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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



The next year (1892) Rolleston's dilemma became even more acute, and the situation became almost comical. For, when McKenzie reintroduced his Land Bill, both he and his colleagues sought eagerly for Rolleston's support. They cajoled and flattered him, and quoted his views on the leasehold with high admiration and approval, as, for example—

Seddon: The proper place for the honourable gentleman—the leader of the Opposition—is on this side of the House.

An Honourable Member: At the back of you?

Seddon: No, the honourable gentleman's political status in this country would not allow him to take a back seat.

—and he pleaded with him to see the Bill through. The reason for all this was that the Government were nervous about their own supporters. The Prime Minister, Ballance, was or had been an ardent land nationalise, and some years before had written a pamphlet advocating this principle.

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(Sir) John McKenzie, on the other hand, had come to realise that the public would not agree to the abolition of the freehold. He was nervous lest he, too, might be regarded as an advocate of land nationalisation. So, in his speeches, he laid emphasis on the fact that the freehold could still be chosen under his optional tenure. In place of Rolleston's perpetual lease with periodical re-valuations, he provided an astonishing substitute, known as the lease in perpetuity. This lease was for nine hundred and ninety-nine years at a fixed rent. It was a desperate attempt to please his freehold supporters and yet satisfy the leaseholders, as he argued that, with the State as landlord, it was at least possible to limit the area one man might hold.

On the other hand, a leading Opposition member, Mr Scobie McKenzie, said that the lease in perpetuity had been introduced purely to catch the votes of five or six freeholders on the Government side. They could say to their constituents that, while they had not managed to retain the freehold, this new tenure was as good or better. But it was clear that it meant abandonment of the whole principle of perpetual lease, which was designed, by re-appraisement of rent at stated intervals, to secure the increased value to the State. "It is only perpetual", said Scobie McKenzie, "in the advantages it grants to the individual and losses to the State."

The humour of the situation was that John McKenzie and Rolleston were both anxious not to alienate their own followers. Hence each tried to draw as far away as possible from any suggestion that he was an advocate of land nationalisation. McKenzie kept stressing the fact that the whole object of his lease in perpetuity was to control transfers of land and prevent aggregation.

Rolleston on the other hand recalled the fact that his perpetual lease system was only to apply to one-third or one-fourth of the land. In other words, he had always seen that the only hope of retaining the system was to keep it page 185confined to a certain limited area. It was to be an adjunct to the freehold but not to do away with it.

This was a strange duel in which two great land reformers on opposite sides of the House were both at heart substantially in agreement. But each, owing to conflict in his own party, was trying to find points of difference. The climax was reached when an Opposition member moved:

That while in the opinion of the House the Land Bill contains some useful amendments, and should be read a second time, the House considers that the extent to which it aims at restricting the freehold tenure is unsatisfactory and calculated to be injurious to the best interests of settlement.

This ingenious amendment forced Rolleston's hand. Ballance immediately asked whether it had Rolleston's sanction, or did he disclaim it.

Rolleston: I concur in the amendment entirely.

Ballance: That is what I expected.

He therefore treated it as a No-Confidence motion.

Rolleston's attitude on this question was attacked by the Prime Minister and defended by the Opposition. There was in reality on his part no abandonment of his former attitude. But, by being forced to vote against the Bill and with the die-hard freeholders of the Opposition, he was made to appear more hostile to the leasehold than was really the case. In so far as the new legislation had cut out or restricted the right of an applicant to choose between deferred payment or cash or leasehold tenure Rolleston's opposition was justified.

Nevertheless, all these interminable debates on the freehold and leasehold issue proved futile in the long view. Those critics were right who foresaw that State landlordism could never be made the main system of tenure. For, as soon as the tenants became numerous enough to be a political power, they would and did demand and obtain the right to the freehold. As Sir John Hall said: "If any page 186intending settlers come to me and ask me 'Are we to be forced into this system of leasehold?', I shall say: Take this lease. The more of you that take it the better because, in that case, there will be the more votes to give yourself the freehold, which I am sure they will do so before long." He declared that the Bill was a mop with which Rolleston and McKenzie "were trying to keep out the tide of human instinct which for hundreds of years has held on to the freehold tenure and will go on and sweep away these castles of sand".

Sir John Hall was a true prophet, for, in 1912, Massey rode into office largely on his policy of granting the freehold to the State tenants.

As time went on, the Opposition became more and more dispirited. On the death of Ballance they had to face a far more powerful and astute Prime Minister in the person of Richard John Seddon, of whom something will be said in the next chapter.

But, as always happens when an Opposition finds itself engaged in a hopeless fight, it begins to find fault with its leader. Under such circumstances, it is easy for the enemy to create or stimulate disaffection. Rumours were ingeniously circulated to the effect that the members of the Opposition were dissatisfied with Rolleston's leadership. It was even suggested that a middle party might be formed. Captain Russell (who was to become leader of the Opposition after Rolleston's defeat at the 1893 election) did his best to reassure Rolleston.

Captain Russell to Rolleston, 8 April 1893:

Hall, in writing me, mentioned that you were riled about a paragraph in the "Lyttelton Times" of 30th March which said your supporters are dissatisfied and a middle party was likely to be formed, my name being one of the middlemen.

I never bother my head about the papers—they must supply something new every morning, and I am surprised they invent so little. If, however, you have done so, please no longer attach page 187any importance to the paragraph. I believe the large majority of our side are quite satisfied with the way you conducted our defence last session, and I was astonished at your persistent courage in fighting so cheerfully and continuously battles which we all knew we must lose, and I add that, in my opinion, nobody would have done it better, and I think none so well. It is very easy to imagine a series of brilliant guerrilla attacks, but they are difficult to achieve, and, even when successful, do not seriously damage an enemy.

The country has to pass through a period of unrest, and our only policy is to try and make that unrest as little harmful as we can.

I know how you hate the word coalition; but it may yet have to be considered. If the rout of one's enemy can be gained only by more outrageous sacrifices than even they are prepared to subject the country to, we had better not defeat them. If three or four years can be tided over, possibly a more tranquil time may come; but all I think we can expect is more careful consideration of social questions; the fact that they have to be dealt with is to my mind, absolutely plain.

There is no scheme or talk of any middle party that I have ever heard of.

Captain Russell to Rolleston, 19 April 1893:

No significance attaches to my talk about coalition. I wished principally to bring the idea under your consideration because I believe, if Stout does not come forward, that Ministers will incline to coalesce. The good of the country might require us to agree to avoid a struggle for office which could be run only on the lines of utter radicalism on one side versus prudent finance and constitutionalism on the other, not a very taking programme. I am far from wishing a coalition, but party differences seem to me to be meaningless: the only distinction to be drawn is prudent versus reckless administration. You see the Conservatives in England go for a Labour programme, and we may as well try and stay the waves of the ocean as the waves of democracy. The tide will ebb, and a calm will come; let us then, if opportunity offers, see if it is not possible to divert the current meantime. I am not afraid of the Labour men, but of the agitators.

The leader of a political party can hardly fail to hear page 188from time to time rumours of dissatisfaction with his leadership and no asseverations of loyalty by his colleagues can wholly free him from the belief that such rumours are evidence of some discontent. To so sensitive a nature as Rolleston's the merest whisper of dissatisfaction with his tactics or strategy caused him more than ordinary distress. Perhaps it was this that caused him to write to his daughter Margaret on 13 May 1893:

I doubt whether I shall continue much longer in public life. Old age is coming on apace and I hate worry. This industrial warfare—the class animosities that have been engendered—have very much spoilt the earlier ideals of one's life.