William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman
The General Election of 1890 has always been regarded as one of the turning points in New Zealand political history. For the first time there came into office what Reeves calls "a more plebeian and democratic regime" under the great liberal leaders, Ballance and Seddon. The main cause of this remarkable change was the long spell of low prices that had persisted from 1879 onwards. This in turn had led to widespread unemployment and "the great exodus", when thousands of disheartened people left in a steady stream for Australia. Moreover, at that period the only recognised remedy for falling public revenues and threatened deficits was stern retrenchment. The modern practice of expanding State expenditure and Public Works to mitigate a depression had not yet been discovered, nor was it perhaps possible with the banking system as it then existed, a rigid gold standard, and a depressed world money market.
When the election of 1890 was completed, Atkinson did not at first realise how complete the Liberal victory was, if one may judge from the following letter:
Atkinson to Rolleston, 8 December 1890:
I am very glad to see you got in after all by so good a majority, but the Parliament is indeed, as far as one can judge, inadequate to the needs of the country, but we must make the best of it. I shall be much obliged if you will give me your opinion as to what should be our immediate line of action. As far as one can judge, the numbers on each side of the House are such as to make it all but impossible to get a strong Government. The Governor told me that he saw Ballance in Wanganui (after the election), and that he estimated that he had 36 or 37 followers out of the 74, and that there were five doubtful. I have not yet attempted myself to go critically into the numbers, but so far as I have gone I think Ballance's view of his own position is over-sanguine. The "Evening Post" here gives him 28 and us 29 and the others as against Ballance's leadership. As far as I can judge, it is clear that there is a majority against the present Government, and that is the important question at the present time. What then are we to do? There is no one here but Whitaker and Russell, and I have not yet talked the matter over with them.
My own views are inclining to call the House together in January and see what can be done to get a Government together. At present I am disposed to think we should get the House together as soon as possible after the holidays, but I am only giving you now my own thoughts as they occur, just with the object of getting your views if you will be kind enough to give them to me.
It is clear to my mind that we should not be justified in simply resigning and advising the Governor to send for Ballance, leaving him to call the House together, or to form a Government as he thought best.
I am undoubtedly better, but I am not at all fit to do any real fighting in Parliament. The doctors seem to think that, if I could get a couple of months quite away, I might be fit for something; but I am afraid this is now impossible.