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Life of Sir George Grey: Governor, High commissioner, and Premier. An Historical Biography.

A Grey Ministry

A Grey Ministry.

Like the British constitution, the new Ministry was not made, but grew. On October 8, 1877, a motion expressing want of confidence in the Government was moved by Mr. Larnach and was carried. As is the rule, Mr. Larnach was invited by the Governor, the Marquis of Normanby, to form a Ministry. He never made the attempt. Having been put forward by the Provincial party, of which Grey was the real leader, he at once gave way to his chief, who proceeded to select colleagues. On October 15 Grey stated in the House that he had been appointed Premier, and that he had also assumed the position of Colonial Secretary and Commissioner of Customs. He then made a declaration of the Ministerial policy. The Ministry was still unstable, and a few days later he announced its reconstruction. He had dropped the office of Colonial Secretary, but retained that of Commissioner of Customs. A few months afterwards the shifting, but not yet shiftless, cabinet was again reconstructed, and it was made more representative of the strength of the party by the inclusion of two new and strong Ministers. The good and kind, if also self-important, Mr. Ballance was appointed Colonial Treasurer, and the Herculean energy of Robert Stout found the cumulative offices of Attorney-General, Minister of Lands, and Minister of Education, in addition to his private practice as a lawyer, mere child's play.

Grey's entry into office was a dramatic event. He had been High Commissioner, Governor-in-Chief, Lieutenant Governor; finally, he was Premier. He had it now— ''king, Cawdor, Glamis, all," and most honourably had page 187he played for it. What will he do with it? asked the Colony, still admiring, reverential, trustful. He soon showed what he would do with it. For thirty years he had had a feud with the landed monopolists. He had quarrelled with the New Zealand Company and contended against the Canterbury Association ostensibly because they had sought to exclude the poorer settlers from the soil. He had fought a stout battle with worldly-minded missionaries who had "bought" land from the natives at a rate per acre sometimes below the price of an old song. He now told the great landowners that if they would keep their wide pastoral tracts, they should pay for them: he imposed a tax to confiscate the "unearned increment." Nor would he allow them to keep their domains unconditionally. He introduced a measure authorising the State to acquire by amicable treaty or compulsory appropriation, possession of such private lands as might seem suited for settlement. He further showed his democratic spirit by altering the incidence of taxation. Declaring that the tax-gatherer should no longer enter the homes of the poor, he emulated the reforms of Peel and Gladstone by repealing the customs duties on 43 articles, including such necessaries of life as tea and coffee. All his life temperate, though never an abstainer, he would not, however, encourage drinking-habits in the working-classes, and he proposed a duty of a penny-halfpenny on beer. As a mate to his land-tax, he founded an income-tax by taxing the incomes of corporations and companies. He crowned his financial reforms by bringing forward bills to enact manhood suffrage, with the single vote, to redistribute seats on a population basis, and to create triennial parliaments.

Grey thus laid the chief planks of the so-called Liberal platform. Unfortunately for him and his policy, his Ministry lacked driving force. It could not even carry so reasonable a measure as the proposed beer-tax. Grey showed his intractableness by refusing to accept the electoral bill which the Legislative Council had, as he believed, emasculated by rejecting the clauses enfranchising the Maoris.

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To complicate the situation, a wave of commercial depression swept over the Colony. The Government was in no way responsible for the calamity, which none the less brought discredit upon it, By just such "accidents" had the reforming measures of the great Turgot and the Russian dictator, Loris Melikoff, been defeated. The land revenue on which Grey relied fell off. The unemployed were mutinous, and they blamed the Government. The very supporters of the Government maintained that the Colony was in an unsound financial position.

His Ministers abandoned their chief. The Attorney General retired in consequence of the ill-health of his law-partner. With Ballance, the least quarrelsome of men, Grey, the most quarrelsome, unfortunately quarrelled. Ballance, who had a strong sense of personal dignity, resigned. Ever afterwards Grey spoke of him with bitterness. These two able men gone, Grey was left to fight the battle of his policy single-handed. He fought splendidly, but his small fluctuating majority had forsaken him. He asked the Governor, the Marquis of Normanby, for leave to dissolve the House, and it was refused. Hence his implacable enmity against Lord Normanby, which, years afterwards, took every form of insult and mockery. "He treated Lord Normanby brutally," said one of Normanby's successors, Sir William Jervois, to the writer. At a meeting of the Executive Council "he shook his fist at me," Lord Normanby told Major Campbell, long the able Clerk of the House of Representatives. And when Normanby had been appointed Governor of Victoria, the insolent Premier crowned his discourtesies towards his official superior by refusing the Government steamer, the Hinemoa, to convey him to Australia. Nor, it seems, was this English gentleman less discourteous to Lady Normanby.

Having unceremoniously got rid of Ballance (afterwards Premier of the Colony and one of his truest disciples) Grey felt constrained to assume the office of Treasurer himself. Probably, a more incompetent Treasurer never was. He knew absolutely nothing about page 189finance. He had no grasp of details. Mathematician though he was or had been, he had no notion of figures. He had every possible qualification for being one of those "babies in finance" with whom one of his successors was to class another.

He had a further disqualification for the office. He was not a vigilant guardian of the public purse. Once in his days, under stern compulsion, he had been, in South Australia, economical and retrenching; everywhere else, he had been spendthrift and extravagant. So was it now. An Australian Premier boasts that he sits on the Treasury chest with all his weight, and he is a ponderous man. Grey sat by the Treasury chest with the lid open, and he recklessly shovelled out its contents to all comers. As a consequence, when he was driven from office, he left the Treasury empty, as his successors did in 1884 and 1887. Nor was this all. So low had the credit of the Colony sunk that the incoming Ministry could not for a time go on the London market in order to raise a loan. Grey left. the Colony on the verge of bankruptcy.

But we are anticipating. The dissolution Lord Normanby refused was conditionally granted by his successor, Sir Hercules Robinson, on August 8, 1879. Defeated in the House, the Premier appealed to the, Colony. In a series of glowing popular harangues, sometimes delivered from the balconies of hotels to crowds in the streets, he introduced the oratorical stumping-tour, which a yet greater demagogue was then inaugurating in England. If eloquence could have won the battle, the victory would never have been doubtful. General elections followed. When the House of Representatives met, Grey made a magnificent defence, but it was still uncertain to which side the balance inclined. One doubtful member, the facetious and eccentric Vincent Pyke, voted against the Ministry and so turned the scale. By two votes Grey was driven from office. Early in October he resigned, having occupied the Treasury bench for almost exactly two years.