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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter VIII — Rolleston In Parliament — Fall of Third Stafford Government 1868-69

page 74

Chapter VIII
Rolleston In Parliament
Fall of Third Stafford Government 1868-69

"The men of each age must be judged by the ideal of their own age and country and not by the ideal of ours"—



In the year 1868 Rolleston was elected without opposition for Avon as a member of the New Zealand Parliament and in the same year (as we have seen) he was elected without opposition as Superintendent of Canterbury. This dual appointment kept him exceedingly busy. The Superintendency was the more arduous and responsible task, but being a conscientious and painstaking worker Rolleston did not fail in his duty in either role. In both spheres the position was complex and difficult.

Enough has been said in earlier chapters of the cumbrous and disjointed working of Provincial Government from a constitutional point of view. But the whole system was under challenge and it was becoming clearer each succeeding year that it must be either mended or ended.


In colonial politics dissatisfaction with the Central Government and the conduct of the Maori War had reached an acute stage. There was a growing clamour for separation—by which was meant the creation of a separate parliament for the South Island. This had already been a burning issue in the Otago Provincial elections of 1867, where every member returned had declared himself in favour of separation. The more moderate urged that at least the finances of page 75the two islands should be separated. Others went further and demanded a separate parliament. This discontent was also making itself felt in Canterbury and Auckland.1 Two years later we find J. D. Ormond of Hawkes Bay writing to Rolleston (20 April 1869):

I hear with extreme regret from yourself and others that the separation cry is being again brought forward as the question of the day in the south. In that miserable cry I see the greatest difficulty we have to contend with in the amalgamation of parties. Already Richmond in addressing his Taranaki constituents has seized upon this point of weakness and without doubt Stafford will make the most of it.

1 Otago Daily Times, 26 March 1867.


But the problem that overshadowed all others was the war with the Maoris, which had begun in 1860 and was still dragging along in a desultory, inconclusive and expensive fashion. This war had already caused the downfall of several ministries and damaged many political reputations. In the course of eight years there had been no fewer than eight different holders of the portfolio of Native Affairs.

On the whole (says Gisborne), looking back to the seventeen years from 1853 to 1870 I do not think that there is any other country which during that time presented in kind apart from extent more difficult political problems for solution by public men, and comparatively speaking was so severe a test of statesmanship.2

This observation by so competent and accurate an observer as Gisborne should constantly be kept in mind. It is no exaggeration to say that at the period when Rolleston entered politics New Zealand was passing through the greatest crisis in her history.3 It was not that her statesmen were inadequate or lacking in courage, but that their problems were quite unprecedented and far more complex than any that their successors have had to face.

2 History of New Zealand, p. 167.

3 See Harrop, England and the Maori Wars.

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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.


Let us now return to our narrative. The indispensable Stafford created" a Coalition Ministry and took in some members of the opposition, including Fitzgerald, J. C. Richmond and (Sir) John Hall. It was known as the third Stafford Ministry and was still in office when Rolleston entered the House in 1868. About this time the redoubtable veteran (Sir) William Fox returned from England. Even here it is difficult to avoid a sense of the ludicrous, for before a seat in Parliament had been found for Fox, his opponent Stafford declared that his presence in the House was so important that if no other seat could be found for him he—the Prime Minister—would gladly give up to Fox his own seat at Nelson! These and other incidents seem to me to disprove the accusation that Stafford was a man who clung to office. They also show him to be a man of chivalry and courage; for to assist in the return of Fox as leader of the page 78opposition was to bring back a man who was renowned for his powers of invective and trenchant vituperation.


During the session of 1868 the Stafford Government was almost continuously under attack. It was challenged to state its policy on the relative powers of the Central and Provincial Governments. It was also under fire on the ground that it had met with no success in handling the thorny problem of native disturbances and native affairs. Like most Coalition Governments it sought refuge in compromises designed to appease ministers whose views were in conflict.

Rolleston was not slow to join in these attacks on the Stafford Government. His recent occupancy of the post of Under-Secretary of Native Affairs had furnished him with much useful information and he had formed strong opinions as to how the native problem should be handled. He denounced Stafford's native policy as futile and ineffective. His exasperation was increased towards the end of the session when war was openly declared by Stafford on the Provincial system which Stafford said "has been tried and found wanting and cannot long survive". Not that Rolleston was by any means an ultra-provincialist. Indeed, when we remember that he was himself a Provincial Superintendent his attitude was singularly judicial and impartial. He recognised that the whole Colony was over-governed and that the antagonism between Provincial and Central Government must be brought to a close as soon as possible. "No thinking man", he declared, "looking into the future can doubt for one moment that sooner or later there must be one Government throughout the Colony working harmoniously in all its parts." But he foresaw with prophetic vision that unless some proper system of local government replaced the Provinces the result would be extremely mischievous, and all our later experience has justified his page 79wise foresight. "I never have been an ultra-provincialist," he said, "and on the other hand I am no centralist, if by that is meant the attempt to govern entirely from Wellington"1

Though Stafford survived the attacks of the opposition for the remainder of the session there was widespread discontent throughout the country. At hostile public meetings the cry was "Down with Stafford".

1 Hansard, 16 July 1869, p. 530.


It is therefore not surprising to find early in 1869 further plans being evolved by opposition members to bring about the downfall of the Government. Various suggestions were put forward as to how this could be achieved. Here is an interesting glimpse of politics behind the scenes.

J. D. Ormond (Napier) to Rolleston (Christchurch), 20 April 1869:

Stevens in his letter to me proposes to form an independent party in the House separate from the extremes of either side. But with all deference to his view I fear that we should be only playing the enemy's game. We have seen that Stafford cares nothing for the reversal of any measures he brings forward so long as he can stick in office. In most cases any man or set of men would be satisfied with forcing the adoption of their views upon the Government—but of what value would that be in Stafford's case? It seems to me that the first object we should set before ourselves is to turn out the present men and that for this end we should sink so far as necessary all personal feeling. We may have our opinions of Fox or of Vogel, but we must associate ourselves with them for the purpose of turning the Government out. For let us not blink the fact we cannot do it without them. Judging from the position of parties last year and considering the result of the election since, a vote of want of confidence would be carried now. It would be unwise, nay it would be impossible for any particular set of men to enforce their own individual views in their entirety. Both McLean and myself are prepared to make large sacrifices, and depend upon it, if we are to save the Colony from the utter page 80destruction which the present Government are bringing upon it, we must all be prepared to do the same. I am writing now amidst continual interruption, for we are still living amidst the turmoil of war, and I cannot discuss at length or thoughtfully the points of policy quoted in your letter. I agree with a great deal you write, but viewing as I do our present critical, almost desperate position as created mainly by this Government, I look to the termination of that as the first point to be achieved. We are drifting hopelessly at present. Our Government is devoting its energies more to sowing the seeds of political dissension for their own miserable and selfish purposes than to the work of the Colony. I say let us first end that, and then I have hope for ourselves. The difficulties we have to contend with are not insuperable if they are ably and zealously met. As to the policy we are to put forward it is impossible, idle at the present moment to present it. No one can say what may occur in those six weeks that have yet to elapse before the meeting of the Assembly.

You will have heard all particulars of the present movement into the interior by the Colonial forces. On the result of that movement much depends. It may, and probably will, face with open enemies the King and the King natives. They have always told us that the occupation of Taupo would be viewed by them as a challenge. I need scarcely say that should this prove the case it is impossible to foretell the consequences. I am sorry to write so indefinitely as I feel I have done—it is not from not holding defined views—it is because I see that practically myself and others must be prepared to concede much before we can hope to turn the present tide of ruinous mismanagement.


This proposal to make use of Fox to oust Stafford bore fruit quickly. Soon after Parliament met an attack was launched and in June 1869 the Stafford Government was defeated by a large majority, of whom Rolleston was one. He declared that he had consistently voted against the Government because he had no confidence in them. He denounced their native policy and their lack of policy in Provincial matters. "The Government", he said, "is ruling on sufferance; protracting a wretched existence in spite of the loss of their page 81principles, of their self-respect and of the respect of the country at large."

But although he denounced the Government in these strong terms it is clear that he was taking a leap in the dark, in fact he admitted that there was no clear alternative and added: "Let us know whether there are other men in the House who would command greater confidence. I do not say that there are." In short, the change over to Fox and Vogel does not appear to have enabled Rolleston to see any clearer line in politics or to have afforded him any satisfactory alternative. "Rolleston and other Canterbury members formed a kind of Cave of Adullam, showing little more inclination to support Fox than Stafford. Many predicted that some sort of coalition would ultimately be formed. It was not realised that the whole Colony would soon be dancing to Vogel's tune."1 Perhaps the dilemma created for Rolleston and his colleagues consisted in the fact that Fox had secured as his Native Minister Sir Donald McLean, who was the one indispensable man if the Maori War was to be brought to a peaceful conclusion. Peace was imperative if the Colony was not to be ruined financially. McLean's mana among the Maoris stood incredibly high. His powerful influence worked like a charm and he soon brought about that peace which had been so long desired. The reader may therefore regard the native problem as having been got rid of for ten years, or more. So far as Rolleston is concerned it did not arise again till the Parihaka incident of 1882.

In a letter to Selfe, Rolleston describes McLean as "extravagant and without an idea except that of palavering people into peace. The day for that is gone by." Now whatever McLean's shortcomings may have been it is undeniable that he was brilliantly successful in "palavering" the Maoris "into peace" and that no one but him could have done it. But at the time of which I am writing even McLean,

1 Morrell, p. 192.

page 82in spite of his great success in pacifying the Maoris, does not seem to have been acceptable to Rolleston. Hence if Rolleston continued to denounce Stafford and his colleagues on the one side and Fox, Vogel and McLean on the other, it was obvious that members of the House would hardly listen with patience to his plea that they should "sink all party ties and unite for the good of the country".1 That plea has been urged by independents at many times in many parliaments but seldom with any result. The times were indeed sadly out of joint for a man of Rolleston's fastidious temperament. The constantly changing groups and factions—the confused and varying issues—the absence of clear party lines—the need to compromise and to make strange political bedfellows—all this perplexed and dismayed him. Moreover, intolerable as he found the position at this stage worse difficulties were soon to follow. Indeed, it was not long before he found himself thrown back into the arms of Stafford whom he had so recently helped to overthrow.

1 Hansard, 16 June 1869.