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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



At the election of 1899 Rolleston was again defeated. His successful opponent was G. W. Russell, who raised the cry that Rolleston was "too much of a colonial politician". By this he meant that Rolleston was too much absorbed in high questions of general politics, and did not devote enough time to local affairs. "Apparently", said one paper, "the people of Riccarton agreed with Mr Russell in his dislike of broadminded statesmanship, and preferred the smaller to the greater man."

A. R. Atkinson to William Rolleston, 18 December 1899:

Almost incredible in its naivete was your opponent's accusation that you were too much of a colonial politician. Too much of the statesman and too little of the commission agent, too much of the patriot and too little of the pedlar, too much backbone and conscience and too little capacity to grovel or to lie, too erect, too broadminded, too honest—what a glorious charge upon one to be found guilty by a shearer's casting vote and driven from political life.

The contest was so close that Rolleston was only beaten by one vote. His friends urged him to apply for a recount; but he said that, even if the result was reversed, he had no desire to be elected by a small majority.

Even in the hour of his defeat, there were still Radicals who hoped that, when the public tired of Seddon, Rolleston page 200would be called on some day to lead a better Radical party than Seddon's.

Mr Samuel Saunders, Editor of the Lyttelton Times, said:

I trust without any disloyalty to my party I may say how much I regret that the country has lost for a time your services in Parliament. If you were in the House of Representatives to-day as leader of the Opposition, we ardent young Radicals who hope for something even-better than the present Government might look to you for valuable assistance in realising our aspirations. But that will come in good time. Happily you are still young enough to create a new political party and lead it to success.

Whether you do that or not, there are thousands of men and women in the country who will remember with the deepest gratitude your years of unselfish labour on their behalf. Their esteem is a greater prize—a thousand times greater—than any seat in Parliament, and it cannot be taken away by a fickle constituency or by the mistakes of your political friends.

During the last decade of his public career, Rolleston was not only depressed by the fact that the new surge of political thought had left him—the one-time Radical—stranded as a "prisoner of the right", but he felt lonely owing to the death of so many of his old colleagues and intimate friends. His great leader, Sir Harry Atkinson, in whose company he had fought many a hard-fought fight, had died in 1892. The last words of this fine old soldier-statesman as he lay dying were: "I have received my marching orders."

Another old and intimate friend, Judge Richmond, died in 1895. He had married a sister of Sir Harry Atkinson. He left politics for the bench in 1862—before Rolleston entered politics—and was for thirty-three years the most erudite and distinguished of all New Zealand judges.

The following year saw the loss of another of this fine band of pioneer statesmen, James Edward Fitzgerald. He had been the first Superintendent of Canterbury and the first Prime Minister of New Zealand. His brilliant oratory page 201caused him to be regarded as the finest public speaker in our history. Rolleston had maintained a close friendship with Fitzgerald since their early days in Canterbury, and his death was a sore loss to Rolleston.

Two years before his death Fitzgerald wrote to Rolleston (2 June 1894):

I am very sad about affairs—as a socialist I see a course being taken which will only result in stormy reaction. The public service is being simply destroyed, honour and loyalty in the service prostituted to political ends. I must reverse all my former opinions and am beginning to hold that, as elsewhere, the Public Service must be removed from the control of Ministers altogether.

There were others, such as Sir Dillon Bell, who died in 1896, and the passing of such men made him feel that on himself too the shadows were falling.