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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



To the modern mind there seems nothing revolutionary in these proposals. Rolleston himself deprecated the idea that he was indulging in doctrinaire theories. "What I do feel myself at home in", he says, "is the practical work of administration." And the Bill was merely the result of his page 145experience as an administrator who had travelled through the length and breadth of the Colony, making himself conversant with the working of the land laws in the different provinces. He would not agree that the Bill discouraged improvements, provided the terms of the lease were satisfactory. The objection raised by many speakers, notably Sir John Hall, was that under the leasing principle, a large state tenantry would become a discontented body and would make up their minds that although they began as leaseholders they should end as freeholders.1 This criticism was repeated again and again, and even John McKenzie, who in later years was to become famous as a land reformer, said:

With regard to the leasing clauses I do not think they will be such a success as the Government and those who favour the leasing system seem to imagine. I am sure that if we pass this Bill and grant these thirty-one year leases, long before that time every one of these leaseholders will become a freeholder. If they are successful and make money they will want to purchase, and they will bring such pressure to bear that they will succeed in their object. If they are not successful they cannot benefit either themselves or the country.

This criticism is of great interest because when many years later John McKenzie created the lease in perpetuity, the same warning that he uttered against Rolleston's Bill was put forward against his own proposals. In fact, it was on the demand of the Crown tenants for the freehold that Mr Massey finally rode into power in 1912. The only difference between McKenzie's fate and Rolleston's was that in the case of the former it was the pressure from Crown tenants that compelled Parliament to grant them the right to the freehold, whereas in Rolleston's case it was the Legislative Council that insisted on the right of purchase being inserted in Rolleston's perpetual leases. It is an interesting example of how history repeats itself.

1 Hansard, vol. xli, p. 338.

page 146

On Rolleston's Bill of 1882 Macandrew said:

So surely as you multiply the Crown tenants they will become a power in the State, and will demand that the leaseholds shall be changed into freeholds on their own terms. You may regard that as prophetic.

Rolleston's reply to this threat of political pressure by tenants was to say:

It is infinitely better to have Parliamentary pressure and agitation than growing discontent between class and class and that social feeling of unrest that will pervade the community, where wealth and poverty stand in great contrast, and where there are the jealousy and hatred that cover class animosity.

In his view the business of the legislature was to lay down such provisions with regard to the occupation of land as would afford the largest facilities for all people capable of using their bone and sinew, their industry and their knowledge of agriculture to go upon the land. As to the demand for the right to purchase, he quoted the existing education endowments and the Presbyterian Church endowments of Otago, where no right of purchase was conceded. In his final reply he said:

What I believe this Bill will do is to diffuse population over the country and also promote the distribution of land among a much larger number of the population than has hitherto been the case. It will prevent the aggregation of large estates. It will prevent, as I believe in the future, those extremes of poverty and wealth which are the curses of older countries. It will provide for the relief of local taxation. It will further induce people to come from the Home country to settle with their families here, and generally I believe if this Bill has fair play it will, in the future, be a thorough blessing to the country.1

The Legislative Council, however, insisted on inserting a clause giving the tenant the right to purchase. One of the main principles of Rolleston's Bill was thus frustrated. After long conferences between the two Houses it was

1 Hansard, vol. xlii, p. 515.

page 147agreed to restrict the leasehold principle to education endowments and land in mining districts; but otherwise the leasing clauses should not operate till after the close of the next session of Parliament. Rolleston quite correctly pointed out that if the right of purchase was inserted they were really merely creating another form of deferred payment.1

1 Hansard, 1883, vol. xlvi, p. 530.