A. R. Atkinson's Reasons
For Opposing the Present Government
Being unable to roach all of you by word of mouth, I take this means of putting a general summary of my views before you.
On general questions I prefer the title of "Radical" to that of "Liberal" or "Conservative." I have no belief in monopoly or privilege of any kind. I believe in equal opportunities for all, and, in the State, as far as possible, remedying the inequalities of nature; but I am utterly opposed to the so-called "Liberalism," which professes to regard wealth as an offence and seeks to set class against class by exciting the envy of the poor against the rich.
Good Measures Passed.
The most valuable Legislative acts of the present Government, in my opinion, are the Electoral Act, which gave the franchise to women the Licensing Amendments (which have established the direct veto, and increased the popular control of the liquor traffic), and the Land for Settlement Acts, which give the State the power to resume land for the people's use.
Under this head the Government is entitled to credit for the Shop and Shop Assistants Act, Factories Act, Employers' Liability Act, Truck Act. and Industrial Arbitration and Conciliation Act. Of these the first four were introduced by the previous administration and opposed by members of the party now in power. Bold attempts were made by the present Government to deal with the evils of child labour, and the hours of labour, in the Master and Apprentices Bill and the Eight Hours Bill. It seems to me that both these measures and Apprentices Bill and the Eight Hours Bill. It seems to me that both these measures erred in applying too rigid and uniform a method to industries with saying requirements. Some tribunal with a more elastic procedure than an Act of Parliament—the Concilation Board for instance—should be given the adjustment of the details in such delicate and complicated matters.
Old Age Pensions.
That important question must be dealt with by the coming Parliament, but with little prospect of success until our finances are placed upon a sounder basis. About £250,000 per annum would have been required for the scheme proposed by Mr. Seddon, and three or four times as much, at least, under the modification introduced by the House. The financial question, which is the essence of the matter, was entirely evaded by the Government, and never reached by the House. As to the general question, my opinion is—that if the scheme is to apply to everybody there should be some special tax for raising the money, or that otherwise there should be precise tests of personal fitness so as to prevent the measure from being an encouragement to unthrift.
By the Education Act of 1877 our public system of education is free, compulsory and secular. Though an education which excludes religion is incomplete, I cannot see how religion is to be added to the public school course without wrecking the system altogether. The establishment of religious tests for teachers, and of a sort of local option in denominationalism through the school committees appear to me the inevitable outcome of making the State teachers teach religion. Both religion and secular education would suffer by the change. A University College for Wellington, and the extension of technical education are both urgently needed reforms.
This burning question would have been almost settled, so far as Parliament is concerned, if the bills passed by the House in two consecutive sessions had not been wrecked by the Legislative Council. Those bills put club charters on the same footing as all other licences, and also provided for a Colonial Option vote. These provisions, with the addition of a clause giving a majority the control of every issue, are all that is needed to remove this disturbing element from general politics, and to leave it to the people to decide on its own merits at the ballot-box. This is not Prohibition but Democracy, and I would strongly oppose any prohibitory law that might be proposed in Parliament. It is a question that can only be settled by the people at the ballot-box.
Two important constitutional reforms are needed to make our Government a Democracy in fact as well as in name. At present Parliament, which is supposed to represent the people, is forced by the Ministry into misrepresenting them through the threat of dissolution. When Ministers decide to treat any motion as a vote of no-confidence, they in effect say to their followers, " Unless you vote as we wish, we will dissolve Parliament, and you will lose your salary of £240 a year for three years." If this power were taken away, Parliament could regain its independence, and could consider questions on their merits without the question of the fate of the Ministers, and the loss of members' salaries, coming in to confuse the issue. The Elective Executive will be a valuable reform, more because it will tend to secure this independence than from the mere fact of the Executive being elected by the House.
Not only must Parliament be given the control of Ministers, but the people must be given the control of Parliament. This can be secured by referring measures to a direct vote of the people at the ballot-box. This reform, commonly called the Referendum, might be introduced in a tentative fashion; for instance, questions on which the two chambers differed might be at once referred to the people. Further extensions would follow in due course. With the people controlling Parliament, and Parliament ministers, we should substitute a true Democracy for the misrepresentative and autocratic rule of Ministers, and the evils of party would be largely alleviated.
The Council is at once too weak and too irresponsible—too much out of touch with popular feeling, and too fearful of asserting its power when occasion demands it. The page break nominative system is bad in principle and has failed in practice. Some system of election with larger constituencies and a longer term than in the case of the House of Representatives, and with a fixed proportion of the members retiring by rotation at intervals, would give a stronger and more representative Council. The Referendum would obviate the risks of a legislative deadlock.
Unemployed and Charitable Aid.
These important subjects have almost been entirely overlooked by Mr. Seddon's government, and no systematic attempt has been made to deal with either of them. The expenditure of £106,536 of public moneys on Charitable Aid during the last financial year, being an increase of over 20 per cent, on the previous year, is enough to show that the recent Liberal legislation has done little for those lowest in the social scale, and that their misery is growing faster than the boasted prosperity of others. An entire remodelling of our Charitable Aid system, including the institution of Labour Settlements where work may be found for the deserving unemployed, and forced upon the undeserving, and the abolition of our pauperising system of outdoor relief, is a more urgent necessity than the levelling-down proposals which find more favour at present.
So far I have been considering the sphere of legislation, but an equal, if not a more important, part of Government remains to be considered, viz., administration. Without good administration, legislation itself is inoperative, and in every case more depends upon the spirit of the administration than upon the letter of the law. The administration of the present Government has been chiefly faulty in the reckless extravagance of its finance, and in impairing the purity and independence of the Judiciary and the Civil Service—the two institutions which it is of most importance for a democracy to guard with jealousy.
The Public Debt has increased 4,000,000 since 1891, and there is besides the contingent liability of 5,000,000 on account of the Bank of New Zealand. The expenditure is steadily increasing. The total trade per head when the Atkinson Government took office was £21 19s and when they went out of office it was £25 13s. In 1891 it was £25 10s. and under the present Government it has decreased to £21 11s. The latest result of Mr. Seddon's finance was the Loan Bill passed last session. The necessity for the loan was shown when it was stated that something like £460,000 had been practically pledged in advance by this non-borrowing, self-reliant Government. Now that Provincial Government has been abolished, we should institute some system of local Government that would regulate the expenditure of public moneys. We must also have the right of the Referendum before loans of this kind are embarked upon.
|1.||The appointment of Colonel Fraser as Sergeant-at-Arms in violation of the Disqualification Act, the confirmation of which dirty job was actually forced upon the House by its being made a Party question.|
|2.||Interference with the administration of justice shown in :—
|3.||The systematic appointment to positions in the Civil Service of the friends of Ministers, and especially of the officers of Liberal Leagues and other hangers-on of the Premier; and the institution of a system of espionage and terrorism throughout the service.page break|
|4.||And in particular the evasion of the Civil Service Act by the appointment of a number of temporary clerks, who can be appointed without regard to the conditions of merit prescribed by the Act. Over one-third of the Government clerks in Wellington are temporary only.|
|5.||The corrupt use of patronage in the matter of Government advertisements for the reward of Party services. Thus the Nelson Colonist (Ministerial) gets £60 of Government advertising, the Nelson Evening Star (Ministerial) £51, but the Nelson Evening which has a larger circulation than the other two put together, but has the misfortune to be an Opposition paper, gets £17. In Wellington the New Zealand Times, which few read, gets £483 against £380 given to the Evening Post, which is read by everybody.|
|6.||The extension of the direct personal control of Ministers through all branches of the Service, including the charwomen at the General Assembly and the gardeners at Government House.|
|7.||The degradation of Parliament through
|8.||The acceptance by Mr. Seddon of a seat on the Anglo-German Syndicate, so that he practically holds the simultaneous positions of trustee for the Government and trustee for a company seeking valuable concessions from that Government In view of Mr. Seddon's direct personal interest in the goldfields of the southern West Coast, and of the Auckland province, it is significant to note that, whereas during the last twelve-years £53,452 has been expended by Government or goldfields development or an average of £4,454 per annum: during the current year £200,000 will be so spent out of monies newly borrowed.|
Observers of American politics will detect in the tampering of the Government with the Civil Service, and the allotment of offices as a reward for party services, an exact reproduction of the evils which lie at the root of American political corruption. A Government with such a dishonourable administrative record as this is not a government which I could support, whatever its legislative programme might be. For honesty and purity must, in my opinion, come first in public as in private life, and no triumphs of legislation could atone for the flagrant corruption and rottenness prevailing under the present Government, and the lowering of the whole standard of public life which results. To expect any improvement in this respect while Mr. Seddon remains in charge is to expect the leopard to change his spots.
What to do.
|1.||To substitute honest administrators and sound financiers for those now in power.|
|2.||To amend our constitutional machinery so that by a fuller measure of democracy the corrupting power of the party system and the party boss may be reduced to a minimum.|
|3.||To pursue, but cautiously and without arousing class antagonisms, a genuinely Liberal policy with the object of as far as possible equalizing conditions and opportunities, and of avoiding the extremes of wealth and poverty which constitute the chief perils of older lands.|
These are the objects which I shall endeavour to promote if it is your pleasure that I shall serve you in Parliament.
I am, etc.
A. R. Atkinson.
30th November, 1896.
Edwards, Russell & Co., Ltd., Printers, 37 Featherston Street, Wellington.