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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29

The Government Promise

The Government Promise.

First I say That by the public Governmental promises of former Ministries, the present Government are bound, as a matter of public good faith, to complete the main trunk line of railway northwards via the West Coast to Nelson.

The main principle of the Public Works scheme of 1870 was the construction of a main trunk railway through both islands, and on the motion of Sir Julius Vogel, and after serious deliberation, the whole Colony agreed to unite to accomplish this great object, and to abandon page 4 the idea of each province making its own lines, as was then the case. The Colony would not have agreed to pledge its own lands and its credit for this end, if it had foreseen that any future Minister of Public Works would have proposed branch lines (however payable) before the main line was completed.

I have lived in Nelson and Marlborough twenty-eight years, have been a member of the Provincial Council for the City of Nelson, and know the minds of the people tolerably well, and I am certain that they would never have agreed to pledge their revenues on any other basis. Read Sir Julius Vogel's Financial Statement in introducing the scheme, and try and deduce from it any other principle than this one. Before that speech these railways had been provincial matters, thenceforth they were to be colonial undertakings. He said, "Why should the inhabitants of one province submit to a lengthened period of depression, whilst the means they partly contribute are devoted to consolidating the prosperity of another province ? It is all very well to talk about narrow views, but one body of settlers is entitled to just as much consideration as another. If the settlers in any province understood that they were occupying an outlying district, which would only be entitled to attention after more favored districts, had been served, we might then deal with this colony as we would deal with another; but it is quite otherwise. Each provincial community has been taught to believe itself on a par with its neighbors, and a colonising scheme, to aid which the whole colony was pledged would be looked upon as a gross injustice if it did not provide for due consideration to each province. This is why we must pledge ourselves to a large scheme if we wish to do justice to all."

Previous to this the Nelson Provincial Council (composed of practical business men well acquainted with the localities to be affected by the railway and therefore able to form a tolerably correct estimate of its success) had repeatedly by large majorities, passed resolutions favorable to the construction of a railway from Nelson to the West Coast, and had agreed that more than 2,000,000 acres, including the Brunner and Mount Richfort coal fields, should be given as a bonus to any company constructing such a line. And by the Nelson and Cobden Railways Acts of 1866, 1867, 1868, and 1869, the General Assembly repeatedly affixed its sanction to the provincial proposals; and we may presume the Legislature did not consent to the scheme until after due enquiry, nor until the minds of the members were satisfied that the railway would be an advantageous one.

Sir Julius Vogel proposed to extend the construction of the railways over several years, as the colony had neither the men nor the money to construct them all at once. Pending this delay in 1872-3 the Nelson people, whose determination to obtain the railway had never slackened (as shown by the above resolutions and Acts of Parliament), formed an Inland Communication Committee, comprising their leading citizens and several engineers and surveyors well acquainted with the back country. After collecting much valuable information, as evidenced by their Report, page 5 on the following points, viz., the necessity and importance of a railway—The resources of the country to be traversed by the proposed line including land, its character, &c.—The inducement available as remuneration.—The description and cost of the proposed line—and the estimated expenditure and income: the Committee decided to propose the construction of the line by a public company, with a bonus of the adjacent land and coal mines.

The Committee sat publicly for months and the data furnished to it was thoroughly sifted and criticised. Yet so earnest and confident were the people of Nelson in their belief in the success of the line, that all the shares would have been subscribed for. My firm offered to take £1000. Many business firms might have taken more. But the Government, seeing that We really meant business, and in order to prevent, our injuring their colonial loans, by placing our scheme on the London market, and in order to preserve the integrity of their trunk system, then came forward, and through our Superintendent, Mr Curtis, proposed that we should abandon the formation of the Company, on the distinct understanding that our line should be recognised, as part of the trunk system, and constructed out of colonial funds. Our Committee agreed to this. I recollect asking the Superintendent, whether we ought not to have a written agreement with the Government, and he assured us that an honorable understanding was perfectly binding, and that we might rely on the Government fulfilling their promise. And in pursuance of this understanding Sir Julius Vogel a few months afterwards in his financial statement of 1873 said (vide Hansard, p. 141) :—

"The Government recognise that, apart from the question of whether there are mineral resources in the district, it will sooner or later become necessary, in order to complete a trunk line through the Middle Island, that Nelson and the West Coast should be connected by railway." And again, "the proposal we intend to make is, that the Government shall in future confine their attention to works connected with main trunk lines of railway, and railways having especially for their object the opening up of coal fields. We shall ask for authority to fill up the three gaps not yet provided for in the main line between North Canterbury and the Bluff, and to make a survey with the view of deciding upon a main line which will bring Nelson and the West Coast into communication with Canterbury; and also if it should be found expedient into communication with Marlborough."

Then by the Railways Act, 1873, section 14, it is enacted :

14. "Whereas it is expedient that a trunk line of railway through the Middle Island should be completed, and it is necessary to that end, that a line of railway connecting the authorised railways in the province of Nelson with some principal town or authorised railway in Westland with the lines of railway in Canterbury, with, if found practicable, a branch of railway to Picton or Blenheim in the province of Marlborough, should be constructed.

"Be it enacted that such connecting lines shall be constructed by the Governor under 'The Immigration and Public Works Act, 1870,' and the page 6 Act amending the same, out of such moneys as shall from time to time be appropriated by the General Assembly for the purpose, and the cost of such construction shall, as between the colony and province in which the work is constructed, be charged against the Land Fund thereof.

"The Minister of Public Works is hereby authorised to cause the necessary surveys to be made preliminary to the construction of such connecting lines; and all necessary expenses in causing such survey to be made shall be defrayed out of any moneys for the time being standing to the credit of the Public Works Account on account of railways, and the cost thereof shall be charged as part of the cost of the construction of the railway.

16. "Whereas it is expedient that a line of railway from the termination at Foxhill in the Province of Nelson of the authorized line of railway, should be constructed to Brunner in the said Province.

"Be it therefore enacted that such line of railway shall be constructed by the Governor under the said Act and the Acts amending the same, out of such moneys as may from time to time be appropriated by the General Assembly for the purpose. The Minister for Public Works is hereby authorised to cause such enquiries, reports, and surveys to be made and such Acts and proceedings to be done and taken, as he may think necessary for enabling him to recommend to the Governor, for submission to the General Assembly during the next session, plans for the construction of the said Railway from Foxhill to Brunner; and all necessary expenses in causing such surveys, inquiries, and reports to be made shall be defrayed out of any moneys for the time being standing to the credit of the Public Works Account on account of railways, and the cost of such survey shall be charged as part of the cost of the construction of the line of railway which shall be charged against the Land Fund of the Province of Kelson.

17. "The railways hereby authorized to be constructed shall be deemed to be railways, authorized and determined to be constructed under 'The Immigration and Public Works Act, 1870,' and the Acts amending the same, and as to such railways as are hereby declared to be charged on the Land Fund of any Province, such charge shall be made in the manner provided by the twelfth section of ' The Immigration and Public Works Act, 1871.'"

Is not this sufficient evidence to satisfy you and the Members of the House as to the existence of the promise which the present public works proposals ignore and break ? Besides this, the testimony of the Members of the Inland Communication Committee to the truth of my statements can readily be obtained, if you desire to test their accuracy.

If further evidence is required, see Sir Julius Vogel's Financial Statement of 1874 (Hansard p. 16) where he said "that last year he had indicated the railways yet (then) to be authorized in order to complete the main trunk lines through each Island." And "if it were necessary, the Government would be prepared to come down at once with proposals to relieve the provinces of all risks and responsibilities in connection with the payment of interest on the amounts expended page 7 and to be expended on the construction of the railways already authorized and those which are necessary to complete the trunk system." Will your Government do the same and fulfil your predecessors promise or not? Again he said (Hansard p. 162). "But the limit of Railways needs precise definition. I allude to the railways already authorised and those necessary to complete the gaps in the North Island system which stand in the way of through railways between the Kaipara, Auckland, New Plymouth, Napier and Wellington as well as those necessary to complete the "gaps" (your own present expression and what you pretend to do) of through communication between Picton, Nelson and Hokitika, North Canterbury and the West Coast." And he further said (Hansard p. 163) "My colleague the Minister for Public Works will describe to you the works proposed to be taken to complete the great work the country is pledged to, the trunk system of railways." And accordingly the Hon. E. Richardson, Minister for Public Works, said (Hansard p. 235) "It has been stated by my honorable colleague, the Colonial Treasurer, in his financial statement, that the Government, consider the railway scheme, as adopted by Parliament, embraces the main trunk line from Kaipara in the North, &c., then from Nelson to Hokitika, the main line running through the valleys of the Duller and the Grey, and into the Amuri by the best routes procurable, and passing through Canterbury to the Bluff."

Surely this is sufficient confirmation of the understanding upon the faith of which many of us have based our business arrangements and have bought land and built houses, and adopted Nelson as our home. At all events, we trustfully embarked our families and fortunes on this fleet of Government promises, thinking that the word of an honorable man (and were not your predecessors honorable men ?) was as good as his bond, and these promises are as binding on you as if made by yourselves; for I cannot believe that your sense of honor is no higher than that of a Yankee repudiator. Can you and your colleagues with honor to yourselves and the Colony, whose honor you represent, break these pledges ?

It is no answer to say that you doubt whether the line will pay. I will endeavor to show that it will do so further on, but that cannot legitimately affect the question of fulfilling a public promise. Sir Julius Vogel said, as quoted above "that the Goverment recognized the necessity of our line apart from the question of whether there are mineral resources or not," and I have endeavored to show, not so much by any arguments of my own, but by the speeches and conduct of former Ministers, that they always fully recognized the compact so made with the Nelson people; and as the Government for purposes of contract is deemed continuous, though individual members may be changed, I claim that these speeches and this Act of Parliament are the strongest evidence I can adduce against you. They are admissions on your part—on the part of the Government—of our right and not merely affirmative evidence adduced by our side.

There are some other matters which are worthy of attention and which may fairly influence your ultimate decision. The Buller and Grey page 8 Valleys (hereafter briefly termed the Coast) were to a great extent opened up and colonised by Nelson settlers. In the early days of the Bullergold fields a large part of the revenues of Nelson was yearly devoted to the construction of roads to open up the back country, and offshoots of Nelson families, supplied and supported at first by the parent steins in Nelson, settled themselves in those valleys. The Nelson people treated these valleys as their own property, in the same way as England treats her Colonies; and money spent there was not considered as money spent on the property of strangers, but as an expenditure from which a return, direct or indirect, was fairly expected. The enterprise of a Nelson firm established a regular line of steamers devoted entirely to the Coast trade. The more the Coast progressed the better (we thought) for Nelson.

Now, sir, your proposal to tap the West Coast from Canterbury, and not from Nelson, and to run a line up and down the Coast at right angles to your Canterbury branch line, simply means diverting the whole of the trade from Nelson to Canterbury. No Government ever attempted such a high-handed interference with private vested interests before. The settlers in Canterbury have had hitherto but little to do with the Coast,—their steamers do not trade there,—their merchants and solicitors have no agencies there, like the Nelson merchants and solicitors have. Hitherto the Coast banks have made all their exchanges at Nelson. By your action all these business connections are to be upset; these ties, domestic and financial, rudely broken; and the people of the Coast left to seek fresh connections and support on the eastern side of the dividing range. We do not object to the construction of the railway referred to, on the contrary, we desire it, but begin it at both ends, and let Nelson, Picton, the Coast, and Canterbury, be all connected with the main trunk railway, and let trade find its own level, and favor the place that presents the greatest advantages. Although at present in possession of the Coast trade, no narrow selfish feeling influences us, and such possession has no weight with us against our desire to remain an integral part of the life of the colony; nor against our determination to resist and never to forgive the infliction of isolation and ruin.

Sir Julius Vogel, in his Financial Statement of 1873 (Hansard, page 134) said, "What I desire to establish is this : That every part of New Zealand is in our charge, that we want every district to be improved. We don't seek for a few splendid and isolated though prominent examples of prosperity, with depression and stagnation elsewhere,—silk on the surface, rags beneath." Without a main trunk line you may have a splendid example of prosperity in Otago, but you will certainly have depression and stagnation in Nelson, and as a colonial and not a provincial politician, you will be answerable for such a result, and the future historians of the rise of this Colony will not forget it.

I cannot help noticing, sir, that, our Premier declines being made a party to this breach of faith, and it behoves you therefore to consider, if you are prepared to act without his concurrence. Sir George Grey said on the 12th September last (Hansard, page 130) referring to what page 9 he himself termed" the trunk railroad from Nelson to Christehurch." "I deny that there is any justice in the accusation made against me of having neglected the interests of the Province of Nelson. I am not the person to blame for that." I demand, the people of Nelson will demand, to know who is to blame? By these straws one can judge the direction of the current.

Besides this, the non-construction of our promised connection with the Coast, and the severance and diversion of our trade, will compel the more enterprising of us to leave our fair Nelson homes and to emigrate to the more favored parts of the colony. Your proposals will expatriate the Nelson settlers, as surely as the Maori war did those of Taranaki in 1861. You are a Scotchman. Do you recollect how in the early part of this century certain of the Highland landowners, by the same high-handed, and perhaps perfectly legal, though utterly immoral, action, depopulated vast districts and demolished the homes of their Highlanders to make room for immense deer parks for the selfish profit and advantage of sportsmen from Southern Britain? Are you not proposing the same kind of action for the selfish profit and advantage of the people of the southern part of this Island, to the injury and ruin of the Nelson settlers? You must know how, to this day, the names of those Scottish Lords are execrated by those whose homes were forcibly removed. I fear that your name will be similarly gibbeted by all fair and impartial enquirers, and by a large part of the people of the colony, unless your public works proposals are modified. You will find it useless to reason with injured men, and you may find the men you forcibly transplant to Otago, virulently opposing you in your own special domain.

Let me beg of you and your colleagues to pause and gravely consider the position in all its bearings. Let me appeal, through you, to the members of the General Assembly, not to permit this faithless wrong to be done to the people of Nelson. The names of those who ably advocate our rights will be graven in the hearts of thirty thousand of their fellow-colonists.

Secondly, I say That there is every reason to believe that the Nelson and West Coast part of the Trunk Railway, will be a fairly payable one.