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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



In August 1887 the Stout-Vogel Government was defeated at the polls. During its three years of office, Vogel had been failing in health, and had lost his old powers of dominating the House and spell-binding the electors. Prices were still falling, and the electors knew that Atkinson was the man to call on when courageous and drastic retrenchment was needed.

The most sensational feature of the elections was the defeat of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Stout, by a young novice in the person of (Sir) James Allen, who had not long before returned from Cambridge University.

But the Opposition also lost some of its best men, including Rolleston, who had stood for the new electorate of Rangitata. The old cry that he had been a member of the Ministry that raised the railway grain freights in 1883 or 1884 was still a burning issue. It was in vain that Rolleston showed that the increase had been unavoidable, and that at no time had the rates been so high as during the reign of Sir George Grey. The wheat industry in Canterbury had become second in importance to the wool industry since the decay in gold mining. Hence the persistent bitterness of the wheat farmers, who were a powerful political force.

Rolleston's whole conduct over this grain rate controversy affords a good example of his almost quixotic chivalry. It is known that, when in office, he stoutly resisted page 172the proposal in Cabinet. He actually tendered his resignation on two occasions, but was assured that the increased rates were only temporary. It was represented to him that his resignation would mean the downfall of the Ministry. He therefore agreed to retain his portfolio and defend his colleagues. The result was that in 1887 he lost his seat at the General Election.

For nearly twenty years (said the Lyttelton Times), the raising of the grain rates was made to overshadow all his splendid services to Canterbury and New Zealand, and he never regained his former place in popular favour. But all through those years he did not mention to his most intimate friend, not even to a member of his family, that he had been as strongly opposed as the most angry farmer in the province to the action of his colleagues.1

But, judging by his correspondence, he was also gravely embarrassed in another way. On 2 July 1887, he wrote to his old colleague, Richard Oliver, complaining that Sir John Hall had prepared and was about to deliver an address in which he advocated Protection and a reduction in the Education Vote. What was still more serious, he disavowed by implication at least Rolleston's views on the Land Question.

It was lucky (he wrote) that I did not see Hall's proposed speech before I spoke. It seems to me that our only tie as a party is a kind of spurious class respectability. My whole soul revolts against the creation of a party which rests upon such a basis. It will break down certainly and leave a residuum of class hatred which will help forward all the worst features of socialism. I shall soon be fighting alone, and wish I could lose the election. Somehow my fighting propensities will prevent this, and I must go on for the present. Ours will be the party of "superior selfishness".

This letter is strangely prophetic. Rolleston was conscious of the oncoming storm that was to sweep the older parties from their long-standing control. He seemed to realise page 173that the spirit of the age was changing, and that his own efforts to break the power of the old landed interests were now to be supplemented or replaced by a more democratic Government.

Oliver tried to reassure him by stating that he had persuaded Hall to modify his speech. He said Atkinson had been consulted, but raised no objection to Hall's advocacy of Protection. "But", said Oliver, "of this be sure; no Government will be supported by our side in pronounced Protectionist measures."

This was substantially true for, when Atkinson in search of revenue did introduce a higher tariff, he was largely dependent on Opposition votes to get the measure through the House.