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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



It was now taken for granted that Rolleston would become leader of the Opposition, and that under him the party would soon be led in triumph back to the Treasury benches. "Rolleston has every chance", said the New Zealand Times, "of becoming Prime Minister after a severe struggle at the head of a strong and stable administration." So little was it recognised at that stage that the Liberal Government was to hold the confidence of the electors for more than twenty years.

The first difficulty the Opposition was faced with was the choice of a leader. For a time the Opposition controlled their operations by a committee of five. Such an arrangement was bound to lead to confusion, and the Government taunted them with having five leaders. However, on 23 June 1891, Mr John Bryce, Rolleston's old colleague of page 180the Parihaka incident, led the debate for the Opposition on the financial statement, and was congratulated by the Government as appearing for the first time as leader of the Opposition. But Bryce was an obstinate and hot-headed man, and before long found himself in conflict with the Speaker. In the course of a heated debate, he had said that "the Premier ought to be ashamed of himself". Before he could finish the sentence, he was called on to withdraw the words, which he refused to do. The Speaker ordered the galleries to be cleared, and, after a fierce debate a resolution was carried on a party vote:

That this House regrets that the words taken down were used by the Honourable Member for Waikato (Bryce), although qualified as they were by the subsequent words used by the Honourable Member.

Bryce declared that the full sentence he meant to utter was:

The Prime Minister ought to be ashamed of himself in relying on a technicality to prevent an enquiry into a disgraceful charge made against a member of the House.

He regarded the resolution as a censure by the House under the scourge of the party whip. "I now leave the House", he said. "Whether I shall enter it again is a matter for my own consideration."

Rolleston immediately became leader of the Opposition, and shortly afterwards a long and bitter controversy arose over the treatment of Bryce. The Speaker offered to mediate if the House would adjourn. However, the Opposition were thoroughly incensed at what they regarded as an unfair censure on Bryce. On 31 August, to everyone's astonishment, Rolleston handed to the Speaker a notification by Bryce resigning his seat as a Member of Parliament.1 Rolleston thereafter remained as leader of the Opposition during the remainder of the Parliament. But page 181the post was uncongenial to him. Government members taunted him with being a Conservative, while his colleagues suspected him of being too radical to be a wholehearted leader of their party. In fact, he was now in a most unenviable post, and was what the French would call "a prisoner of the right". It is not surprising, therefore, that we find him in his first speech saying wistfully: "I should prefer very much to be doing practical work as a cockatoo among the harvests of the south to sitting in this House listening to a great deal of unproductive talk."

Indeed, it came as a painful surprise to Rolleston to find himself dubbed a Conservative. He protested against the accusation, and it is clear from many incidents that he struggled to escape from the yoke. But the more he struggled, the more he embarrassed his colleagues. Quite early in the session he gave enthusiastic praise to the speech of a new Labour member, Mr David Pinkerton. He described the speech as "full of common sense and freedom from clap-trap and class feeling. In fact, he (Pinkerton) is a thoroughly representative man—not a representative of Labour, but of all classes of the community." Pinkerton had urged that all the coal mines should be nationalised, and Rolleston expressed his concurrence in this radical reform. "People should not get", he said, "for a few shillings land which might contain great mineral wealth, and under my system of perpetual leases we could have resumed land that was discovered to have coal deposits."

1 The incident kept cropping up from time to time during the next two years. Finally Bryce petitioned the House for redress, but without success.