William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman
Chapter XIX — Rolleston Returns to Parliament, 1890-93
Rolleston Returns to Parliament, 1890-93
"My opinions on the land question differed from many of those with whom I was working in 1881-2 but I have seen no reason to go back on them"—
Rolleston in 1899.
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.
After it was clear that the Ministry would be defeated, but before its resignation, Atkinson went to the Legislative Council as Speaker.1 Rolleston had again entered Parliament as member for Halswell. It was confidently predicted on all hands that, if he desired the speakership of the Lower House, he would have no difficulty in being elected. His qualifications were outstanding owing to his long experience of Parliamentary procedure, his judicial temperament, and the fact that, for the preceding three years, he had been out of party conflict. But once again Rolleston's bad luck pursued him. The choice of a Speaker was made a party one. Perhaps it was too much to expect the Liberal party, flushed with victory after its long period in the wilderness, to yield such a prize to an Opposition member.
An old Independent Canterbury member, Mr Alfred Saunders, nominated Rolleston as Speaker, and pleaded with the House not to make it a party question. "I have seen Mr Rolleston", he said, "entrusted with duties more arduous and even more important than those of this position, and have watched him discharge them with the most general satisfaction." But his appeal fell on deaf ears. The Government put up a rival candidate in the person of Major Steward, and, on a party vote, Rolleston was beaten by thirty-six to twenty-nine votes. It would be interesting to know if the Government in later years regretted their choice, for many "scenes" occurred in the House under the weak control of Major Steward. Is there not also some irony in the fact that Rolleston's defeat was due to a strict party vote in view of the fact that he always professed himself a firm believer in party government? In this case he was slain by his own weapon.page 179
Hon. R. Oliver to Rolleston, 1891:
What an extraordinary session the January one was! And what an extraordinary Ministry! For your sake and for the sake of the character of Parliament, I much desired your election to the speakership. For the sake of the party, I am delighted that you still remain among the combatants. How could you, who have never "shown the white feather of a shameless life", expect to be the choice of Parliament?… I am sorry our side did not choose a leader. Putting the leadership in commission will never do. A trinity in unity cannot be secured in party strife.
Poor Atkinson's retirement to the Council is very sorrowful to think of. I hope the quiet which he will enjoy may re-establish his health and strength.
The new Ministry can hardly be considered a strong one. I should think Seddon would dominate it. I think he has more sense than all the rest. Stout will move Ballance—Buckley, Ward, and Cadman hardly count. I suppose you will have an 8 Hours Bill, a Land and Income Tax Bill, with the progressive principle, or want of principle, carried a little further than Atkinson proposed to go with it.
1 At that time, it was the practice for the Speaker of the Legislative Council to be appointed by the Government. At the present day, he is elected by the Council.
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.
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.
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.page 184
(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.