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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XVII — Stout-Vogel Ministry, 1884-87

page 164

Chapter XVII
Stout-Vogel Ministry, 1884-87

"Sir Harry Atkinson was the largest hearted of Liberals"


The Atkinson Government, of which Rolleston was so distinguished a member, was defeated in 1884. The No-Confidence motion was carried by a combination of hostile groups which, as Atkinson said, had no common policy and no leader that they could agree on. The Government applied for and was granted a dissolution, and a General Election was held in July 1884. The immediate cause of the Government's defeat was on a matter that appeared to be of minor importance, and yet it is well known that Ministries are often defeated in this way. The Government in their desperate efforts to maintain a falling revenue had found it necessary, among other expedients, to raise the railway freights on the carriage of grain. Canterbury had always been the great grain-growing province, and hence most of their Canterbury supporters deserted them. As Atkinson truly said:

If there is a prosperous year, the Government gets the credit or the advantage of it. "They are a fine Government—a splendid Government" people say; "look at the prosperity of the Colony!'' And so, with poetic justice, when the reverse is the case, given a bad harvest, a low price for wool, and people say: "This is a wretched Government. Out with them!" Well, I don't object to that, I am suffering from it at the present time. There is no doubt at all that one of the sins of the Government at the present time is the low price of wool and grain, and the Government that succeeds us will be a first-rate Government if only the price of wool and grain will go up.1

1 Hansard, 1884, vol. xlvii, p. 114.

page 165

So hostile was the feeling in Canterbury against the Government that Rolleston retired from the Avon electorate and sought safety in the new electorate of Geraldine, where he was successful in being elected. But shortly before the dissolution of Parliament, Vogel, having retired from the post of Agent-General, again reappeared in New Zealand like a bolt from the blue, and dramatically joined forces with Stout to fight the election contest. His sure political instinct made it clear to him that the electors would respond to a new voice and a new programme. His cry was that the Colony had been dozing in his absence, and his campaign throughout the country aroused immense enthusiasm. When the House met after the election, a make-shift Ministry was formed by Atkinson, which lasted only six days, and the Stout-Vogel Ministry then took office.

It is not necessary to follow in detail the fortunes of the new Ministry. Although they put forward various policy measures, they were seldom strong enough to carry them. On the other hand, the Opposition forces, while they were powerful enough to prevent Stout from getting any policy measures through, were, as Atkinson admitted, themselves too divided to take office. All the attempts of the Government to increase the tariff and to build unpayable railways were negatived. From time to time Atkinson, with the able assistance of Rolleston, sought to displace the Government. Sir George Grey too was in Opposition, and made frequent virulent speeches against the Ministry, which contained his old colleagues, Stout and Ballance. How bitter were the relations between these leaders can be judged from a brief extract:

Ballance: Where is the Party of which he (Grey) should have been the head? Where is it?

Grey: Destroyed.

Ballance: By what?

Grey: By yourself. There stands the destroyer.

Ballance: Destroyed by the honourable gentleman. Not by page 166want of talent but by want of consistency, political honesty and straightforwardness…. There never was a man who came into this House more endowed with all the intellectual qualities and gifts to become a leader of a great party in this Colony than the honourable gentleman. How has he used, or rather abused them?… The honourable gentleman stands isolated, alone; without sympathy either in the country or in the House. He is guilty of the grossest misrepresentation I have ever heard in this House.1

In 1886, Rolleston, in one of the longest speeches of his career, expressed his views on the Stout-Vogel coalition. The most interesting feature of this speech was his passionate appeal to Stout to break his "unholy alliance" with Vogel. He based his appeal on the fact that Stout had just made a strong declaration in favour of tapering off loan expenditure so that borrowing might cease in two or three years.

Now, to my view (said Rolleston), there are two bases of parties which must exist in every popular assembly in one form or another. One, which the Treasurer (Vogel) represents—class interest—class and property against the interests of the people; and the other, the representation of persons and the greatest good of the greatest number…. Property classes, syndicates, monopolists, companies, and every speculative abomination are his (Vogel's) care. He revels at the tables of the money-lenders. For him the mountains contain reefs and the little hills nuggets. A noble river like the Molyneux suggests syndicates and companies who may turn its course and enable its golden treasures to be rifled. He dreams of Pactolus.

Rolleston also complained of what he called "the tinselled aristocracy", built up on borrowed money and mortgages, which found a fitting leader in Vogel. But then, turning his attention to Stout:

The Premier (he declared), until he formed this unholy alliance, had been looked on as a man who would subserve no class interest. We yet believe that his natural force of character and his good instincts will dissociate him from the pseudo-patriots

1 Hansard, 1885, vol. liii, p. 352.

page 167with whom he sits, and bring him back to the fold of the true Liberals who now sit on this side of the House. I shall give my vote on every occasion (he said)—in the last eloquent words of the Premier—in the direction of curtailing borrowing and leading the people of New Zealand as far as possible to rely upon their own energies, and of inspiring them with a belief in the future of the Colony, in spite of the narrowing lust for gold and this anxiety for a borrowing policy of which the Colonial Treasurer is the embodiment and example.1

It is clear that at this period Bismarck's famous remark about Disraeli at the Berlin Conference, "the old Jew—that is the man", was applicable in the small theatre of New Zealand politics. Vogel had restored all his old mana and dominated the political situation.

Colonel Trimble, writing to Rolleston on 14 April 1885, says:

I knew nothing of the worship in Christchurch of the Vogel fetish until you mentioned it. Interesting it is, but not surprising, for they there still expect something from him…. I had believed that some melancholy Canterbury men, heavily beset with pecuniary monetary difficulties, did try to regard the advent of Vogel as at least the beginnings of those "leaps and bounds" of prosperity which all desire and which he promised. They certainly appear to try to believe this—try so earnestly that for very shame they cannot "pitch the painted brad" into the sea.

I confess I cannot understand Stout. I know that his intense egotism blinds him to many things and his conceit for shining to others, but surely he must know by this time that the people only regard him as Vogel's jack-in-the-box. Of course, there is not another man in the Ministry who need be named…. If Stout knew anything of politics, or could get his self-conceit so far abated as to enable him to learn, something might be made of him, for he has talents of a considerable order. Will he do now what he did when he was Grey's Attorney-General—find his business engagements demand fuller attention? Probably, but I could wish it otherwise, for he has a hold upon a considerable party. A break with Vogel is what I want to see—what I hope

1 Hansard, 1886, vol. lvi, p. 228: Speech on Loan Bill.

page 168to see. That, I consider, to be one of the not improbable possibilities, and, if it come—if our leaders stand quietly aloof from both sections till they have declared a policy consistent with ours—then the ball is in our hand. Vogel likely enough knows this, for those foxy eyes of his betoken a meaning of the deepest kind; but, if his opponents preserve their integrity and keep awake, they will overmatch him in the long run. I think the gist of my conversation with Bryce and Atkinson was that a policy of watchfulness would prove wisest next Session. Suppose that we best the Ministry on a question of mere policy not founded on any great principle, say by the aid of Grey or even Montgomery, of what avail would it be? The present House is determined not to have the old Ministers if it can help it, and we have no new leaders to put in their places. We would, in fact, be working for some section of our opponents. Let us defeat their bad measures if we can, but let them stay in office, if they will, until the country learns the difference between honest purpose and mere trickery. Elsewhere in the same letter Trimble says:

Atkinson is greatly improved in bodily health, and therefore seemed to me to have recovered his mental tone. He was totally unlike the man we parted from in Wellington. I think from the general character of his discourse that, when we meet, he will be found pursuing the old line. Of course, as he is a Protectionist, I can never go quite into his schemes; always fearing the slime of the serpent in all anti-Free Traders. But I do sincerely hope that we shall be able, all of the old Party of 1879, to pull well together.

Atkinson always declared that Vogel was really the head of the Government, though Stout was nominally Prime Minister. He complained that, after Vogel returned in 1884, he tried to introduce a fresh and more extravagant scheme of Public Works than he did in 1870. It is interesting to note that he gave his reason for joining the Vogel Ministry in 1874, which was not to support his Public Works policy, but to assist him in the abolition of the provinces. Otherwise, in all his efforts in that and later Governments, Atkinson had been engaged in putting the brake on extravagance. Matters continued to drift from bad to worse. Finally in 1887 the Stout-Vogel Government page 169applied for and was granted a dissolution. There was no important fight on questions of policy. The main issue was whether reductions in expenditure should be made before fresh taxation was imposed.1

The following letters from Sir Harry Atkinson show the trend of events:

Atkinson to Rolleston, 4 March 1886:

I can't tell why I have such difficulty in making myself write letters.…

With regard to my movements, I have felt clearly and strongly all along that up to the present time it would have been worse than useless my speaking at the centres of population…. Had I thought that any good could have been done, I should certainly have gone round, but what was one to speak about? Criticism of the Government in any shape seems distasteful to every one, and to propose a policy even in a mild form would have been out of place and done no good. I have now been asked to speak at Auckland, and my opportunity has come.…

I shall criticise Vogel's proposals and show how completely he has changed front, and state clearly what course in my opinion the Colony should follow. I certainly shall not go in for a rabid Protection policy or extravagant P.W. I am afraid much cannot be done in the way of retrenchment. I wish it could, but I am looking carefully into the finances to see if it is not possible, as I hope it is, to carry on P.Ws. at about £1,000,000 a year without any further taxation. I don't think there will be a dissolution notwithstanding what Vogel said.…

Atkinson to Rolleston, 25 November 1886 (his wife had had a second operation, and he had sprained his ankle):

Somehow the world seems a little dark to me just now, but I have no doubt it will all come right.

I am very glad to hear that Hall means to stand again for the House. I think we might get together a very good party for all practical purposes under him. If he is strong enough in body, we might soon get a Government in power that would give the country some rest and a chance of coming round again. In my

1 See speech by Atkinson in Theatre Royal, Wellington.

page 170opinion he is by far the most hopeful man we could put forward to form a lasting Government. I shall be quite willing and glad to accept him as my chief once more if that meets the views of my friends….

Stout won't be long in politics in my opinion, and Grey must soon go now. Stout might in time, if he were to stick to it, get a strong party, but he won't, and, with him gone, we shall have a sort of chaos for most of the members of his party will either be in the Government or in opposition. The more I think of Hall as a leader, the more I like the idea.

It is very unfortunate the revenue falling off so much; it will be so difficult to make it up next year, for it is impossible to believe in such a revival of trade as will bring it up to our requirements without increased taxation. I suppose tea and sugar will have to be the victims.

I can't say I see much chance for a revival of trade. I hope it may be so, but I don't think it well to count upon it without there is a large discovery of gold.

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The Governor's Ministry of New Zealand, 1884

The Governor's Ministry of New Zealand, 1884