The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
The Railway Problem in New Zealand. — No. 3
The Railway Problem in New Zealand.
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If the ill-considered Act of 1887 is not speedily repealed, our railways will soon govern this country.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.
What We Want.
We want a truly national transit system, one that shall meet the wants and requirements of the whole people. Our system does not provide for the wants of one-fourth of the community, hence its utter failure, financially and socially.
No man having a family to provide for, and an income of less than £300 a-year, can afford to use our railways, except to a very limited extent. This cuts out the whole artizan and labouring classes, shopmen, clerks, small shopkeepers, small farmer?, and numerous others. What I say is this: that this vast mass can only use our railways very occasionally, and to a very limited extent, while a very large portion of it, would if it could, make very great use of them.
If my statement is correct, and I will show further on that it is, it follows that what railway revenue—more especially passenger revenue—is now earned, is obtained from a very small proportion of the people.page 3
We want and must have, a system that will develope the trade that lies hidden among the great bulk of the people. This I say is a very easy matter, and our railway administrators must have been simple indeed not to have seen how to do it long ago.
We want, and badly want, cheap transit, but we want far more, an equalisation of transit charges, on a fair and just basis.
We want a system that will open up, not close, our great producing districts, a system that will enable the distant farmer to bring or send his produce to market without having all his profit eaten up in transit charges.
We want a system that will enable the city artizan, clerk, or labourer to make use of his special knowledge or strength in a town or district 100 or 300 miles away from the city he may now happen to find himself jammed up in.
We want a system of fixed charges. A system that will enable our producers and manufacturers to calculate accurately the cost of their various productions, and that will enable them to erect their factories in those situations that nature has pointed out as most suitable for their requirements.
We want a system that shall attract population to our shores, and promote settlement on our land; a system that shall make the barren lands of this country able to contribute their fair share of taxation, and go relieve the pressure of the heavy burden that now rests on a few only.
We want a simple system that can be understood by everybody; a system under which it shall no longer be necessary to "inquire at the station for your rate," but under which everyone will know what he has to pay, and will have to pay, for the same service for several years to come.
We want a system that shall reverse the present order of things, and make our railways act as distributors of population and wealth instead of concentrators of wealth into the hands of a few families, and population in a few great cities.
In short we want a system that shall practically annihilate distance as regards the cost of transit of passengers and goods; a system that will meet the requirements of every class, the poorest as well as the richest; a system that shall be thoroughly clear of the trickery, fraud, and mystery of the present one; a system that will go on ever widening instead of contracting its sphere of beneficial action; a system that, stead of showing a yearly increasing loss, shall show a yearly increasing gain, both directly and indirectly; and one that shall add to our happiness and prosperity; instead of to our misery and poverty as the present system does.
The question is, Can we have all this, and will not the cost be too great? I emphatically assert that we can have it all, nob only without any increased cost, but with immense relief to the taxpayer.
The great financiers of the old country have many times increased revenue by reducing taxation. We could do the same if we would. Here the only idea seems to be that to increase revenue you must increase taxation.
It is quite true that in this country no great increase of revenue could arise from reductions in the taxation on the necessities of life. The population is too small and too well off for that to have any effect. As regards food and clothing, nearly everybody is fairly well supplied. In the matter of travelling it is very different. There is a large field for development here, and I unhesitatingly assert that by largely reducing our charges we can greatly increase our revenue.
To do this, however, means a revolution. We want no namby-pamby work; no man at the head of affairs who must wait till the experiment has been tried somewhere else. No "concessions:" no mere "modifications in the direction of lowering rates on produce and merchandise for long distances," will do. Nothing short of the entire abolition of the present system, and the substitution of an entirely new one, will effect our purpose. This is now being done in other countries, and the sooner it is done here the better it will be for all of us.
February 12, 1890.
Note.—Nos. 1 and 2 of this series were published in the Herald of December 24, 1889, and Februarys, 1890, respectively.
Memo.—The papers on "Differential Rating," published previously should have formed No. 4 of this. They were published out of the regular order to supply the information asked for by the Railway Commissioners as to what was the meaning of the term "differential rating."