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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter IX — The Triumph of Vogel, 1870

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Chapter IX
The Triumph of Vogel, 1870

"More men and money! that's the cry
To set our pulses beating high
And never mind the bye and bye—


Early in 1870 Rolleston realised that Vogel had become the man of the hour and that Fox, a nominal Prime Minister, was too complacent to exercise any effective control. It was a curious trait in Fox that while in opposition he was merciless and aggressive, once in office he became apathetic and indifferent, except on rare occasions when he was forced to fight. He played a great part in New Zealand politics and we owe a deep debt to his memory for his magnificent and arduous labours in the early 'eighties as one of the Commissioners for the settlement of native land claims. But his persistent advocacy of unpopular views on total abstinence seriously handicapped him as a political leader.

On 28 June 1870 Vogel announced his great public works policy. But some months before that sensational development occurred Rolleston was already alarmed on other grounds.

Rolleston to Selfe (London Agent for Canterbury), 18 February 1870:

I don't like to close my letter without saying a word about Northern Island matters. I am told on very good authority that things are in a terrible mess. Vogel is a strongheaded, wrong-headed man who wants to get the Government into Auckland where he has an engagement as newspaper editor. He has always page 84been a separationist and no doubt sees that a double purpose may be served by the promoting or "sitting" of the Assembly in Auckland and the removal of portion of the Government there. His popularity and success depend on establishing good moorings in a new place, having failed to win any real respect in Otago. His postal arrangement is no doubt good and tends in this direction. Fox is malleable to the last degree, MacLean extravagant and without an idea except that of palavering people into peace. The day for that is gone by. I wish you understood me better, you would (excuse my vanity) understand better the real state of the native question. This perhaps is putting the cart before the horse. I only pray you to use your influence to prevent any reversal of the Imperial Policy. Lord Grenville's Dispatch is the most clear and statesmanlike view of our position which I have seen.1

The abandonment of untenable positions, the recognition of Maori authority and the maintenance of a good and effective force, small but well trained are the keys of the difficulty. We were told in 1862 the consequence of occupying territory we could not ourselves hold and ever since all disinterested lookers on have seen the evils which must follow on the course we are pursuing. The reoccupation of Patea is simple madness. There will be no massacres where they are not unnecessarily invited. What in the world Bell and Featherston are going to do I don't know.

Ministries are constructed as it seems not to govern by united council but to scatter themselves over the Colony and have one or two on a pleasure trip in England. I shall go in for supporting the next Ministry and getting a trip to England! I hope you will see that Lord Grenville's creed and that of our party in the Colonial Parliament are very similar. This is some comfort. We are the only people in the House who have any creed so far as I can

1 Lord Grenville's despatch is dated 7 October 1869. Grenville's patience had been exhausted by the grasping attitude of the colonists. Hence he refused to allow British troops to remain in New Zealand. He considered their employment by a colony possessing responsible government was objectionable in principle. He also objected to the extent to which confiscation had been carried and the alleged neglect of New Zealand Governments to raise their own forces to carry on the war. (Appendix to Journals, 1870, A.I.A. p. 10.)

page 85see. You will excuse my writing somewhat vaingloriously. I don't feel happy that you misunderstand my action in the Assembly. You must therefore excuse a little self-assertion on my part.

The proposal mentioned in the above letter to shift the Government to Auckland raises a side-issue. But it caused Sir George Bowen, the Governor, to seek the opinion of Rolleston, whose reply is of sufficient interest to warrant us delaying for a moment consideration of the main issue which was Vogel's public works policy.

In reality the efforts to remove the seat of Government from Wellington, where it had been located since 1865, never reached serious proportions. But what Rolleston saw clearly was first the growing jealousy of the North Island against the national wealth and progress of Canterbury and Otago, and secondly the growing confusion under a double system of government—central and provincial. At this stage he denounced the cry of separation—that is the idea of having a separate government for each Island—as "a futile and childish agitation". But within a year he became so alarmed at the growing signs of centralisation on the one hand or ultra-provincialism on the other that as we shall see later he began to favour the idea of a separate administration for each Island.

Rolleston to Sir George Bowen (Governor), 10 February 1870:

With regard to the question of the meeting of the General Assembly in Auckland, I wish I had had more time to think of what has come upon me somewhat suddenly, but as you are good enough to invite an expression of opinion from me I shall write my first impressions freely.

(1)With regard to the general principle that it is desirable that the Parliament should meet elsewhere than in Wellington with a view to the political education of the people. The Assembly has formally decided at its last session that a change should not take place at least to any place in this Island, and I am strongly of opinion that the witnessing the disorder of the Assembly page 86would have no good effect on the people generally. The remedy lies as I think, much deeper. The people of the Colony will never look upon the Assembly as anything else than a place in which to scramble for loaves and fishes by log rolling or other forms of purchase as long as the present double Government exists, and until a Minister boldly takes up the question and places the Provinces in a position which renders them incapable of doing the mischief they are doing. No amount of political education will do any good. I hear on all sides rumours of the Provinces coming up next session to get what they can out of the Colony. We shall shortly be borrowing to pay interest on our loans. The prospect is terrible.
(2)The argument that the native disturbances renders the presence of Ministers necessary in Auckland seems an argument in favour of Ministers remaining there permanently as we seem to be still pursuing our aggressive policy. I thought with regard to the late Ministers that their distribution over the country was most mischievous. If there should be alarms at Patea, which when the settlers become short of ready money there will be, Ministers will be required as much at Wellington as at Auckland.

Unless it is immediately announced that the session will be in Auckland a number of southern constituencies will practically be disfranchised, for I am satisfied that from here at least our members would not go to Auckland.

There may not be much in the above objections, but there is an objection of paramount weight with me and that is

(4)The removal of the Assembly to Auckland will most certainly revive the old cry of separation. Every argument in favour of the one tells in favour of the other. Members from the extreme south will support the measure in hopes of promoting this result and northern members with similar views. The Colony will again be torn with this futile and childish agitation. I do not write hopefully on the aspect of affairs generally, but I would rather throw up all connection with politics than lend any assistance to a step which would assuredly promote this result.

I have written hastily and I hope you will excuse my expressing my opinions very plainly. The personal question as affecting yourself is one in which of course I sympathise with you. The Colony is bound to see that you have proper accommodation and to provide for any extra expense entailed by your having it.

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The reader has so far only seen Rolleston in his most serious vein. But that he was also capable of writing in a more amusing and whimsical way will be seen from this short note to J. D. Fenton, Chief Judge of the Native Land Court, who was at this time also a member of the Legislative Council. The subject is again the proposal to move the Government to Auckland:

Christchurch, February 17th, 1870.

My dear Fenton,

"My soul is even as a weaned child." "What peace so long as the whoredom of Jezebel continue?" Why tamper with my virtue? The heifers of Canterbury will not be ploughed with by the Auckland schemers or unequally yoked with unbelievers.

This move will revive the cry of separation and distract the Colony again from the real issue. Surely it is enough that you Aucklanders have carried on war at our expense these seven years and you must needs invite us to come and see the results.

Wellington is very damnable, but your company and the sweet counsel we shall take together will reconcile me even to this passi graviora dabit deus his quoque finem.

Remember me kindly to Carleton and all whom I love in the Lord. Things are going on well here. The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few.

Yours fondly,

W. Rolleston. 1

1 The squabble over the seat of government went on for some years. In 1871 a resolution was passed by the House of Representatives in favour of holding the 1872 session in Dunedin, but the Legislative Council turned it down. In 1872 there was a movement to have the capital removed to Christchurch as part of a scheme for separation—one government for each island.


A few months later the whole Colony was startled and dazzled by Vogel's bold proposal to borrow £10,000,000 over a period of ten years and to spend the borrowed money upon bringing emigrants to New Zealand and constructing page 88roads in the North Island and railways in the South. As is usual in such cases various public men claimed what credit there might be for having been the first to suggest the famous Vogel policy. At a public meeting the Mayor of Dunedin said "the public works and immigration policy originated in the fertile brain of James Macandrew".1 On the other hand Moorhouse in Canterbury said: "There was a change of policy in 1869. I was in favour of that policy long before 1870 and I communicated my ideas on immigration and public works to Sir Julius Vogel. After cogitating the matter over in his own mind he brought it to a head and afterwards sent me a copy of his public works speech in 1870." Finally, one writer seems to attribute part of the idea to Sir Donald McLean, for in a sketch of his career he says: "It was a condition on which he joined the Ministry that a progressive policy should be adopted—one of public works and immigration. The works thought of were mainly roads and bridges; the railways were a subsequent conception of Vogel's. But immigration was part of the programme of Fox and McLean."

All these claims may be correct. The time was ripe for such a policy and no doubt it occurred simultaneously to various public men.

Writing to Selfe on 3 August 1870 Rolleston says:

I do not know what you will think of New Zealand and its financial policy. I shall do my best to prevent the destruction of our provincial agency and I cannot conceive that the General Government is in a position to do the work half as well as we are doing it. The House appears perfectly beside itself and it is impossible to say what will be the result. If Vogel gets his scheme through, which is doubtful, it will be by the aid of the centralist opposition—Stafford, Stevens and co., who are desirous of destroying the Provinces.

However, Rolleston did not offer blind opposition to the proposals. Indeed he expressed his thorough approval of

1 Saunders's History, p. 375.

page 89the principle that the Colony should undertake immigration and public works throughout the Colony. But where the proposals were of such unprecedented magnitude he thought full plans and estimates should be put before the House detailing how the money would be spent. Otherwise the scheme might be productive of most ruinous results. He voted for the second reading in the hope of getting the scheme modified. He feared, too, that the effect of it would be to take away the administration of the Land Fund from the Provinces in the South Island, and throw the Fund into the common stock. He also objected to the Central Government overriding the immigration policy which had been working so well under provincial administration. In a period of fifteen years Canterbury had brought in 14,742 migrants at the rate of about one thousand a year. The total passage money had been £216,072, all of which had been repaid except £27,275. He specially objected to bringing thousands of immigrants to the South Island while land was locked up in the hands of large holders. These objections raised by Rolleston all seem reasonable grounds of criticism, and it would have saved much subsequent waste and confusion had Rolleston's views been adopted.

In February 1871 a General Election was held. As Rolleston had predicted Vogel had found "new moorings" in Auckland and was elected for that city. The result of the election was a majority of from twelve to fifteen for the Fox-Vogel Ministry and this was naturally interpreted by Vogel as an endorsement of his policy. He was now to all intents and purposes a dictator, and Rolleston having failed to get the public works scheme modified or any safeguards provided turns again to Stafford and urges him to take his place again as leader.

Rolleston to Stafford, 20 July 1871:

Now as to politics. I am satisfied that you must come out now or never if you are to take your place again as leader, and I am satisfied that if you do a considerable number of men who now page 90hold aloof will rally round you. But no wretched compromise will do, still less schemes of village settlement or plans for unsettling men's minds as to the stability of property. You cannot think what an uneasy feeling your "utterances" at Timaru have made. However I believe there is a common "platform" on which yourself and others who really are in earnest may meet and effect much good. The two cries under which all political parties sooner or later range themselves are those of the prudent (slowgoing conservative so called by their opponents) and the speculative (calling themselves progressive, but otherwise called gamblers). I agree with Gillies that we are not drifting but driving headlong to the Devil under the progressive policy. Are you going to be leader of the other party? I look for much good to come from a union of Munro, Curtis and yourself with Richmond in prospect and if a party can be formed with fairly defined principles who will swear to reverence their leader and stick to their principles I for one will sink my private opinions and join them. The heads of my individual creed are:

(1)Borrowing by the Colony on specific securities, not as in the present scheme borrowing first and determining the works afterwards, but borrowing with a lien on the work, taking the lender into your confidence.
(2)Abolition of provincial charging, but temporarily making for the purpose of works and immigration a financial separation of the Islands. I don't say I like this, but I see no other way of opposing a strong party to a gambling policy. That wretched cry of the Land Fund, which of course with a good Government vanishes, is one which cannot but enter into the calculations of a party going in for safety and binding the selfish and unselfish together by all means in their power, short of abandonment of their creed.
(3)The abolition of Provincial Councils and Superintendents and the substitution of a new system with government agents in the principal towns controlling the Departments of Government under instruction. I entirely agree with you that it would serve no good purpose for you or anyone to take office on the shoulders of discontent, to be put in the saddle simply for the purpose of displacing its present occupants. It must be as the leader of an homogeneous party with common aims and objects who will stick to you both before and after taking office.
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A month later he writes to Stafford again on 30 August:

I am very glad you are not going in for coalitions. They are simply damnable. A good opposition is as necessary as a good Government. My idea is that McLean for what he is worth should be made permanent, that is till the bubble bursts, and that at any cost we should stop the imminent insolvency and horrible corruption which is overshadowing us. I wish you saw your way to a modification of Macandrew's Resolutions. I am satisfied that some deus ex machina is required to save us now; but of course we are not going to stand three Colonial Governments. Stevens showed me his letter to you. He is not constructive.

Hall…thinks he can stay corruption by making a "strong" Government at the expense of every principle on which Government is possible. Let us at any rate draw lines, quos ultra citrque nequit consistere rectum [above and below which propriety cannot exist], and act within those limits. Daylight will come in its own good time. Did you read my sermon on education which was in that style?

I pray you worship not the golden calf which Vogel hath set up nor commit whoredom with the children of Moab. The produce of these unnatural crimes are "red ruin and the breaking up of laws". Rather let the worst come and the reaction will be the more complete.

At the same time he is alarmed by rumours that Sir John Hall is likely to join the Fox-Vogel Ministry. He felt some responsibility in the matter, as he himself some time before had urged Hall to stand for the Heathcote seat. In doing so he said: "It won't look well to go in for some otium cum dignitate seat, and I am satisfied you will easily get in and without a contest."1 Hall had been a member of the Stafford Ministry. He had resigned on the grounds of ill-health, but in doing so said that he had worked in perfect harmony with his colleagues. It was natural therefore that Rolleston should be astounded by the rumour that Hall was about to join the Fox-Vogel Ministry.

1 Rolleston to Hall, 28 February 1870.

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Rolleston to Hall, 25 August 1871:

I trust in the name of all that is good and right you will not so far lose yourself as to join the present Ministry. It would damn you for ever as a public man. It is all very well for people to press it on you who are afraid of the Government unless they can get the security afforded by your joining, but you are not called upon to sacrifice every principle that should guide a public man because men of narrow perception in their own selfish interest press it on you, careless of your character if they save uneasiness for the time. Do you think that your joining would enable a Government like the present to deal otherwise than it has been dealing? All Government has for some years been rendered impossible by the last coalition, I pray you do not so wickedly again. I am glad to see that Stafford has refused. You know you have no sympathy with this damned gambling. Why tamper with it?

It is unfortunate that Sir John Hall's reply is not available. He probably hoped that if he took office he might exercise a restraining influence on Vogel. Whatever his reasons might be the fact is that when Parliament met in August 1872 we find that Hall had resigned his seat for Heathcote to go into the Legislative Council as a member of the Fox-Vogel Ministry.1

Although Rolleston fought hard against Vogel and his methods in later years when Vogel had become High Commissioner and Rolleston a Minister of the Crown they corresponded on the most friendly terms. The late Mr C. A. de Latour, who was a Member of Parliament in 1876, furnished me with some interesting recollections of the men of that period.

Vogel's real strength (he wrote) lay in his vision and his unique faculty of adopting and adapting the ideas of other men. This laid him open not quite fairly to charges of plagiarism. He reached the highest position by sheer force of genius, unaided by the goodwill of the men with whom he was associated, but all of whom except Sir Donald McLean not too willingly accepted the priority due to his ability.

1 See Saunders, p. 298.

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Of Rolleston Mr de Latour says:

Smooth-faced and so in those days exceptional, with square hard jaw and deeply wrinkled forehead, he could when roused make a telling speech. At other times he appeared to be nervous, and at a loss for the right word and the wrong word was never allowed utterance however long might be the delay. He had no enemies and had all the charm of a highly educated gentleman. When he became a Minister in the government of Sir John Hall his great value was as an administrator.