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

Chapter XXV. — Legislator and Premier

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Chapter XXV.
Legislator and Premier.

After losing the battle of Pultava, Charles the Twelfth, of Sweden, lay for three years at Bender, in (what was then) Turkey, sunk in torpor, and "lost to life and use and name and fame.'' Then, one day, he suddenly woke up, his kingly strength came back to him, and he rode, with hardly an attendant, across snow-covered Europe to the gates of Stralsund. For five years Grey remained in seclusion at Kawau, waiting, or rather kept, as we can now perceive, for an appropriate summons to action. It came at last. The fighting spirit of the old warrior answered the call, and he went forth to battle. As if in tardy recognition of his claims as the creator of the Provincial system, he was elected Superintendent of the province of Auckland. His tenure of the office was not a success. His autocratic habits were incompatible with the position of an elective Lieutenant-Governor, and public men who were well acquainted with the facts positively asserted that he would not have been re-elected, had the occasion arisen. But it was destined never to arise. He had entered the Legislature and was now deeply involved in the conduct of political measures of prime importance.


He re-entered public life in no half-hearted spirit, but plunged into the thick of it. The same year that saw his election to the Superintendency witnessed his election as a member of the House of Representatives. It was a notable event. The greatest Governor the Colony had known stooped from his viceroyalty to take his seat as an ordinary legislator in the popular chamber of a country which he had once autocratically ruled. The page 183event was yet not quite unprecedented. Half-a-century earlier John Quincy Adams, one of the most distinguished of American presidents, returned to the legislature where he had once sent messages as a sovereign, and likewise took his seat in the popular chamber. Twenty years earlier Grey's greatest rival, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the real founder of the colony of New Zealand, entered the newly-created legislature, and he also sat in the more powerful chamber. Grey was to surpass both Adams and Wakefield in the brilliancy he shed upon the office.

His Attitude.

When a man who has held superior office condescends to fill one of a somewhat lower kind, he may be advised to assume a position of lofty impartiality. Such an attitude was taken by Sir Robert Peel in his closing years. It was scarcely possible for Adams, on fire with abolitionist zeal, or for Wakefield, whose distinctive ideas had been assailed by Grey's legislation, to become "the acknowledged arbiter in public questions and moderator of political dissensions." A sagacious and experienced official—the Clerk of the House of Representatives— counselled Grey to make himself the judicial Nestor of public life in New Zealand. Never for a moment did he intend to pursue—never for an hour was he capable of pursuing—any such policy. If ever such moderation was possible for so imperious a nature under any circumstances, it was doubly impossible now. The Ministry of the day was bent on destroying that part of the Constitution which was pre-eminently his handiwork, if any part of it were his—the Provincial institutions. To the grief of seeing the constitution he had drafted mangled by ill-informed Ministers on the advice of treacherous colonists was to be added the mortification of witnessing the last living relic of it killed. All the pride of a parent in his offspring or of an author in his work, all the anger of an autocrat who saw the creatures of his hands rebelling against their maker, poured itself out in speeches page 184of a kind never before heard in a House where the style of public speaking had been much above the average level of that of colonial legislatures.

A Proposed Dichotomy.

Grey sought to avert the event he most dreaded and preclude the complete abolition of the Provinces by proposing a modified form of it. He moved a series of resolutions, of which the gist was that, while the Central Government should be retained for matters of general concern, two administrations should be created for the North and South Islands separately. There was much to be said for the proposal. A fundamental opposition between the two islands was created by the different distribution of the Maoris. They were spread all over the North Island, at some parts in dense masses; they were but thinly sprinkled over the South. This deep-lying difference was the generating point of a whole series of oppositions that usually placed the public opinion, and consequently the Parliamentary representation, of the two islands in different camps. While the South Island, over the greater part of which the colonists hardly came into contact with the Maoris, was largely philo-Maori, the very differently-situated North Island, where the settlers were almost everywhere at the mercy of the natives, was fanatically anti-Maori. The argument for the bifurcation from this point of view was urged by Grey in two long speeches, spoken on August 3 and 16, 1876—one filling fifteen, the other sixteen, columns of Hansard, and it was earnestly, passionately, sometimes, nobly urged. As always, he was egoist, promenading his own part in the history of the Colony, as when he told how he had himself legislated singly for the Colony by drafting its Constitution. He displayed before the General Assembly "the pageant of his bleeding heart," as when he said that he "would bear the injuries heaped on" him. He was no lamb, and he did not bear them in silence. He referred to "an attack of a grievous kind made on" him "within a few days," and for the first page 185time he produced an authoritative letter, written years before, that vindicated him against it. He was persistent, and repeatedly on these and other occasions he was called to order by other members or by the Speaker. He made passionate appeals. "The Premier has shown throughout this session a determination to destroy me," he declared. "I stand before the House appealing to it and possibly pleading for my life," cried melodramatically the former Governor of the Colony. He aggrandised the subject by-making large allusion to the doings of the Pitts and Addingtons, the Wellingtons and Peels. He exalted the theme by representing the occasion as being the first when an Anglo-Saxon community had enjoyed the privilege of shaping its own constitution. He denounced the existing constitution as "a mutilated and contemptible form of a constitution," though he had just claimed it as his own, and the chief mutilation was the non-elective character of the Legislative Council. He sought to excite dread by declaring it his belief that a war of races was imminent in the Colony and might even now break out. He was still suave in comparison with his later utterances; he asserted that he had "no intention of blaming the Secretary for the Colonies, no desire to offend him." He was still loyal in a way. "We love our Queen," he said, "and will ever remain loyal to her;'' but he did not love what the Duke of Wellington called "the Queen's Government."


In a like strain he spoke when the bill itself was actually under discussion. His passion and his rhetoric overflowed in Demosthenic orations. What rather detracts from the value of these masterpieces is that, of all the disasters predicted as the consequences of the abolition of the Provinces, not one has come to pass. As territories with semi-sovereign powers the Provinces have been condemned by history, while they naturally survive as administrative units. He did not content himself with oratory or stop with appeals. Stretching his page 186rights and presuming on his position and Ms past, he telegraphed to the Secretary of State, urging him to disallow the Act. Needless to say, he was not listened to. He could not avert the fate of his beloved Provinces, but he helped to precipitate the doom that awaits all destroyers. The abolitionists were themselves abolished, and Grey, with a band of young and able adherents, known as "Greyhounds," entered into their places.

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.

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His Deposition.

On October 15, 1877, he had announced his acceptance of the Premiership. On October 15 (a fateful day with him!), 1879 he declared: "I stand here as an outcast among men—first of all, deposed from those benches, and, secondly, having abandoned the position I held as the leader of a great party." What had happened? His followers had informed him that they would no longer submit to his high-handed ways or obey that tyrannical will. He had not "abandoned" the leadership of the Opposition; it had abandoned him. The verdict of his contemporaries was, and apparently the judgment of historians is, that his defects of character and faults of temper—his arrogance and his irascibility—ruined his Ministry, defeated his policy, and made his leadership impossible. Let this be admitted to the full, and his failure as a leader is not thus completely accounted for. He was in advance of his time. Almost all the measures he proposed were right in themselves and were ultimately carried; they were only premature.

His mood, in adversity, was not conciliatory. Like Gladstone, he was more imperious in Opposition than on the Ministerial bench. "I will drag them (the Ministers) as my slaves," he haughtily cried, "at the wheels of my chariot. They shall pass those measures" of his, which they had thwarted. "Though they hate me, they shall not go into the lobby against me,'' he declared.

He was a true prophet. The Electoral Representation Bill, enacting manhood suffrage, passed by his immediate successors in office, was his own bill—not the one he had last brought forward, but an earlier one; and it was made law by the aid of four Auckland members, belonging to Sir George Grey's party, who agreed to support the Government only on condition that it carried out Grey's policy.* Not till 1889, though he strove for it in every session, did he succeed in excising the freehold qualification then enacted and passing a bill restricting each citizen to the exercise of a single vote. His Triennial page 191Parliaments Bill was likewise passed into law by the opposite party, which, like Peel, ''found the Liberals bathing and stole their clothes." Grey continued his self-assumed tasks. In pursuance of his own early policy, now forty years old, in 1883 Grey carried through both Houses an Annexation and Confederation Act, authorising New Zealand to annex any islands in the Pacific Ocean not claimed by foreign powers. The Act never received the royal assent. In 1886 he introduced a Land Settlement Bill, empowering the Government to acquire landed property for settlement, either by amicable purchase or by compulsory appropriation. Such lands were to be retained by the Government and leased on a quit-rent, though Grey must have been aware that quitrents had not been a success in South Africa. The funds for purchasing them were to be raised by means of landbonds. His plan was superseded by the simpler system proposed in the same session by Mr. Ballance and ultimately carried out by Sir John McKenzie. On several lines Grey was the true founder of the policy applied, expanded, and developed by the Ministries that have been in office since the accession to power of the so-called Liberal party in 1891.

* Drummoad, The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon, p. 157.