William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman
In the same spirit he approved of the main principles of (Sir) John McKenzie's first Land Bill, which was largely a consolidation measure. "In respect of lands, I have seen growing in favour during the last eight years a system initiated by myself with a view to promote settlement and distribution of population, and with a view to prevent monopoly of the lands—which has been gratifying to me. page 182I have not always had the support of those who arrogate to themselves the name of the Liberal party."
This question of land tenure and settlement had long been the cardinal feature of his political faith. For half a lifetime he had worked passionately in the cause of land settlement. It is impossible, therefore, not to feel sympathy for him when he saw the Liberal party suddenly converted to his views and arrogantly proclaiming themselves as the great apostles of land reform. When he reminded the House that, when he was fighting the battle for distributing people on the land, he had to fight against the Liberals, (Sir) John McKenzie said: "I supported you." Rolleston: "Supported me! Save me from such support as I got from you." Historically speaking, Rolleston had good cause to be resentful, for John McKenzie had in the past opposed his scheme of perpetual leasing. But what Rolleston failed to realise was that, even if McKenzie had changed his views, he was a genuine convert, and was to earn for himself in the next few years an outstanding reputation as an enemy of land monopoly, and become the idol of the small settler. When the Opposition and the conservative Upper House tried to block McKenzie's land legislation, it was inevitable that Rolleston had to bear part of the blame and suffer for the sins of his party.
On one occasion Ballance said:
Does the honourable gentleman call himself a true Liberal?
Ballance: The honourable gentleman has done some service with regard to the land laws. I freely admit, and I am glad to say I agree with many of his expressions of opinion as to the land laws. On the other hand, I have seen acts of the honourable gentleman which are those of a Conservative, and whatever his profession may be, he is the head of a Conservative party.
This was a fair statement, and poor Rolleston found to his cost that one cannot be both an Independent and a party man at the same time. His radical views on land questions page 183irritated his party and weakened his leadership. On the other hand, his views on many of the Labour Bills led him to denounce such measures as the Shops and Offices Act, the Truck Act, and similar legislation. He prophesied that they would produce unrest and disaster. Reeves taunted him for his "gloomy vaticinations, which have gone on for eighteen years or more".
Probably Rolleston would have liked to escape from the almost impossible position in which he found himself as leader. At the end of the first session, he urged Bryce to come back to Parliament as leader of the Opposition:
Bryce to Rolleston, 12 December 1891:
You have more than once alluded to the Leadership of the Opposition as if you were merely waiting till I got back. Don't make any mistake about that…. The chances of my returning to the House are extremely small, and in no case would I think for a moment of superseding you.