders would step in and really become the landlords of the deferred payment settlements. The question was whether it was better to establish a tenantry of the moneylenders or a tenantry under the Crown. His object was not to displace the deferred payment system or purchase for cash, but he wanted settlement to go on at a greater pace.

This leasing system had a particular application to mining districts. There great difficulties had arisen from the occupation by agriculturists of auriferous country, without any provision for resumption when it was required for mining. At that time gold mining was the main industry of some parts of the country. The remedy was therefore to lease land for agriculture but with the power of resumption when it was required for mining. The system would also enable endowments to be set aside for educational purposes. "I always thought", he said, "that the country throughout its length and breadth should set aside land which would increase in value, and as the numbers requiring education increased, would lessen the weight of taxation."