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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman


page 76


When Rolleston entered Parliament in 1868 (Sir) Edward Stafford was in power for the third time. All historians have accorded Stafford a high place as a statesman. Gisborne declared that he was the best leader of a party when he was in power that has been known in New Zealand, and that he and Fox were the only natural born Prime Ministers who had appeared in his experience. This opinion is confirmed by Saunders, who says of Stafford "as a politician, legislator and organizer New Zealand has never yet seen his equal in power".

Yet there is a touch of burlesque in the events which led up to Stafford's assumption of office. Towards the end of 1865 Sir Frederick Weld, who was in bad health, resigned from the Premiership. He had not been actually defeated, but he gave as his reason the fact that Parliament had failed to give enough support to his financial measures to enable him to carry out his policy of self-reliance. His chief assailant was Vogel, who was now rapidly rising as a political star of the first magnitude. But Vogel was disliked and distrusted by Weld, who accordingly persuaded the Governor that Stafford was the man most likely to be able to form a Ministry.

If, however, Weld was eager to lay down his office Stafford was equally reluctant to take it up. In doing so he made this astonishing statement:

We have taken office under peculiar circumstances, from no desire or wish of our own; we have neither desired nor attempted to eject our predecessors from office … none could more willingly retire than we will when the country has declared that it no longer desires our services.

This is surely the strangest declaration ever made by an incoming Prime Minister: "we have neither desired nor attempted to eject our predecessors from office"!

These strange political quixotries are so much a feature of the period that the reader must accustom himself to them page 77if he is to understand the puzzling situation in which Rolleston found himself. His temperament was ill-suited to such flexible and indeed fluid political conditions as existed, and he was many years in finding an anchorage. He was desperately anxious to find some leader to whom he could give allegiance and some party to which he could attach himself.

The instance I have quoted of Stafford's reluctant entry into office occurred before Rolleston entered politics. An equally amusing episode occurred in 1866. In that year Moorhouse defeated Stafford on a no-confidence motion by 47 to 14, but immediately declared that he wanted Stafford to continue as Prime Minister. Consequently, when the Governor sent for Moorhouse that gentleman solemnly advised His Excellency to send for Stafford, whom he had just defeated.

If the times had not been so critical and serious we might regard all this as political comedy.