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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XVIII — Atkinson Again Prime Minister, 1887-90

page 171

Chapter XVIII
Atkinson Again Prime Minister, 1887-90

"He was lion-hearted to the last"—

Gisborne on Atkinson.


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.


The result of all these factors was that in September 1887 Rolleston met his first defeat. After the election, he said: "For years I have been ridiculed and derided as a man who would put the brake on overmuch. But I do not regret that now, as the time has come when every one agrees that retrenchment is necessary."

It is not necessary to follow the fortunes of the last Atkinson Ministry. It recognised that the electors had called for substantial reductions in public expenditure and in the cost of the Public Service. More land settlement was promised—changes in railway control and revision of the tariff. But the tariff was the only easy source of revenue. It is therefore difficult to accept Rolleston's Free Trade views unless he was prepared to propound a clear alternative method of taxation. "It is impossible", he said, "to promote a people's interest by forbidding them to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest. The Protection cry is all nonsense. It only means increasing taxation to pave the way for further borrowing." This is the academic Free Trade argument, but it was no solution of Atkinson's problem.

page 174

The Land policy of the Government also exasperated Rolleston. Mr G. F. Richardson believed in selling for cash or credit without limitation of area. "Frowns will predominate over smiles as you read my Act", he wrote to Rolleston, and no doubt he was right.

On the whole it was perhaps fortunate for Rolleston that he was out of Parliament during Atkinson's last term of office. Not that he would have shirked his duty in the arduous and unpopular task of retrenchment. But he was not in sympathy with some of the legislation that was passed. In fact, it is doubtful whether he could have remained a ministerial supporter. "It is notorious", said the New Zealand Times, "that Rolleston entirely disapproved of much that the Government did during that period."

In his efforts to increase revenue, Atkinson raised the Customs duties, and thereby gave for the first time to New Zealand a substantial measure of Protection. It is true, however, that Atkinson proclaimed himself as being neither a Free Trader nor a Protectionist. His action was based on the stern need to find more revenue.

During these years Rolleston was living quietly on his farm at Rangitata watching the herculean labours of Atkinson to restore the public finances. He was still frequently called upon to speak at various functions in Christchurch and elsewhere. He also corresponded with leading members of the Government, and these letters afford glimpses of the political situation. As so often happened the Government was kept in office more by conflict in the Opposition ranks than by any strength in its own ranks.

Vogel retains perhaps half the Opposition (wrote one Minister in 1888), Ballance, Seddon, and Grey each has a small tail, and there is dissension in the camp. Each section hates the other only less than it hates the Government, and generally we have one or more of these sections voting with us against the rest of their party.

page 175

In this way the Government fought on till 1890. The strain of ceaseless anxiety shattered Atkinson's health, and towards the end he had to be excused from attendance in the House. In fact, he could not personally present his last Budget, and Sir E. Mitchelson had to lead the House in his absence.

In the midst of his arduous duties and failing health Atkinson found time to remember Rolleston's great services. In June 1890, with the consent of all his colleagues, he offered to submit Rolleston's name to the Governor for a seat in the Legislative Council.

We all trust you will accept (he said), unless you intend to come into the other House, which I hope is the case. I am afraid I shall have to resign. All the doctors are strong that I must do so…. I thought you ought to know before deciding which House you would take a seat in.

Rolleston declined the offer, and said that he had decided to stand for the Lower House:

After a good deal of thought and with the reluctance of a man taking a header into a seething sea of unknown trouble. However, I don't think it well to look too far ahead—"one step enough for me". If I was ever to take a public part again, time at my age is an important consideration, and I have so recently been so kindly pressed in this direction by so many of my old friends in Canterbury of all classes that I thought I had better come out.…There is of course a strong latent desire to wipe out my past defeat, and not to go off as a beaten man into an easy and not altogether congenial refuge. I am well aware that I am wont to beat my wings against the bars of the cages which, real and imaginary, surround political problems in the Lower House, and that too to the discomfort very often of my friends—but I am not yet prepared for a padded room, so the die is cast.

As we shall see in the next chapter, Rolleston adhered to his decision, and was successful in being returned at the next election.

1 Lyttelton Times, 13 February 1914.