The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 69
The Case Against Party Government in New Zealand
The Case Against Party Government in New Zealand.
here can be no doubt that Parliamentary institutions have fallen sadly into disrepute of late years. In England complaints have been plentiful, in the Press, that the House of Commons is fast becoming an object of contempt; and even Ministers of the Crown have admitted themselves unable, even with the aid of the closure, to make any head way with the business of the country. In France successive ministries have endeavoured to retain their seats by such wholesale bribery of the constituencies that the financial position of the country has steadily deteriorated during the last twenty years. In the United States of America we see even a more lamentable condition of affairs, the generality of men of good character and position avoiding politics as unfit to be touched by anyone who would keep clean hands and an honest name. Then if we look at the Australasian colonies, and our own colony of New Zealand in particular, it can hardly be denied that there has been of late years a growing impatience in the public mind with the annual spectacle of the people's representatives deliberately dividing themselves into two hostile camps, and then fighting for office, when they ought rather to be minimising their differences and working together, as harmoniously as possible, for the good of their country.
It would almost seem as if the nearer we approach a pure democracy, the farther off we are from governing ourselves with wisdom and sobriety, or even with common honesty. There are, no doubt, many who believe that this is due to evils inherent in the principle of self-government by the whole people; but those of us who consider democracy, with all its faults, the best principle of government, for a civilised race, that the world has yet seen, must look elsewhere for the cause of this threatened break-down of Parliamentary institutions. It would be difficult to exaggerate the danger of this growing contempt for our system of Government; and when we see the present condition of affairs used by economists and philosophers—such as Herbert Spencer—as a strong argument in favour of confining the functions of Government to mere police duty, it especially page 2 behoves all true democrats, who wish to see the area of Government influence widened rather than contracted, to spare no trouble to discover the cause and the remedy.
Cause of Political Evils.
* "The Election of Representatives."
Our best hopes for the abolition of Party Government in England are founded on the occasional outbursts of frankness on the part of the more honest of her public men. It is interesting, for instance, to find the leader of the Tories pleading for the abolition of the Party system as far as concerns the Foreign Office. In his speech at St. Andrew's Hall, Glasgow. 20th May, 1891, the Marquis of Salisbury shows clearly the great difficulty of managing foreign affairs, and even the Government of India, under the present method, with party feeling so "much more bitter" than it used to be, "Combination of the Party system and the electric telegraph will," he says, "shake your Empire to its base." "And, therefore," he concludes, "though the diminution of party action in domestic affairs is a counsel of perfection to which I do not for a moment aspire, I do venture to impress upon you the paramount duty of discouraging, as far as possible, the operation of our Party system upon the vast and tremendous interests which we have at all events abroad, whether they are in countries where our own dominions are concerned or whether they are in countries that live under other potentates."*
Indictment of Party Government.
Intrinsically absurd in principle;
Hopelessly immoral in its effects;
Injurious to legislation;
Fatal to good administration;
Very expensive; and
* 'The Times,' 21st May. 1891.
and, finally, I propose to give some brief particulars of a more suitable and saner alternative.
It would be well, perhaps, to clear the way by stating briefly what is meant by Party Government. It should be clearly understood that there is no objection to parties—that is, to men of similar principles combining to work for some common cause. It has been truly said that "No great reform was ever carried without party organisation, because in every country there is an inert mass of humanity who are opposed to all change whatsoever, and who can only be moved by the united and persistent efforts of the party of progress." Even what is known as the "party-spirit" in politics, though not in itself either very useful or meritorious, is probably, for some time at least, inevitable. It is founded on the national fighting and faction-loving instincts of mankind. As Sir Henry Maine says "Historically speaking, Party is probably nothing more than a survival and a consequence of the primitive combativeness of mankind. It is war without the city transmuted into war within the city, but mitigated in its process. The best historical justification which can be offered for it is that it has often enabled portions of the nation, who would otherwise have been armed enemies, to be only factions." But Party Government, as we know it, has no such respectable claim to antiquity. It is comparatively a thing of yesterday. Its origin dates only from the passing of the Septennial Act. It was founded on the greed of place-hunters, and the superstructure is worthy of the foundation. Its main features are: the choice of Ministers from one side of the House only; the collective responsibility of Ministers; the initiation of all important measures by the Cabinet; the obligation on a Ministry to resign if one of its "policy measures" is defeated; and the power of the Premier to hold the threat of resignation or even of a dissolution over the heads of his followers. These are the features which have degraded Parties into fortuitous combinations of men united only for purposes of gain; which have caused Government by Parliament to degenerate into Government by Party, this again into Government by Cabinet, "to be further resolved into Government by a Single Person"—an alternate despotism, tempered by abuse and vilification from the other side of the House.
Absurdity of the System.
* "Popular Government."
Like the dogma of the divine rights of kings and passive obedience, Party Government came to the front during the stormy period of the Revolution. The system is indeed so monstrous that it could only have found acceptance at a time when national animosities ran high, and the people were in an abnormal state of excitement. Under no ordinary circumstances is it conceivable that the English people would have tolerated a political system so entirely different from that to which they had been so long accustomed, and so opposed to their practice in the affairs of everyday life. To the mass of the people it was and always will be, a matter of utter indifference as to who were in office, or who out of it, so long; as the country is well governed. They had been accustomed to send their representatives to Parliament to confer together and co-operate for the common good of the whole community. It must, therefore, have shocked their moral sensibilities when they discovered that their representatives, instead of attending to the business of the country for which they had been elected, were devoting themselves to far other purposes; that no sooner did they come together than they immediately ranged themselves on opposite sides of the House; that they openly avowed hostile intentions towards one another; that they at once proceeded to open acts of hostility; that they spent their time and energies in vilifying one another, in misrepresenting one another's motives, opinions, and actions, and in attempting to ruin one another's reputations, to defeat one another's plans, and to delay and mutilate, when they could not reject, one another's measures And that men, eminent for their talents, their eloquence, and even their uprightness in other relations of life, should do all this without any sense of its impropriety and its injustice, was a sight not calculated to raise Parliamentary institutions in the estimation of right-thinking men. Had it been the design of its authors to demoralize the public mind, to impede the public business, to create natural animosities and general anarchy they could not have better accomplished their end than by the introduction of such a system as this. Nothing can be more obvious to common sense than that the representatives of a great nation could be bound together by the same interests, aims, and aspirations as the people themselves, and that they should co-operate with them for the common good of the whole country; and nothing can be more absurd than to suppose that the common good could be achieved by a system that tends to create and perpetuate party strife and national animosities. We might as well create discord in order to produce harmony, or provoke quarrels for the purpose of promoting friendship and cordiality. The most extraordinary part of the matter is that there are still men to be found who believe such a vicious system is essential to Parliamentary Government.
* "Representative Government in England," by David Syme.
He (the intelligent stranger) would infer, from actual observation that the party hero was debarred by his position from the full practice of the great virtues of veracity, justice, and moral intrepidity. He could seldom tell the full truth; he could never be fair to persons other than his followers and associates; he could rarely be bold except in the interests of his faction. The picture drawn by him would be one which few living men would deny to be correct, though they might excuse its occurrence in nature on the score of moral necessity.
Party strife, like strife in arms, develops many high but imperfect virtues; it is fruitful of self-denial and self-sacrifice. But wherever it prevails, a great part of ordinary morality is unquestionably suspended; a number of maxims are received which are not those of religion or ethics: and men do acts which, except as between enemies, and except as between political opponents, would be very generally classed as immoralities or sins. Party disputes were originally the occupation of aristocracies, which joined in them because they loved the sport for its own sake; and the rest of the community followed one side or the other as its clients. Now-a-days Party has become a force acting with vast energy on multitudinous democracies, and a number of artificial contrivances have been invented for facilitating and stimulating its action. Yet, in a democracy, the fragment of political power falling to each man's share is so extremely small, that it would be hardly possible, with all the aid of the caucus, the stump, and the campaign newspaper, to rouse the interests of thousands or millions of men, if page 7 Party were not coupled with another political force. This, to speak plainly, is corruption. A story is current respecting a conversation of the great American, Alexander Hamilton, with a friend who expressed wonder at Hamilton's extreme admiration of so corrupt a system as that covered by the name of the British constitution. Hamilton is said to have, in reply, expressed his belief that when the corruption came to an end the constitution would fall to pieces . . . . . . Hamilton, of course, meant that, amid the many difficulties of popular Government, he doubted whether, in its English form, it could be carried on, unless support were purchased by Governments.
This was in the time of the Georges, but, as Sir Henry Maine goes on to say,—after a brief sketch of the progress of Party corruption in the United States,—buying votes in Parliament was, in England, superseded by buying votes at elections.
There are (he adds) two kinds of bribery. It can be carried on by promising or giving to expectant partisans places paid out of the taxes, or it may consist in the director process of legislating away the property of one class and transferring it to another. It is this last which is likely to be the corruption of these latter days.
This, of course, refers to England, where roads and bridges, public buildings, and "political railways," hardly offer sufficient scope for wholesale bribery.
Effect on the Press.
* Essays by S. S. Nicholas, of Louisville, 1863.
The present vitiated state of the public taste admits of no neutrality, no lukewarmness. The mangling of the public and private character of political men, the debasing of the motives of action of the loftiest and purest to a level with the meanest, the fomenting of party rape and party hate, these are the dishes that are devoured with most avidity. At this day no politician cares for the boldness, frankness, or integrity of an individual editor. He buys a paper because it is an agent of his party, to promote or preserve its elevation. Whenever an editor undertakes to think for himself or differently from party dictation, the party ceases to sustain him. The editors do but imitate our leading politicians, who themselves imitate the lawyers. They handle all political questions like fee'd advocates, and consider themselves as standing in that attitude before the country, and as such, feel justified in making the most of the cause in which they are enlisted—good or bad. All this is most pernicious, when we consider the immense influence they exercise over public opinion and public morals. Though a politically debased public Press is rather the consequence than the cause of a vitiated state of public morals, yet such is the influence of the Press in augmenting such a state of morals, that nothing is better deserving an anxious care than the preserving it pure, independent and respectable, and the removing from our institutions everything that bears upon it with a contrary tendency.
Is not this picture sufficient to make us decide on removing from our institutions these artificial parties of place-hunters who are the direct cause of such a state of things? When we consider what a large proportion of the people read hardly anything else than their daily or weekly newspaper; and that, in a vast number of eases, the Press is their pulpit as well as their platform-their only teacher in morality as well as in politics—the disastrous results that must needs follow such demoralisation become at once apparent. The argument will force itself upon even the dullest mind, that if malice, hatred, and lying are allowed in the most important matters, and are practised by our leading men, there can be no harm in comparatively insignificant folk employing such tools in the minor matters of everyday life. And so it comes about, to use the words of John Morley, "that the coarsest political standard is undoubtedly and finally applied over the whole realm of human thought."
Injurious to Legislation.
On the one hand, a leader is lavishly panegyrised for his highmindedness, in suffering himself to be driven into his convictions by his party. On the other, a party is extolled for its political tact, in suffering itself to be forced out of its convictions by its leader. It is hard to decide which is the more discreditable and demoralising sight.
Mr——was diametrically opposed to the bill, but as he had annexed himself to a certain extent to the Government party, he should vote for the second reading.*
Mr——had full confidence that the present Minister of Lands would not abuse the power placed in his hands by this bill, but at the same time he did not like the principle of it, and if he were on the Opposition side of the House he should no doubt protest strongly against it.†
The evil of which we have to complain arises from this—that each member of the House of Commons has at the same time to perform two different duties. When you are voting here for a measure for the City of Glasgow you only think whether the measure is a good one or a bad one according to your judgment, and you give your votes, whatever they may be. But when you are in the House of Commons voting for a measure, do you also think, "How will this effect my principal object, to turn out the Government to which I object if I pass this bill, and give the Government the credit of passing a useful measure which may confirm them in their seats? I had better oppose this bill; I had better vote for any amendment which may throw out the bill, or I had better make a long speech which will occupy the time in which the bill would otherwise pass." That double object pursues, and necessarily must pursue, all party men, to whatever side they belong, but it has a most disastrous effect upon legislation.
An interesting comment on this quotation occurred not very long after the speech was made. The spectacle might then have been seen—a spectacle that would have been ludicrous if it had not been so demoralising—of a large number of honourable and worthy old Tories, hating the very idea of free education, and yet deliberately voting against their consciences and following their leader into the Tory lobby with the sole object of keeping their party in power, and "dishing the Whigs."
* 'Otago Daily Times,' 22nd August, 1891.
† Ibid, 8th September, 1891.
We have not yet touched on the great waste of time, ability, and energy, due to our present method of legislation. It has become the regular custom, in the Lower House at all events, for the greater part of the day and night to be spent in rabid attacks by one side on the other, in mutual recriminations, in raising points of order and questions of privilege; and often it is only when the physically speaker members have been obliged to retire to bed, and when those remaining are in body, brain, and temper, absolutely unfit to carefully criticise the simplest bill, that the real business of the country is approached. Both sides of the House keep their "eternal vigilance" merely for watching each other—like cat and dog; they use the best of their brain power and their animal vitality for party free fights, and when at last they come to legitimate business, they can only bring to its consideration disordered tempers and jaded intellects. In consequence, we have a protracted and expensive session in which much ill-blood is roused, but very little good work done. Acts are passed, the meaning of which can only be decided by much fighting in courts of law; and, even when the meaning is clear, they are usually so ill-considered that an amending act is absolutely necessary the next session Much of the most important business is left to the last few days of the session, when an unscrupulous Government will often attempt to rush, through a worn-out and inattentive House, measures of very doubtful character—measures which would have had no chance whatever before a House alive to its real duties and responsibilities. The choice of bills to be thus rushed through is entirely in the hands of the Government. However useful and important a bill may be, if its passing is of no immediate interest to the members of the Government, it is ruthlessly sacrificed; it is added to that long list of failures—of witnesses to the folly of our system of legislation—which are abandoned in a mass at the end of every session. So regular has this system become that the "Massacre of the Innocents"—as the newspapers call it—is now one of our best known phrases of political slang.
Such, though but briefly touched upon, are some of the worst of the evils directly due to the fact that legislation has been taken out of the hands of Parliament, where it rightly belongs, and placed in the hands of Ministers who should be devoting their whole attention to what is still their main, and should be their sole, function—administration.
Effect on Administration.
In addition to inexperience, corruption in administration is also inseparable from the Party system, more especially in a young country with a Public Works Fund to administer, and with several departments of a more or less socialistic character on its hands. Self-preservation being the first law of nature, a Party Government is actually obliged to reward its own supporters or their constituents. We need not go to Canada for "dreadful examples;" they can be found much nearer home. It is quite unnecessary, however, and might seem invidious to mention particular cases. We have all heard of roads and bridges, new gaols, political railways, loans to local bodies, harbour board acts, and so on. This necessity of buying party support is one of the main reasons for that steady deterioration, both in character and ability, so noticeable among the men from whom our rulers have to be chosen. On the one hand we see the welfare and prosperity of New Zealand entrusted to men whom we should be sorry to trust to manage our own small business affairs, or even to invest for us our few hundred pounds of savings; and on the other hand we all know good business men—born administrators—who absolutely decline to soil their fingers with politics, who will not condescend to the intrigues and immoralities, and the dirty work inseparable from our party system. It is unnecessary to enlarge on the immense loss that New Zealand suffers, both directly and indirectly, from such a state of things as this.
It is worthy of note, as showing the intimate relation between the Party system and corrupt administration, that the latter seems to increase page 13 indirect ratio to the more perfect development of the former. It is in the United States—though their system of government differs from our own in several important particulars—that we see the control of politics by artificial parties carried nearest to a logical perfection; and it is there, and there only, that we see the hideous custom (justified by Andrew Jackson's motto, "To the victors the spoils") of turning out of office, on the accession of another party to power, every civil servant employed by the previous Government. We have not as yet come to that pitch in this country; but there are not wanting signs that, as party organisation improves, we are tending in that direction. We have found it possible, however, to disorganise our Civil Service pretty completely without going to this extreme length. It has become a matter of common remark that no self-respecting young san of ability will enter the Government offices if he can find suitable work elsewhere; and this is directly traceable to the want of continuity in the management of the different departments. Each newly-appointed Minister considers it necessary to show his energy and his fitness for his post by reversing, as far as possible, the practice of his predecessor; by re-arranging the staffs of the different offices, and so on. Of what use is it to offer a Civil servant a pension liter thirty years' employment, if no amount of honest work and attention to his duties will prevent him being discharged at the end of twenty-nine years and six months by some jack-in-office, "dressed in a little brief authority," who probably has some political supporters so reward? If Party Government is to remain in force in New Zealand it is evident that before very long it will be found necessary, if we are to retain any men of ability in the Civil Service, to treat all the departments as has been found advisable with the railways, and take them out of the control of Ministers altogether. In France this interference of parties with the Civil Service has extended to the Department of Justice*; and even from this defilement we cannot, in New Zealand, be said to have kept our hands absolutely clean. The notorious "Judge Edwards' case" is probably, when considered in all its bearings, the most disgraceful incident that has yet occurred in any of these colonies. It reflects discredit on the Ministry who appointed him, and did not insist on provision being made for his salary; it reflects still more discredit on the Ministry who flatly refused to rectify this error, and, while allowing a Judge of the Supreme Court to work without salary, did their best to bully him into resigning; and it reflects, perhaps, most discredit of all on a House that allowed itself to be made a catspaw for the wreaking of private and professional spite.
* See 'Fortnightly Review,' March, 1891.
Ministers cannot be punished for wickedness of policy, however great, for folly, however disastrous, except if it should be in violation of an express statute—a circumstance never likely to occur. They are not punishable, even by solemn personal censure, for any wrong use of the enormous power committed to them, so long as they act together as a Party, observing the forms of routine. The fundamental idea of a Party is, that after they have collectively agreed on a policy, each individual is publicly to adopt it as his own, even though he dissuaded it previously in private, and is both to act for it, and to argue for it, as if he sincerely approved it. . . . . Out of this fundamental subjection of individuals to the corporate vote rises a necessary inference, that it shall be concealed how each voted in the Cabinet. The Ministry could never show their faces publicly, as unanimously promoting a certain measure, if it were known which of them had previously opposed this very measure. Of course that is kept in profound darkness. Not only so; but each one of them, being liable to the humiliation of having to argue: in solemn Parliament against his secret sentiments, demands that no record shad be kept of the reasonings and votes in which his sincere judgment was testified. This is the essential difference between a Cabinet (which is nothing but a cabal), and a legitimate Privy Council, like that of Queen Elizabeth. In the latter, a register is kept of every proceeding which leads to practical result; the presence of all is enforced; and each member signs his name for permanent record of his vote. It is then open afterwards to demand of the Sovereign the names of those who have given pernicious advice; hence to enforce responsibility, though always difficult, is not wholly impossible. But so long as it is uncertain which of them opposed in secret Cabinet the baneful acts which they collectively carried out, no legal punishment is imaginable, nor indeed any strong ban of Parliamentary opinion. On the ministry collectively no worse punishment can possibly fall than than of losing office temporarily; a lot which ordinarily befalls the m st innocent of cabinets' from mere accident, as from the death of a leading man. And the contingency of such temporary displacement is called Responsibility! Ejectable, not responsible, is the word which describes the fact. Moreover, when they are ejected,' the indignation which ejects them is cumulative: the final act is an occasion, not the cause: hence their worst deeds avoid any public stignia and often any Parliamentary discussion.*
* 'Westminster Review,' April 1858.
† "Reprsentative Government in England."
Expense of Party System.
The Party System Anti-Democratic.
Government by Party is usually spoken of as if it were the same thing is government by the majority. This is a great mistake It is true, as I have said, that the Government of the day is now chosen from the majority in Parliament, but it by no means follows from this that the Government is carried on by a Parliamentary majority; on the contrary, we know that Government by Party is not government by the majority, but government by the majority of the majority—that is to say, the majority of the party which has a majority in the House. And this majority of a majority may be, and often is, really a minority of Parliament. Let me explain what I mean by an illustration. . .The Government introduce a bill, some of the details of which are not acceptable to more than a bare majority of their supporters. The ministerial minority wish to amend it, and the amendments which they desire would also be acceptable to the whole of the Opposition. But ministers refuse to give way, and the bill is eventually carried, the whole of the ministerial following voting for it rather than break up the ministry. In this ease the majority of the majority would be a very small minority of the whole House. Government by Parly and government by the majority are therefore two very different things. Indeed, party interests are often antagonistic to Parliamentary government, or government by the majority.*
The balance between the two sides of the House in this country being usually very even, say within three or four votes, it becomes a very easy matter for a third party, compact and unanimous, though numerically weak and insignificant, to bargain and intrigue with both rides—playing off one party against the other—until it discovers which is the more amenable to pressure—that is to say. Which is the least conscientious and the most anxious for office. Such a third party as this, though it may only consist of half a dozen members, is said to "bold the balance of power," and by the skilful use of ordinary party tactics—by giving support in exchange for concessions—it is enabled to keep one side of the House in power so long as its demands are acceeded to; and thus it practically imposes its will on the majority, and so governs the country. That this is no fancy picture will be at once evident to any student of colonial politics, and that it is an essentially anti-democratic state of affairs no one can deny.
The advocates of Party Government do not indeed deny that their system is it variance with the principle of representation. Nav, more they frankly admitpage 18 the fact, though, strangely enough, they nevertheless, cling tenaciously to their theory. "Parliamentary Government," says Earl Grey, "is essentially a government by means of party . . . . . . .The House of Commons owes its success as an active part of the supreme authority, and its peculiar excellencies, to what are regarded as defects and departures from the principle in our representative system . . . . . . . .and it is chiefly through these defects that the Ministers of the Crown have been enabled to obtain the authority they have exercised in the House of Commons." Parliamentary Government and Party Government are here represented as synonymous—a mistake which runs throughout Earl Grey's book on the subject. But what we have here more particularly to note is, first, the admission that Party Government owes its success to "defects and departures" from the principle of representation; and, secondly, the statement that it is owing to these very defects and departures that "the Ministers of the Crown have been enabled to obtain the authority they have exercised in the House of Commons" According to Earl Grey, therefore. Party Government has had the happy effect of enabling Ministers to obtain "authority" in the House, and it is carried on for the benefit of ministers, and in order to enable them to coerce Parliament. And no doubt, in this respect, the system has succeeded admirably. Party Government has placed Parliament at the feet of the Ministry of the day . . . . . . .But is it really desirable that Ministers of the Crown should exercise authority over Parliament? Is it not desirable rather that Parliament should exercise authority over Ministers? Is it not an essential principle of Parliamentary Government that Ministers should be held responsible to Parliament instead of Parliament being held responsible to Ministers? What, may I ask, would become of the authority of Parliament if the principle enunciated by Earl Grey were carried out in its integrity? The theory that Ministers of the Crown, who shape their policy and prepare their measures in secret, should be permitted to force that policy and these measures on the representative body, whose Ministers they virtually are and to whom alone they are responsible, is so monstrous that it is difficult, to understand how it can find acceptance amongst intelligent men at the present day.
* "Representative Government in England," D. Syme.
It is only necessary to add to this able discussion of the position that in the Colonies, where members are paid, and where professional politicians abound—men, that is, who go into politics in order to make a living by it—the power of (political) life and death which a Ministry holds over its followers (by means of threats of resignation or dissolution), is a far more formidable implement of coercion than it is in England.
The Party System and State Socialism.
The "Auckland Herald," referring to the co-operative works at Pahiatua, says:—"A number of men were employed at Pahiatua, who were to be paid according to the measurements of the proper officer of the Public Works Department. That officer did his work, and as he had no interest in defrauding th men we have no doubt that his measurements were accurate and fair. But th men, knowing this to be a Liberal Government, disputed these measurements, an page 19 apparently they confided their case to the Wellington Trades and Labour Council. The Ministers state to that Council that they believe the measurements of their officer to be accurate, but offer to 'split the difference.' They do not consider the money to be due, but they make the offer 'simply as an indication on the part of the Government that they desire to act generously with the men.' The 'generosity' is to be exercised with the money wrung from the taxpayers by the yellow papers that have been in circulation lately. Have Ministers a right to be 'generous' with public money? The fact is that the generosity is inspired by the belief that the Trades and Labour Council can make and unmake Ministers, while those who pay the taxes have very little power or say in the matter. It would simplify proceedings if after this the Public Works Department received instructions to add one-half to the measurements of all these co-operative works."
Apart from the sweetening of public life, what seems to me to specially recommend the abolition of Party Government is the near advent of 'Collectivism.' The combination of State Socialism with Party Government in a purely democratic state can lead but to one goal national debauch, ending in national collapse. We see the thing working out before our eyes in Australia—a reck ess piling up of debt to create wages, each party outbidding the other in the evil competition, no party able to hold power for many months without sending to London to procure the sops with which to quiet its Cerberus. . . . .But there are other ways of reaching disaster besides bankruptcy. If the struggle for place and the rancour of political life (in England) were to maintain their present level at a time when 40 per cent, of the electorate were in state or municipal employ, it would be impossible to maintain any order in the finances, any discipline in the services, any method in administrative business. In struggling madly for the votes of the state stokers, the municipal milkmen, and the district dentists, the politicians would outbid one another in promises of high pay, short hours, easy tasks, and early pensions, until the whole fabric of English life came down in one mighty crash. We see a foretaste already of what would happen in the sordid manoeuvring for the police vote, the postal vote, and the school-teacher vote in constituencies where such votes are potent."
The Present Political Position.
"Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born."
In the old world the Government was composed of Ministers of the Crown in fact as well as in name. They were Ministers of the Crown and masters of the people. Now, although retaining the old name, they have become ministers of the people, but this simple fact with its wide consequences is not yet fully realised, still less accepted. Professor Huxley has hit off the present transition period very happily by a characteristic definition of what he calls "The Modern Coach-dog Theory of Premiership—i.e., that "the whole duty of a political chief is to look sharp for the way the social coach is driving, and then run in front and bark loud—as if being the leading noise-maker, and guiding, were the same thing." The fact is, the, political chief is page 20 trying to combine two incompatible theories of government—the old one, when the people were given such laws as their "betters" (that is, their superiors in station and education) considered good for them, and the new one, under which they simply give their mandates to their ministers. The people do not want to be "guided" any more, they want to go their own way and work out their own salvation. Whether they are equal to the task, whether this is folly or wisdom on their part, has really nothing to do with the question now before us; the main point is that this is undoubtedly the "spirit of the age," and that, to use an Americanism, it appears to have "come to stay." Neither is there any doubt that the people have every right to make such trial of their powers, and that, if we are wise, we shall endeavour to make the best of the new situation. Under the old theory the Party system, though always unreasonable, had a few practical advantages; under the new theory it is simply a hopeless and even dangerous anachronism. We know on good authority the disastrous result of attempting to keep new wine in old bottles. Let us try to suit our institutions to the new order of things. We have seen that Party Government is a corrupt system. It demoralises all who have anything to do with it, from the Premier to the Press. It is founded on warfare. It has the morality of war for its only morality, and it entails the same waste—and worse than waste—of time, ability, and energy. It is probably the worst mode of government that could have been pitched upon for the management of the affairs of a small democratic Colony, with politics chiefly of a commercial and municipal nature. In short, it must be abolished.
In my judgment, the institutions of Parliament and the institutions of the municipalities of this country are rather running a race against each other. They both of them have to provide laws for the government and comfort of the people. To the municipalities undoubtedly are assigned the less important laws, and to Parliament the more important, but that is not the only difference between them. There is another difference—that the laws which the municipalities, within their powers pass, are quickly despatched, carefully considered, conceived in a workmanlike shape and effect the results for which they were designed. The laws that Parliament passes are only passed after infinite and heart-rending delay. They appear in a crude and mutilated form. Every salient point is rubbed down in order to enable them to pass through the narrow channel that is open to them, and the result at the end is that they have been so well arranged and so well conceived that an amending act is necessary next year.
A British Ministry is an executive committee chosen by the House of Commons to carry on the government of the country. The House of Commons differs from every other public body in choosing its executive exclusively from the majority, assigning to the minority no share of either the pleasures or responsibilities of office. In a model Town Council the various executive departments are managed by committees on which the majority and minority are represented roughly in proportion to their strength in full council. The result of thus associating the minority with the work of administration is to beget good-feeling and loyalty, and to minimise factious obstruction. The Councillor feels that his first duty is to the Council, his second to his party within it. The town presents a proud and united front to outsiders. Progress is continuous and assured. Why not extend this system to the highest of all Councils—the House of Commons? No one can study English politics for a week without being convinced that there is something fundamentally wrong in a system which forces men, members of the same State, bound together by the strongest and most sacred ties of history, kinship, and interest, to revile one another as traitors, cowards, tyrants, and pettifogging, cozening knaves. If our political opponents were what we say they are, we should go forth and hang ourselves for very shame at the thought that they are our brethren. What fiend is it that thus impels us to these insane orgies of slander? Briefly, it is the thirst for place and power.
We must first consider what are the reforms we want. We want legislative and administrative functions separated, so that Ministers shall not be liable to be turned out of office owing to the passing or not passing of any particular measure. We want an Executive experienced and pure. The former we can insure by having the individual Ministers irremovable except by effluxion of time or a direct vote of censure. The purity we cannot absolutely guarantee, but; we can have great hopes of it when the main source of corruption—the Party System—is abolished. Then we want to be able to select our Executive from among the whole of the ablest men in New Zealand, and not only from among less than half of them; and, when they are selected, we want to be able to claim their services for the good of their country, and not let them "give up to Party what was meant for mankind." We want to stop the corruption of constituencies, and of members of the House, and also the dangerous outbidding of each other for the popular vote, by taking away from governments, not only the alleged necessity for, but even the slightest temptation to, such corruption; and from members themselves the fear of a dissolution if they do not vote according to orders. We want to make for ever impossible such scandals as the Judge Edwards case, or the spectacle of Ministers of the Crown actively electioneering for a supporter at bye-elections in Taranaki and Wellington; not to mention such minor disgraces as the unseemly squabbles between Ministers and ex-Ministers, and the general lying. "hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness," that pervade the political world. We want to raise the tone of the House, as a deliberative assembly; to shorten the Sessions by one-half; to make the position of the representatives of the people more independent, and at the same time to take away from them all temptation to speak or vote against their consciences. In short, we want to make the Ministers of the Crown the servants of the House, and so to substitute Parliamentary for Party Government.
The nomination of the Executive by Parliament would, in my opinion, bring about a vast and beneficial change in the government of the country It would put an end to the dominating influence of the Premier, and destroy the unity of the Cabinet. Parliament could then remove at pleasure any Minister whose conduct it disapproved of. It would have the selection of Ministers in its own hands, and the best men from both sides of the House would be eligible for office in the same way as the Speaker is now. The selection would not be from one section of Parliament, but from all sections, and the Ministry would represent all shades of opinion. At present one-half of the best men in Parliament are permanently excluded from office. There would also be a possibility of differentiating the functions of administration and legislation. Both kinds of functions are now exercised by the Cabinet. Ministers attempt too much when they undertake to administer the affairs, and at the same time to provide legislative measures for a great empire. The functions of administration are sufficiently onerous and important to engage their undivided attention. By relieving them of the business of legislation, which properly belongs to Parliament, there would be some chance of obtaining an efficient system of departmental supervision, while by leaving Parliament unhampered by considerations of changes of Government it would be able to devote itself zealously to the work of legislation. If the heads of departments found it necessary to recommend legislation, their proposals would, no doubt, be impartially considered by Parliament. In this, as in other matters. Ministers would take their instructions from Parliament, not Parliament from Ministers, as at present. Probably it might be necessary, in order to prevent the time of the House being wasted in discussing the various proposals which might be introduced by private members, to appoint a Legislative Committee to examine and report, as is now done in France and in several Continental States, where Parliamentary Government exists. The whole system of Party Government could, in this manner, be quietly and effectually got rid of. There would be no striking at Ministers through their policy; no rejecting of good measures in order to bring about a change of Government. Members would be in a position to discuss measures on their merits, or, at all events, without permitting party questions to influence them. There would be no weak Governments, and no danger to the liberties of the people from too strong ones. As Ministers would not be appointed because they belonged to a party, there would be no motive for turning them out of office. They would be in deed and in truth the Ministers, not the masters of Parliament.*
The Swiss Constitute.
* "Representative Government in England."
In order to draw attention to what are, for our purpose, some of the most important features of the Swiss Constitution, I purpose quoting a few words from the "Swiss Confederation," by Sir F. O. Adams and Mr. Cunningham, the most recent and most reliable authority on the subject. I should premise that I am responsible for any italics used in these extracts. Passing over the local government of the Communes and the Cantons, which is however well worth study, as perhaps the most thorough system of local government in the world, we will come at once to the Federal Assembly and the Federal Council, the two powers by which the federal sovereignty is exercised, the former being the Parliament, and the latter the executive government.
The Federal Assembly consists of two chambers, viz., the National Council and the Council of the States. The former emanates from the people, the latter from the Cantons," and together they form the legislative government of the country. "The National Council is elected for a period of three years in the month of October. After the commencement; of the session at Bern the following December, the two Chambers meet together and elect the seven members of the Federal Council, or executive government of the Confederation, chosen, also for three years, from among all Swiss citizens eligible for the National Council. . . . If during his three years of office any member resigns or dies, his place is filled up for the remainder of the triennial period by the Assembly at its next meeting."It is noticeable that the choice of members of the Federal Council is not limited to members of the Assembly. Still, "the constant though not invariable practice since 1848 has been for each member to be chosen out of the Assembly. . . . This previous election is considered to be a proof of the confidence and attachment of the voters to a fellow-citizen, and he takes his place in the executive government, holding his office indeed directly from the Assembly, but at the same time vested with popular confidence equally with the other deputies. Supplementary elections are then held in order to fill up the seats vacated by those deputies who have become Federal Councillors, as they cannot, during their tenure of office as such, be Deputies an well."
The business of the Federal Council is divided among seven departments, each presided over by one of its seven members, who probably keeps his particular post for several years, and who has for his substitute, during absence, another page 24 member of the Council appointed as such by that body. . . . Matters of importance are discussed and decided at the regular council meetings, which are generally held twice a week. . . . All the members (of the Council) have the right to speak in either Chamber, of which they avail themselves whenever their presence is required, or in deed whenever they wish to take part in the debates but they cannot vote. Perhaps the most remarkable sight is that which occasionally occurs when a debate arises in either Chamber upon a question where the difference of opinion of members of the Federal Council is very [unclear: market], and it has happened that two of the body have risen in succession to support dissimilar views. The debate once over, no particular friction results between the two colleagues; both victor and vanquished may spend the evening at the same café, continue their discussion amicably, or not at all and they will sit serenely together on the morrow in Cabinet Council as if nothing particular had happened.
(That our authors should consider such a simple occurrence as this a "most remarkable sight" speaks volumes for the virulence which the Party system has artificially created in the minds of English politicians.)
The members of the Federal Council are re-eligible, and in point of fact the same individuals remain in office for a number of years, notwithstanding the existence of well-known differences among themselves and between some of them and a majority in the Assembly. There have been hitherto only two instances of a member wilting to nerve not being re-elected. . . . The Federal Council, having been elected by the Federal Assembly for three years, cannot be dissolved by that body in the interim any more than it can itself dissolve the Assembly. It does not in any way depend on the majority in the Assembly. Its members, each in his own department, prepare bills and resolutions either suggested by one of the Chambers, or of their own initiative, and these measures when agreed to by the Council, or even by a majority of its members, are submitted to the Chambers. . . . Federal Councillors do not represent the majority in the Assembly, otherwise they would now be all either Democrats or Radicals. There is a certain understanding, one might almost say a certain feeling of fair play, which leads the majority in the Chambers to concede the principle that other parties should at least be represented in the executive government; and, again, a conservative vice-president, who is almost certain in any case to be elected president for the ensuing year, often succeeds to that office by an almost unanimous vote. . . . The practical harmony between the members is secured by the minority giving way to the majority, if the whole body cannot agree among themselves to a compromise.
Collisions between the Federal Council and the Federal Assembly do not exist. If any measure proposed by the former is rejected by both Chambers, or by one, and thus does not become valid, the Federal Council .... accepts the rejection; it asks for no vote of confidence, nor does anything ensue in the shape of what we should call a Ministerial crisis. Similarly, there is no question of a dissolution of the Chambers when the people reject measures passed by them. The Federal authorities, whether legislative or executive, being chosen for a fixed term, remain at their posts during that term. In 1882 a measure relating to education, . . . which was avowedly the work of one member of the Federal Council, had passed both Chambers with some modifications, but was nevertheless rejected when submitted to the Referendum. There was, however, no question of its author giving in his resignation, as might well have been expected by many foreigners. So far, indeed, from this being the case, an influential Swiss newspaper, totally opposed to him in politics, remarked that it was lucky the Parliamentary system did not exist in Switzerland, as otherwise there would have been an immediate resignation of a capable, honest, and devoted administrator.
(It is very suggestive to compare the tone of that remark with the style of comment we should find in a "party organ" under similar circumstances.)
The members of the Federal Council, we will venture to affirm, yield to no page 25 other Government in Europe in devotion to their country, in incessant hard work for a poor salary, and in thorough honest and incorruptibility.
Race Prejudices Deprecated.
But such a line of defence of the Party system is as unworthy as it is childish and futile All that we need can, as already pointed out, be evolved from purely British precedents, if we so desire it. There is no need to slavishly copy Switzerland or any other country. Consideration, for instance, of what are supposed to be purely Swiss constitutional characteristics—such as the Referendum and the various modes of Initiation—could be postponed indefinitely; though the Referendum, which is after all in principle merely a custom of our Teutonic forefathers, might possibly some day be adopted with advantage. But, even if all the proposals suggested were of foreign instead of British origin—if their adoption is shown to be distinctly advantageous to us—why, in the name of common sense, should we refuse them? Why not "take our goods where we can find them," as the French say? When we find a democratic country where "the sessions usually last about three weeks," and where the members of Parliament treat each other as gentlemen, why should we not study this phenomenon, and see whether it be not worthy, and possible, of imitation? Fortunately the "Constitutional Reform Committee," appointed by the House of Representatives last session to consider this question, adopted this sensible view of the matter, with the result given in the Appendix. I have not yet touched on the report of this Committee, for the simple reason that most of these pages were written before the Committee was appointed. The Committee was a thoroughly representative one, and their unanimous report, though brief, contains the gist of the whole matter. The only pity is that it was not circulated in every constituency in the Colony in hundreds instead of in units.page 26
More light on the subject is really all that is needed to insure this constitutional reform being insisted on by the electors. It is a commonplace—and a true one—not only of visitors to our shores, but of New Zealanders also, that New Zealand is "a grand country ruined by bad government." No profound political physician is needed to diagnose the disease, to
Strike his finger on the place
And say thou ailest here, and here!
A little study and thought are alone required to prove to any man of average intelligence that all our political evils have sprung from our radically unsuitable and unsound system of government. And, the nature and causes of the disease in the body politic once ascertained, the logical remedy is obvious. Let us adopt it without hesitation or delay. The evils and errors of the past cannot be undone; they must prejudicially affect us, although in a gradually lessening degree, for all time to come; but let us at least take the only adequate means to prevent our adopted country—perhaps the most liberally endowed by nature of all the lands of the earth—from sinking still further in the mire, from sinking, indeed, to such a depth as to make recovery problematical and national disgrace inevitable.