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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 73

Comments and Opinions of the Press. — The Breach of Privilege. — [Condensed Newspaper Narrative of Proceedings

page 21

Comments and Opinions of the Press.

The Breach of Privilege.

[Condensed Newspaper Narrative of Proceedings.

The excitement in the House and City over the question of Privilege culminated at 7.30 p.m., when the House resumed, and the galleries were densely packed to hear Sir Walter Buller on his defence. It resembled a popular Budget night, all the galleries being crowded to their furthest corners, the total number present, including the occupants of the Ladies' Gallery, which was closely packed, being upwards of 800.

It is a tremendous scene. The House itself is full, every member in his place. Every eye is on the Bar of the House. There it is—a yellow line shining bright across the gangway—and behind it is a man, with a bundle of papers beside him. It is Sir Walter Buller repelling the charges made against him; on him it is that every eye is turned; on his words every ear waits. Deep silence reigns throughout the Chamber; silence in company with the voice of him who is defending himself. He first expresses regret for having unwittingly committed a breach of privilege, and pleads the provocation he has received. He makes it clear that he denies in toto the allegations and accusations made against him; and his voice shudders as he repeats the opprobrious terms applied to him by the Minister of Lands. This exordium having cleared the ground, Sir Walter recounts the story of the Horowhenua Block, from the time of his becoming connected with it, and he goes quickly through till he reaches the final judgment of the Court of Appeal. "That judgment, Sir, placed the native owners back on their ancestral property. That was my only object; I was the cause of its successful attainment." he goes thence into the other charges. He takes his Whole history in his hand. Enormous business has gone through his hands. "I defy any man to lay a finger on a single transaction unbecoming a professional man or a gentleman."

Sir Walter's speech lasted just an hour, and was listened to with rapt attention; and, leaning composedly against the bar, he then asked to be subjected to an examination on any points not made clear. A scorching cross. examination ensued, chiefly by questions from the Minister of Lands through the medium of the Speaker, a few from Mr. Carroll, and one or two from other members. It was here Sir Walter came through the ordeal triumphantly.

The first question Sir Walter answers with accurate knowledge and full detail. The second question he answers as fully, and in argumentative fashion. The third, fourth, and fifth he answers promptly—names, dates, acreages, all arranged in his mind—speaking easily and with great self-possession and politeness. In his answer to the question as to Major Kemp's position, his voice rises to fighting ring. Getting from Horowhenua to the other Blocks, the Speaker pronounces the names, and Sir Walter corrects him firmly. Question and answer come quickly, and so on to the end.

Every question was answered promptly and clearly, facts, figures, and dates being given without hesitation. The Minister had apparently kept his strongest trump card for the last trick. He placed a copy of the lease of 510 acres in the Speaker's hands, and Sir Walter was asked—"Do you not hold this land at a peppercorn rent for six years, and after that at £64 per annum?" Then came the answer—full, clear, and conclusive; and this answer demolished the whole fabric of Mr. McKenzie's allegations. When Sir Walter had finished and retired, it was felt by all that he had completely cleared himself. His accuser had sat throughout with his chin on his chest, looking as if he wished the earth to open and swallow him up, and it was generally expected that he would apologise. The Premier rose, and putting on a melodramatic air, commenced thus:—"After such a punishment, which will deter anyone from committing such an offence again"—and was greeted with a chorus of "Ohs." He then preached a homily on the rights of members to liberty of speech, and concluded by moving "That Sir Walter Buller, having made his explanation and ex-pressed his regret, this House will not move further in the matter." Sir Robert Stout at once rose and said he thought the Minister of Lands ought to express regret for what he had said, and so preserve the dignity of the House. Mr. McKenzie said: "I do not intend to express regret. I repeat that he got a lease at a peppercorn rent, and I refuse to withdraw anything I said." He maintained (amid cries of dissent) that every word he had uttered had been proved by Sir Walter Buller's defence, and that he had nothing therefore to apologise for. He said the matter of that mortgage alone was full proof of the charges (cries of "Oh!"). This boorish and obstinate refusal to make any atonement produced a very unfavourable impression on the House and galleries.

Mr. Bell said that he had intended to ask the House to add to the motion that Sir Walter Buller had entirely cleared his character, but after the remarks of the Minister of Lands, who would block the vote, he did not dare to ask the House to pass the right reso- page 22 lution. He regretted that the House was suffering from a greater wrong within itself, which was nothing less than a disgrace to it.

Mr. G. W. Russell, who characterised the defence as noble, said that the Minister's charges against Sir Walter Buller had simply melted away before that gentleman's explanation: that, he believed, would be the opinion of nearly every member of the House on calm reflection. He felt that the Minister ought to take back his words.

Mr. Hoani Heke said he had been more than satisfied with the explanation. He considered that Sir Walter Buller had entirely cleared his character, and the House should say so.

Mr. Pirani said he had begun to listen to Sir Walter with adverse bias and had been converted fully by his complete defence on every point.

Mr. G. J. Smith and Mr. Earnshaw (who had spoken on the Minister's side in the fore-noon) declared that Sir Walter had, by his defence at the bar, cleared himself completely.

The Premier reminded the House that he had not asked them to go any further. He made a great point of not desiring to punish Sir Walter, as he had expressed regret to the House for having committed an unintentional breach of privilege. Mr. Seddon repeated this, as though he were showing great consideration for Sir Walter Buller, and seemed rather taken aback when one of his most consistent supporters (Mr. Maslin) shouted out that the "punishment" should go the other way. The Premier, continuing, said that there was one statement made by Sir Walter Buller, at the bar of the House, to which he might have taken exception, namely, that, under similar circumstances, he would do the same thing again; but as that remark was probably uttered in the excitement of the moment, he would not ask the House to take any further notice of it. Sir Walter Buller having expressed regret at having committed such a grave breach of privilege (exclamations of derision), he did not think it was his duty to proceed any further. He therefore moved to that effect, and the motion was agreed to on the voices.

Sir Walter Buller having again been brought to the bar of the House, the motion was communicated to him by the Speaker, who concluded thus:—"You are therefore discharged from further attendance on this House." Sir Walter then bowed and retired.

This brought to a close the most dramatic and sensational incident of the session. The debate altogether occupied from eleven o'clock in the morning till half-past nine at night, to the exclusion of all other business; and Ministers fell in the estimation of the Wellington people more over this affair than in all the manifold sins of the past.