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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



At the 1893 election, Rolleston stood for Ellesmere, and was defeated by W. H. Montgomery, the son of his old friend, the Hon. Wm. Montgomery. His defeat was partly brought about by the hostility of the newly-enfranchised women and by the growing power of the Prohibitionists. Rolleston had freely expressed his opposition to the granting of the right of women to vote. His reason was that he did not believe there was any widespread general desire for such a measure. In retrospect, his opposition may appear old-fashioned. But we are apt to forget how many public men in 1893 viewed the proposal with grave misgivings. It is well known that Seddon was not personally favourable to it, and manœuvred for as long as possible with his usual skill to avoid a decision. Even his colleague, W. P. Reeves, announced that he himself was a "half loaf man", and he advocated restricting the franchise to women who had passed the matriculation examination of the University.

Sir Robert Stout was of the same mind. He thought the reform should be brought in gradually by allowing women to vote for school committees and other minor local bodies. Moreover, the Government leader of the Legislative Council confessed that he brought in the Bill merely out of loyalty to his party. Personally he was opposed to the granting: of the franchise.

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In the light of such views, Rolleston's opposition to a measure which in those days was regarded as a novel and daring experiment was not so strange or unreasonable as might now be supposed. But, as he could not speak with two voices or disguise his opposition by subtle manœuvres, he paid the penalty in the loss of his seat.

In like manner he opposed the new licensing legislation, which allowed the livelihood of the publicans to be confiscated by a direct vote of the people. The Prohibitionists were in the ascendant, and they rallied a heavy vote against all candidates who withstood their demands. Rolleston argued that Prohibition would encourage lawbreakers and drunkards and a baneful system of paternalism; that intemperance would never be cured by intolerance; and that great social reforms could not be worked out by injustice. He thought it wrong to treat the publicans as outlaws and the enemies of society. Therefore he favoured stricter regulations and inspection and a limitation of the number of public-houses.

After an interval of many years, public opinion—perhaps influenced by the actual experiment of Prohibition in America—seems to have swung round to Rolleston's view. Although it was for many years a burning and almost a dominating issue in politics, it seems now no longer to agitate the public mind, or to be a serious embarrassment to candidates. Rolleston's view on women's franchise and the licensing question contributed to his downfall, but no doubt the main cause was the immense popularity of Seddon and his legislation. It is worth mentioning that Rolleston considered the graduated land tax would work unjustly, and later experience proved that he was right.1

Nowadays we accept the special tax on absentees as a page 193matter of course—yet there is something to be said for Rolleston's view that, as we were dependent on imported capital to develop the country, it was unwise specially to penalise such resources. "What would you think", he said, "if the English Government punished people who invested their money in New Zealand and ventured to live out of England in order to manage it?"

Rolleston still supported a Free Trade policy and opposed the idea of further Protection, which he denounced as "a selfish, a bad, and a mischievous policy".

1 When in office, I abolished the Graduated Land Tax, which had been condemned by two Royal Commissions after full enquiry. It has since been reimposed by the Labour Party, but it is still imposing grave injustice.