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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 73

Evening Post. — What the Country Thinks

Evening Post.

What the Country Thinks.

As we anticipated, there has been but one verdict throughout the country in regard to the Buller-M'Kenzie episode. Nearly all the newspapers, from one end of the Colony to the other—North and South, town and country. Government organs and Opposition papers alike—have joined hands in condemning the conduct of the Minister of Lands and in applauding the prompt action taken by Sir Walter Buller in defence of his name and reputation. We have looked in vain for a single discordant note; and, of course, the opinions of the press in such a matter are but the reflex of the feeling of the country. One of the most incisive articles on the subject is that which appears in the Lyttelton Times. The lengthy telegraphic report of the incident itself—from the pen of its Wellington correspondent, who is known to be a strong Government partisan—is entirely in Sir Walter's favour. He says:—"Sir Walter gave a magnificent exhibition of forensic ability. He proved himself a man of method, readiness and resource. Though no charges were formulated, though the notice to him was of the briefest—barely half the afternoon—he appeared armed at all points with documents facts, and Blue-book extracts. The cross examination found him ready at all points—cool, collected, well-informed, debonnair and invariably polite. No one has ever displayed the same firmness and ease at the Bar, which has searched many a man and found him wanting." Commenting on the whole affair this extreme Government journal say—"After a calm review of the circumstance we cannot avoid the conclusion that the Speaker and the House acted hastily in adjudging Sir Walter Buller guilty of bread of privilege, even in the narrowest technical sense. . . . So far from Sir Walter threatening the Minister on account of what he had said in Parliament, he simply invited Mr. M'Kenzie to repeat the words 'outside,' so that he might have an opportunity of defending himself. There was no questions of the Minister's right to do as he had done and no menace to prevent him doing the same from his place in the house as often as he chose. . . . Sir Walter Buller has gained immensely by the action of the Minister in raising a question of privilege, and he may well be content to let the matter rest where it now stands. He has vindicated himself before the House and the public, and has shown his readiness to submit himself to the judgment of any independent tribunal." Discussing this question of privilege, the Christchurch Press says:—"It was never intended that Parliamentary privilege should be used by members as an assassin uses a hedge—to afford safe cover for himself while he shoots down a defenceless man, either to gratify his personal ends or private spite. . . . That Mr. M'Kenzie should convert the privilege of Parliament into a weapon against the man he has attacked, for daring to ask him to come out into the open, was almost sublime in its assurance. The public, however, have long ceased to expect even the rudiments of Parliamentary propriety from the Minister of Lands. A man whose ultima ratio is a pickle-bottle cannot be expected to set a high standard of good breeding in the House We cannot say, therefore, that we are altogether surprised at his conduct, deeply as we regret it." And, in the same strain, the Otago Daily Times says:—"The Minister spoke under cover of Parliamentary privilege, and privilege again protected him in dealing with Sir Walter's protest. We have no wish to belittle the privileges of the House but we do say that the Minister for Lands has treated Sir Walter Buller with almost incredible meanness. It was bad enough to cover himself with a shield of privilege when making odious charges, and then to pounce page 25 down upon his antagonist for committing a technical breach of that same privilege (if breach, indeed, there was); but it was far worse, when the charges had been clearly disproved, to refuse to make any reparation, even of a verbal character, and sullenly to repeat the offensive charges. The Dunedin Star writes:—'The Horowhenua Block has been for some time a very sore subject with the Minister of lands, whose 'little game' in regard to the acquirement and disposal of the block was exposed in Parliament and frustrated in the Supreme Court. Rightly or wrongly, he attributes his decided worsting in the matter to Sir Walter Buller, who has been concerned professionally for Major Kemp. When the Bill designed for the purpose of validating the purchase by the Crown of a portion of the land included—a purchase ruled by the Court to have been completed with persons unauthorised to sell—was in Committee, Mr. H. D. Bell made some very strong remarks as to the measure, which, he said, interfered with private rights, and was an attempt to over-ride a decision of the Supreme Court. The Minister thereupon charged Mr. Bell with being the mouth-piece of Sir Walter Buller, and proceeded to attack Sir Walter in a most violent manner, using language not only abusive but scurrilous. The powers of Mr. John M'Kenzie in this respect are well known, and it is not the first time this session that he has thus forgotten the respect he owes to the colony as a Minister of the Crown. . . Sir Walter certainly made a clear and explicit statement at the Bar of the House, giving absolute denial to the serious accusations of the Minister; whilst Mr. M'Kenzie subsequently declared that 'every word he had said was justified.' When, however, it comes to proving his charges in the only satisfactory manner possible he falls back on his Parliamentary privilege, and absolutely declines judicial investigation, practically reiterating what Sir Walter has the right under the circumstances to stigmatise as slanders. . . . Whatever grounds Mr. M'Kenzie may have for his charges, he is manifestly afraid to 'face the music,' and so long as he continues firing behind the hedge of privilege, must be content to rest under very unpleasant imputations." The Wanganui Chronicle remarks:—It is not to the credit of a Liberal Speaker, a Liberal premier, and a Liberal majority, that they should have been the people to apply the 'gag' to Her Majesty's subjects," and it expresses satisfaction that in this instance some of the ablest and best of the Government papers have spoken out with no uncertain sound. The New Zealand Herald discusses the matter in a very impartial spirit, and, after reviewing the case at considerable length, concludes—"The privilege of Parliament is granted for wise purposes, but it would be a shocking thing if Parliamentary privilege is to be used for the cowardly purpose of libelling the characters of men outside the House, who are to have no means whatever of vindicating themselves. . . It was, of course, carried by a large majority that Sir Walter Buller, in asking to have an opportunity of clearing his character, was guilty of the awful crime of breach of privilege, and at the evening sitting he was duly arraigned. His defence was explicit and frank, and evidently impressed the House. . . . . The general opinion of friend and foe alike is that the Minister of Lands has come very badly out of his conflict with Sir Walter Buller. He utterly failed to substantiate his grave charges against Sir Walter. At the half-past five adjournment the feeling of the House was certainly with the Minister, but after Sir Walter had been heard, and had submitted himself to a most severe cross-examination by the Minister of Lands, and had fully and fairly answered numerous questions put by other members, there was distinct evidence that members as a whole had completely changed their opinions. The decisive change of the attitude of the House on this occasion is satisfactory, as showing that at least when a man's honour is at stake fair play and justice can in some measure triumph over party feeling and prejudices." Reviewing the special legislation, the same journal says:—"The effect of the judgment of the Supreme Court is to place in great jeopardy the money paid by the Government to Warena Hunia's account. A clause has been added to the Bill empowering a Commission to examine into the whole transaction. We were of opinion before that such a clause was absurd, as the whole of the facts connected with the block have been brought out before the Native Lands Court, the Supreme Court, and a Committee of the House of Representatives. But the Commission is imperative now, after the statement made by Mr. J. Mckenzie that Sir Walter Buller, a Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of St. Michael and St. George, a zealous friend of Ministers, who has represented the colony on many great occasions, and who has been spoken of as a likely Agent-General, 'ought to be in gaol for his dealings with the natives.'" We might go on quoting from the newspapers without end, but it is not necessary. The country papers, large and small, are all in the same strain, one of the Government organs venturing to declare that "never in the history of the present Parliament has a Minister brought such ignominy upon his colleagues as has the Minister of Lands in the present instance," and concluding with these words:—"Parliamentary privilege may be necessary. It may be useful under certain circumstances. But when it is used to inflict an injury upon a private individual, without giving that individual the right to reply, it becomes a menace to Parliament and a disgrace to the Constitution." The South Canterbury Times concludes an article thus:—"Sir Walter's letter has been declared a breach of the privilege of a member page 26 of Parliament to say what he pleases of anyone not in Parliament, and technically that decision must be accepted. But this does not alter the fact that Mr. Mckenzie's remark was an abuse of his privilege. He said 'If he were not to have free liberty of speech he had better leave the House and go back to his constituents.' Quite so. But if he demands unlimited license of speech, he had better leave the House and go back to his sheep." Another country paper, the Rangitikei Advocate, says:—"Sir Walter was absolutely without legal redress, and he, therefore, not only published a denial of the libellous statements of the Minister, but invited him to repeat the statements outside the precincts of Parliament, so that he might have an opportunity of proof or disproof by an action at law. But, so far from accepting this very fair challenge, Mr. McKenzie has had it declared a breach of privilege, and refuses to come out from his Parliamentary shelter. The excuse for this cowardly shrinking from fair combat made by him and his colleagues—that there would be no chance of a member of the present Government obtaining justice from a Wellington jury, and probably not from a Judge of the Supreme Court—is a further gratuitous insult to Judges conspicuous for impartiality and to the public of Wellington. The plea is too thin. He is afraid of the chance offered him to substantiate his statements. The Supreme Court is, in fact, the only fair and competent tribunal available. The conclusions of a Royal Commission of members of Parliament would be laughed to scorn by the public."