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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



Rolleston excused himself from resuming the leadership of the Opposition on re-entering Parliament in 1897. He claimed that "his growing years and other considerations" disqualified him. Moreover, he considered that Captain Russell was ably discharging his duties under most difficult circumstances. But, while this attitude may have been chivalrous on Rolleston's part, the popular opinion was that Captain Russell was too easy-going to be an effective leader. He treated politics as a game that should be played with polite courtesy, and not too strenuously. He was a large landowner, and it was said that he found horse-racing more interesting than weary all-night debates in Parliament. In fact, Seddon was well satisfied to have the Opposition led by Russell.

Nevertheless, in my view, Russell had a far sounder appreciation of the political situation and of the best tactics to adopt than many of his colleagues. This is shown by his letters to Rolleston quoted in the last chapter. He was quite right in saying that "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." These views do not indicate an attitude of page 195defeatism. Captain Russell saw clearly enough that social questions must be dealt with by whatever party was in office.

Indeed, what made the task of the Opposition so hopeless all through the Ballance-Seddon regime was that there was no real line of demarcation between the political philosophy of the Government and the Opposition. It was of no avail to denounce Seddon as a Socialist, for everyone realised that, had the Opposition been in power, the spirit of the times would have compelled them to pass much the same class of legislation. In fact, while the Opposition at times criticised and voted against much of the Labour legislation passed by the Liberals, at other times they claimed with truth, but with some inconsistency, that many of these measures had actually been drawn and prepared by the Atkinson Government in its last year of office. So far, therefore, as the Opposition fought against the Liberal legislation, it was largely a battle of the ins and the outs. Richard Cobden once said: "There is perfect truth in the sarcasm that the Whigs are Tories in office and the Tories are Whigs when out of office."

Probably Rolleston felt more strongly than any of his party, except perhaps Captain Russell, that a new spirit was abroad, and that the only useful service the Opposition could render was to offer constructive criticism to improve the crude and hasty proposals of the Government.

The public conscience (he said) has been educated and become sensitive to the just claims of all classes to a recognition of the bonds of human fraternity. Changing circumstances call for legislative provision to protect those who cannot protect themselves in security of life and proper sanitation.

He therefore believed a large portion of the political future was bound up in dealing with social and economic problems.1

But so long as the Opposition could only offer negative criticism or help to improve Government Bills without page 196destroying them, and so long as prices for exports kept at a payable price, Seddon was politically secure and boisterously triumphant. Indeed, it suited him very well to maintain the fiction that there was a deep gulf between his party and the Opposition. It helped to keep him in office, and he naturally made capital out of the fact that, whatever remnant of the old Conservatives and the large landowners still existed was to be found in the ranks of the Opposition. "Business now regulates itself", Captain Russell wrote on 15 December 1899, "according to the whim of the Premier and the supineness of the Speaker."

So it came about that, at each election, the Opposition went from defeat to defeat, until in 1900 they were so demoralised that they renounced the role of an organised party and dispensed with a leader. Some supporters even urged the members of the Opposition to resign their seats and leave the country to its fate. "The only function the Opposition can hope to perform", said Mr John Hutcheson, M.P., "is to look nice and watch the procession go by." It was in vain that they complained of the autocracy of Seddon, of the laying aside of constitutional safeguards, of the emasculation of the Upper House, and of the bribing of the constituencies. The electors turned a deaf ear to their appeals for better government. The country was enjoying prosperity and rising prices, and was not concerned with political abuses or party manœuvres.

1 Speech to Industrial Federation, 18 August 1897.