The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
The excuse for passing the Government Railways Act of 1887 was the pretence that it would remove our railways from political influence. A very ordinary amount of reflection will show that it is utterly impossible to remove any railways from this influence.
The real question at issue in this matter is this: Shall the Government of the country influence and control the railways, or shall the railways influence and control the Government?
For many years the railways of America controlled the Senate, and did what they liked in railway legislation. There was political influence here of the worst possible kind, although every mile of railway was owned by private people.
In Great Britain, the railway interest exercises a most powerful political influence. Fifty-one railway directors are members of the House of Lords, and eighty-four are members of the House of Commons. It has already been found difficult to deal with this interest in the British Parliament.
If the ill-considered Act of 1887 is not speedily repealed, our railways will soon govern this country.
All that has been done is to remove them from the direct control of Parliament and place them under the control of three absolutely irresponsible men and the Ministry of the day. If the Ministry has no power over the railways, why do the Commissioners require to consult the Minister so frequently?
I do not believe in the sincerity of the wirepullers who promoted the Act of 1887. The worst form of political influence in connection with our railways is the log-rolling as regards lines of railway to be constructed. This matter (construction of railways) is left just where it was, except that under certain conditions corrupt influences could more easily be brought to bear.
Construction being still left as it was before, there are but two other ways in which the members of Parliament might exercise undue influence. First, in soliciting appointments for friends. I understand this to be the chief complaint; and second by securing concessions in rates and the granting of free passes.
The ready reply to charges of this kind is this: If the officers of the Department are so weak, and so corrupt, as to be amenable to influences of this sort, the evil has not been made less by their being placed in a position where no one can call their actions in question, and where they cannot be called upon, even by Parliament, to account for anything they may choose to do.
If it was desired to do away with the evils said to exist, there were far more effectual means of dealing with them.
When our Act was being framed, those who framed it had the Victorian Act before them, and Parliament and the country were deceived into the belief that this and our Act were identical. They have little or nothing in common.
In the Victorian Act there is a most admirable provision for the selection of employes; neither the Government nor the Commissioners appoint them. The Government appoints examiners for the various grades of railway work. When the Commissioners want men they are obliged to advertise for them. All who choose may apply to be examined, and those who pass ballot among themselves for the vacant posts.
Thus it will be seen that not only is it impossible for the Victorian railways to pass into the hands of a clique, but that fresh blood is always being introduced.
By passing an Act embodying this plan of appointment, our railways in this respect would be in reality, and not in name only, removed from political influence.
As to rates and free passes. The way to deal with that difficulty is to take all rates, fares, and charges down to the lowest possible point, and make them fixed for a number of years, and when alterations are made let them be made on a properly-defined system that shall be applicable to the whole colony. Free passes ought to be absolutely abolished.
By adopting these measures our working railways might remain under the direct control of the Government, and yet be completely removed from such political influences as are complained of.
It is in the matter of construction that the worst form of political influence has always been exercised.
All profits go to the Funds of the Railway Reform League.
It is well worth considering whether it would not be a wise thing to form a commission, say of the Judges of the Supreme Court, and four commercial men—two from each Island—and leave it to decide what lines in future shall be constructed.
If a system so open to corrupting influences as our system is to remain in force, corruption will sooner or later creep in; it is only a question of time; because we may commence with right men is no reason why we should continue with them, and we must never forget that the Commissioners have the right to delegate their powers. They also have the right to grant as many free passes as they choose.
What influence are our railways to exercise on the elections of the future? They may, and probably will, exercise a very serious influence. Of course it is dreadful to hint that this influence might be corrupt; but I have something to tell.
I contested Auckland North at the last general election. My committee went through the electoral roll, and struck out all that they knew to be "dead-heads," a very large number. Then they marked off all that they knew would vote for certain either on one side or the other. Finally, they sent through the post some 1500 circulars to those who were regarded as uncertain.
As I write I have before me 433 of these circulars returned through the Dead Letter Office, and marked "not found," although all these names were on the roll which had only recently been made up.
During the last eight months of 1889 my firm has sent through the Post Office nearly 13,000 letters and circulars. These were sent, not only all over Auckland city and suburbs, but all over the colony, and of these only 344 have been returned.
Thus we see that during an election 433 could not be found out of 1500 people whose addresses were on a recently-formed roll, and in one quarter of the city, while of 13,000 people, but not at election times—all are found with the exception of 344.
Is it possible that the Post Office was used for a political purpose; and if so, who used it, and what is to prevent our railways being used in a similar manner?
By the passing of the Act of 1887, the entire power and patronage of our railway system, with its 4326 appointments, has been placed in the hands of some six or eight families. A nice close borough has been formed here, and a plentiful crop of future trouble will arise. It is surely easy to see that a political influence is rapidly being created of a far worse character than anything we formerly had to contend with. Imagine what is meant by giving three absolutely irresponsible men the power to make 4326 appointments, and remember that in a few years, in the ordinary course of things, the number of these appointments must be enormously increased. Is there no political influence here? Will it not be far worse than anything we have hitherto experienced.
It is difficult to see what this matter may lead to. All these thousands of men hold their posts absolutely by the goodwill of the Commissioners. They therefore dare not offend them. Whatever may happen, they have no appeal, no remedy of any kind. If such powers are not sooner or later abused, then we shall have developed a new phase in human nature.
It must be remembered that there are no other railways in the colony on which discharged men can find employment.
In whatever interest the Government Railways Act of 1887 was framed it is quite certain that that interest was not the public interest, for there is not one syllable in it for the protection of public rights and interests. The whole thing looks to me like a bold, daring attempt on the part of an interested few to seize the whole power and patronage that a supreme and unbridled control of the railways of the colony would give them. If this was their object, for a time they have succeeded.
A heavy responsibility rests on the Hon. Edwin Mitchelson for forcing this important measure through a wearied House at the fag-end of a session. Very few of the members gave it a cordial support, most of them spoke very doubtfully as to the prospect of its leading to any good results, and many opposed it strongly. It was simply forced through the House by the Government majority.
A great deal more could be said, but I think it is apparent to everybody that the present system of railway administration is about as bad as bad can be. Its days are surely numbered.