William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman
Sir John Hall once declared that Rolleston combined in his administration all the virtues of all the preceding Superintendents. At any rate, the conspicuous success which attended his efforts as Superintendent makes a pleasing picture. But his long term of office was not one of unalloyed triumph, and there were two things that marred his happiness. One was that each year quarrels and conflict with his Council became more and more frequent and serious. On more than one occasion his executive resigned, and left him to carry on the Government. We have already seen that these conflicts were almost inevitable under the peculiar system whereby the Superintendent had no means of personally defending his views in the Council meetings, and the same discord occurred in other Provinces. Rolleston tried to improve the machinery of government. He urged that the Superintendent should have frequent conferences with committees of the Council, or that legislation should be obtained to give him a seat in the Council. He sought for more direct and unfettered responsibility to the Council. But nothing came of these suggestions. No doubt these quarrels might have been avoided had Rolleston chosen to regard himself as a figurehead, and left his executive to construct the policy and carry out the administration. But he claimed, with good reason, that under the constitution the task of governing the Province was entrusted to the Superintendent, and that the function of the Council and the executive was merely to furnish advice and assistance. In fact, he expressly stated that he refused to be a mere cypher.
A study of these long-forgotten disputes would probably lead to the conclusion that Rolleston was unduly fastidious and sensitive. His later career in Parliament confirms this view. Sometimes trifling misunderstandings expand into quarrels that seem ludicrous in retrospect. For example, page 37when the Governor visited the Christchurch Races in 1873, Rolleston entertained him at lunch. His executive objected to the cost, not on the ground that it was excessive, but because it had not been authorised by them. In reply to which complaint Rolleston transmitted a formal memorandum gravely pointing out, first, that, as head of the executive, he had not called the Cabinet meeting at which the expenditure was objected to and the Cabinet had not conferred with him; secondly, that, on every previous occasion when a Governor had visited the Races, such expenditure had been authorised. He agreed with his executive that it would be better if the Jockey Club did the entertaining, "but, unless the country make over the course to them and enable them to charge for entrance so as to cover all expenses, they cannot fairly be expected to make such payments". Thirdly, that he had an understanding with the executive that any usual or necessary expense for His Excellency's visit would be concurred in. Fourthly, that he invited no one but the Governor's party, among whom Ministers must be reckoned. "I was asked by a member of the Jockey Club what places should be reserved, and I counted up the number and told him. The places were accordingly reserved, and the party went in at the proper time." All this seems a storm in a tea-cup, and perhaps if the executive had also been asked to the lunch they might have acquiesced in the cost.
But usually the disputes were more serious and protracted. One which caused Rolleston much vexation and distress occurred over a claim by the Bank of New Zealand over charges for interest and commission on financial transactions with London. Rolleston, after taking the advice of the Attorney-General and the Provincial Solicitor and with the concurrence of his executive, decided to sue for a refund of the amounts deducted. But, meanwhile, a new Council was elected which, after full inquiry, dissented from his views, and decided to resort to arbitration. Relations page 38between Rolleston and his Council became highly strained. In the course of long correspondence, the executive declared that Rolleston was striking at the root of responsible government. He tartly replied that, if they desired to follow that system, they should give him the opportunity of having advice from other members—which was an oblique way of saying they should resign. Finally, the claim was compromised, but how deeply Rolleston resented the disavowal of his action appears from some of his letters.
Rolleston to Gillies, 4 February 1871:
I am still standing between the Province and the blackguard attempt to plunder it by the Bank of New Zealand, and also preventing other little jobs, and the effort of Canterbury members on whose toes I have trodden will be to make the Superintendent the creature of their Councils. I can imagine no worse evil. The Bank here would have its own nominee in the most important positions. I wish you would write and tell me what you think of these things. Unless the thinking and decent men are prepared to work together against the unthinking and indecent men next session, we may write Ichabod on the Colony.
My executive have just given me formal advice to carry out the resolution of the Provincial Council about the Bank of New Zealand claim. I have asked them for reasons, which they won't give. I am going to refuse. So I am in for a good fight. Pray for me that my strength fail not.
It is difficult at this distant date and without a full knowledge of the acts to know what lay behind Rolleston's intense hostility to the settlement of the Bank's claim. Nor would it be profitable for the reader to have set out for him the lengthy statements and correspondence recorded in the proceedings of the Council. Rolleston may have had knowledge of some scandal that does not appear in the papers. What is more likely is that he had not fully recovered from the serious illness that had left him irritable and more sensitive than usual. There must have been some such reason to explain the fact that such eminent men as J. S. Williams (afterwards the famous Sir Joshua Williams, page 39P.C.), who was then on the Provincial Council, took the opposite view to Rolleston.
To add to Rolleston's vexation, the Council voted a sum of £5000 (later reduced to £2500) as a grant to Moorhouse, and only £500 to the widow of Selfe who had given splendid service to the Province as its agent in London. This latter grant Rolleston considered entirely inadequate.
These details are necessary to explain the following extracts from a letter written by Rolleston to Fitzgerald on 4 December 1870:
I think it was Lord Palmerston who said he did not care for men who supported him when he was right; what he wanted was men who would vote for him when he was wrong. Your kind letter was accordingly all the more welcome that you don't altogether agree with me. On this point, however, I console myself with the thought that you don't know all.
First, with regard to Mr Selfe's death, I had intended to write to you about it, but I felt that I could not express myself in any way that would not be likely to fall far short of your feelings, and that "words weaker than your grief would make grief worse". Moreover, even in this matter, I have been horribly annoyed, and have been endeavouring to lose every thought but that of satisfaction that our friend has been spared much that would have annoyed him even in his connection with us, and that it is well that he should have passed from this wretched strife of tongues "to where beyond these voices there is peace" before his enthusiasm had been damaged by the change which is coming over all that we had here so hopefully worked for.
It is cruel to think that the public notice of him should amount to little more than an incorrect statement of his relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that in Jollie's case it should content itself with a statement that he "introduced hops and had a model farm at some place in Nelson". I dd not compare the two men, but in both "Justitiae soror incorrupta fides nudaque Veritas" [uncorrupted good faith, the sister of justice, and downright truth] were conspicuous, and they wrought and fought for what they thought best for the Colony with an earnestness of purpose which was only rendered less effective in Jollie's page 40case by the absence of the enthusiasm and ability which belonged to the other.
The Government (i.e. the Provincial Executive) bought the House with this job and the arbitration job (Bank of New Zealand claim). They lent themselves to gross misrepresentation of an absent man who had no one to represent him, in order to obtain a political victory, and violated every principle which guides men in their ordinary intercourse as gentlemen, branding with the crime of indiscretion the two men who, knowing the facts, would not sit still and allow them to imply and state untruths to my prejudice…. However, the people are with me, and, on two public occasions since, have taken occasion to show this very demonstratively. As to my future course, you seem to think I have given way. I have not, and, what is more, don't intend. The Bank case will not go to arbitration. The wages of iniquity will be paid to Moorhouse and by him to his creditors. This I cannot help now, but I don't feel happy about it. I doubted about vetoing it and was damned. How horribly one suffers for these sins of weakness.
So difficult did his position become that in some letters he talks of quitting New Zealand and going to New Guinea. Evidently Fitzgerald had encouraged him in this idea, but Rolleston replies:
With regard to taking refuge elsewhere, I am not prepared to give in now I am in for a fight tho' I feel I may be driven into a corner any day, in which case I should like to go in for carrying out the old idea we had talked of. I have just had £600 left me, and I suppose in bad times my property here would realise about £3000-£4000. I don't like either encouraging you in isolating yourself. You are exercising your sane influence for good more than you can have any idea of yourself. What I might do a few months hence I don't know, but, if you have made up your mind, of course you must make up your party immediately. I am grateful to you for thinking of me.