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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XX — Seddon and Rolleston, 1893-99

page 189

Chapter XX
Seddon and Rolleston, 1893-99

"We came here seeking a better country and I honestly believe we have made this a far better country to more of our fellow men than could have been dreamt of by those patriots who first landed on its shores"—



On one occasion Rolleston declared that the great value of Parliamentary Government is that it provides a safeguard against autocracy. But he could not have foreseen the rise to power of Richard John Seddon, who, after the death of Ballance, grasped the leadership and before long came to be called "The uncrowned king of New Zealand". He was to remain in that position until his death thirteen years later.

But, while Seddon imposed his masterful personality on his Cabinet, his party and Parliament, he was wiser than most dictators, for he did not seek to impose his autocratic will on the electors. On the contrary, his great skill consisted in finding out what the people wanted, and then proceeding to give it to them. He had a perfect flair for. gauging the constant changes in public opinion. If a major issue arose in which the issues were obscure, he played for time by setting up a Royal Commission. Sometimes of course this expedient was entirely wise and justifiable. For example, while it is difficult for us to-day to realise that the proposal to join the Australian Federation was ever a live issue in New Zealand, it is clear that it was seriously debated at the time when the Federation was established. On such a question, affecting the whole future destiny of New Zealand, there was full justification for delay and inquiry. Seddon accordingly set up a Royal Commission, and, on its recommendation, rejected the proposal.

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But this recourse to a Commission was less justifiable when Seddon found his party hopelessly divided on the burning question of freehold versus leasehold. A vast amount of evidence was collected and published in a huge tome; but, as the Commission was composed of an almost equal number of avowed freeholders and leaseholders, no clear recommendation emerged. Seddon, however, gained his chief object, which was a long delay. But the problem remained a constant cause of discord in his party, and after Seddon's death was one of the chief factors in its downfall.

This is not the place to attempt a full portrait of Seddon. In any case, the task has been brilliantly accomplished by his old colleague, Mr W. P. Reeves.1 It will suffice to say that he was the most powerful and popular of all the Prime Ministers New Zealand has had. He was the father of much social legislation, and in time he became an ardent Imperialist. He was a loyal colleague—indeed, too loyal to the group of dead-heads who so largely composed his Cabinet.

He that seeketh to be eminent among able men (says Bacon) hath a great task, but that is ever good for the public. But he that plots to be the only figure amongst cyphers is the decay of an age.2

His immense physique and tireless energy enabled him to tour the country making four-hour speeches at innumerable meetings and banquets in a way that left his opponents gasping.

1 See chapter "King Dick", in The Long White Cloud.

2 Quoted in a pamphlet, Back to Democracy, by A. R. Atkinson, 1906.


Rolleston admired the great sagacity and forceful personality of Seddon, and so far as party ties would allow occasionally supported him. For example, when Seddon brought in a bill to further Technical Education, Rolleston seconded the adoption of it in an enthusiastic speech showing a wide knowledge of the subject. But he was dismayed by the way everything was sacrificed to Seddon's personal ascendancy page 191and all power centred in his hands. He was infuriated by Seddon's exercise of his powers of patronage, and his open boast that other things being equal he believed in giving appointments to men of his own party.

In the distribution of public moneys, he saw at work the principle of "spoils to the victors", and he denounced Seddon's cynical warning to country constituencies that, if they did not favour the Government, they could not expect favours from the Government. He was constantly irritated by Seddon's flamboyant verbosity.


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.


"I am glad", said Rolleston after his defeat in 1893, "I am out of politics. I have indeed had enough of it. If I had remained in politics, I should have shortened my life, and I want to live. I have a large family, and I must look after my own affairs for the rest of my life."

It was generally supposed that Rolleston had now left the scene of politics. The papers wrote laudatory articles of. an almost obituary character. They praised him as a great and patriotic statesman whose frugal way of life and high ideals should prove an example to the new generation. "As he descends the path of life's decline", said one writer, "may some rays of prosperity fall upon him and may his last days be peopled with thoughts of a past in which he played a useful and honourable part, and sweetened with sweet companionship of books"—and much more to the same effect. But the "New Zealand Cincinnatus—honest William Rolleston", as he was called, came back to sit in one more Parliament.

In 1896 he was elected for Riccarton. At that election his main thesis was an attack on the growing autocracy of Seddon. He described Seddon as "a resolute man with a great deal of intelligence, ability, and grit", but he complained of his Parliamentary dictatorship, of the impropriety of Seddon becoming adviser to a mining syndicate, page 194and the help given to this syndicate from public funds. On the other hand, he praised Sir John McKenzie, and recognised his earnest desire to promote closer settlement.

As a result of the election in 1896, Seddon's majority was substantially reduced, and the Opposition hopes began to rise. In the Government party a left wing had formed, and proved so threatening that Seddon at a party caucus declared that the question was whether the Government or the Opposition was to carry on the Government of the country.


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.


During the absence of Russell in England in 1898, Rolleston again found himself called on to lead the Opposition. The chief legislation of this Parliament was the Old Age Pension Act, in which Seddon took a special pride. It met with prolonged opposition, and Rolleston based his criticism on the grounds urged by Mr Joseph Chamberlain against a similar proposal in England. He considered that a non-contributory scheme based on poverty alone would not sufficiently dis-page 197criminate between the deserving and the thriftless. He preferred the scheme advocated by Sir Henry Atkinson many years before under which a universal pension scheme would be established, to which everyone would contribute during their active years of work.

Again, Rolleston's view seems to find justification after many years in the fact that a contributory scheme has been enacted in 1938 by a Labour Government.

In the same year (1898) Rolleston met with an accident by a fall from his horse. This seriously affected his health and disabled him for some time from carrying on his parliamentary work.

Rolleston to Scobie McKenzie, January 1898:

What are you doing? Dreaming much? Write and tell me what you think of things. I don't think of anything but the harvest and low prices, and nurse my woes physical and financial to my heart's content…. Russell will soon make a nice "gentlemanly" speech. 1 shall address my constituents with ponderous solemnity later on—you will dance lightly and fantastically in front of the footlights in Dunedin—but we shall none of us evoke the slightest enthusiasm. The country is generally prosperous and does not care for politics. Who is going to put their hands into their own pockets? For myself "Cantabo vacuus coram latrone" [The traveller whose pockets are empty will sing in the presence of the highway robber]. Put yourself and your bicycle into the express some morning, and come up and talk over the situation. "Si foret in terris rideret Democritus" [If Democritus were alive he would laugh].

It is pleasant to put on record a letter from Sir John McKenzie showing that, in spite of their political duels, McKenzie and Rolleston held each other in high personal esteem. The letter is dated 10 April 1899.

My dear Rolleston,

I can assure you it was with very great satisfaction indeed I received your kind, honest, and manly letter of 30th ultimo. I have received a great many kind letters since my proposed visit to the Old Country, but none has come to hand that has given me page 198more satisfaction than has yours, as it goes to show however we may differ in small things politically we can throw aside all small personal feeling and petty differences and unite together for the welfare of the country of our adoption. It will give me considerable pleasure to hear of your continued health and success, and I sincerely hope that you may be able to follow my example in paying a visit to your native country once more.

With very kind wishes and regards,

Yours very truly,

John McKenzie.