The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon
Chapter VII. — The Liberal Party in Opposition
The Liberal Party in Opposition.
When members went back after the elections there were no well defined parties. Sir Robert Stout's defeat weakened the Liberals, and many members of the Conservative Party withdrew their support from Sir Harry Atkinson. For a long time they had been dissatisfied with his leadership. They were looking for a new chief. They would, indeed, have asked someone else to move the no-confidence motion in the Stout-Vogel Ministry; but circumstances were far too strong for them, and, it might be added, for Sir Harry himself, as he had no wish to assume the leadership. He accepted it out of a sense of duty and of loyalty to those friends who still stood by him.
The position was described epigrammatically by the Hon. W. P. Reeves, when he said that in the Conservative camp there was a leader without a party, and a party without a leader. Very few members of the Conservative Party disguised their feelings towards Sir Harry Atkinson; they had come to follow another man. To this Sir Harry took no exception, maintaining that it was the duty of all members of the House to accept any place his fellow members might assign to him, and he was prepared to do their bidding.
Even when he moved the successful no-confidence motion against the Stout-Vogel Government, he did not assume anything, but announced that he held the commission temporarily in the interests of those who had gone to the country on a platform in opposition to Sir Julius Vogel. There were strong members of the party who, after Parliament had assembled, would not have followed Sir Harry Atkinson if any one other leader could have been induced to come forward; but as they could get nobody else, they determined to take him.page 89
The first division of the session of 1888 was a revelation to him, and it taught him a lesson that he never forgot. He invited nobody to pledge himself to follow him, but asked that he should be allowed to declare his policy, and then everybody, he said, would be free to support or oppose him, according to opinion and principle. There were not half-a-dozen members except Sir Harry and his colleagues who really believed that the new Government would stand. In the lobbies it was a common remark that the Government would be defeated.
These were the circumstances in which Atkinson formed his last Continuous Government.
It was never strong. The party which was supposed to be supporting it had fallen back gradually from the splendid position occupied before Sir George Grey came to give it its first reverse; and in 1888 and 1889 it was in its last days. Public opinion was against it. Many people thought of it as the emblem of Conservatism and non-progress, and, somewhat unjustly, associated it with the miseries through which the colony was passing.
The Conservatives' success at the polls in 1887 was regarded by Mr. Seddon as a disastrous affair. He saw in it a return to old times. He believed that the colony, instead of continuing to struggle out of the Slough of Despond, would sink back again deeper than ever. He had no hope that Sir Harry Atkinson would foster Sir Julius Vogel's industrial policy. He was afraid that industries would languish, and that trade would come to a standstill. As a matter of fact, the Conservatives' success was the best thing that had happened for Mr. Seddon since he entered Parliament. It opened his fighting vein and it brought him into greater prominence as a politician than he had yet achieved.
He lost no opportunity of attacking the party on the benches. Determined that his voice should be heard, he launched invectives at the head of the Ministry with a persistence that made him a dreaded antagonist. Like many other vigorous public speakers, he appeared to much more advantage as an attacker than as a defender. At first the Government page 90 pretended to ignore him, and it put up followers in the ranks of the Conservative Party to reply to him; but as his attacks became stronger and more violent, and as, above all, he never spoke without a good knowledge of his subject, and arrayed his hard facts so closely and cleverly that they could not fail to have an effect, Sir Harry Atkinson was forced to take him into consideration, so that by-and-by first Ministers and then the Premier himself came forth to meet him on the floor of the House.
Although his impetuosity drove him to the front, Mr. Seddon did not look upon himself as a leader. Often, after the Premier had met one of his fierce attacks, and had obviously taken it as an indication of the Liberals' plan of campaign, Mr. Seddon reminded the House that he was only a private member, speaking for himself and for the West Coast, and saying what he, and, inferentially, the West Coast, believed to be true.
A few months after the Stout-Vogel Government was defeated, Sir Julius Vogel finally left New Zealand for England. The Liberal Party, now quite leaderless, was disorganised, and was too weak to meet the Conservatives on anything like equal terms. It endeavoured to organise itself, but when its full strength was gauged and heads were counted, it concluded that the prospects of a great future were not bright, and that it could devote its energies only to criticism and watchfulness. Hope of defeating the Government was out of the question. As far as searching criticism was concerned, however, it determined that it would not flinch; and it made up its mind that nothing would be left undone to stem the tide of the Conservative reaction, which, it was feared, might gain strength and flood the country.
It was believed that such a leader as Sir Julius Vogel would never be found again. Many members of the party turned once more to Sir George Grey, but the Canterbury members were unalterable in their determination to have nothing to do with him.
The proposal to appoint a leader was discussed at several meetings of Liberal members, but, as no decision could be come page 91 to, Mr. Seddon at last moved that it was inexpedient to elect a leader. He told the members of the Opposition that the best attitude they could take up was one of watchfulness, and that it was their duty to offer every facility to carry on the business of the country. The members of the party felt that they had been drawn together by adversity. All announced their intention to submit to the severest discipline. They assured themselves that their loyalty could not be shaken. Several said that they wanted a leader of “proper age and experience, of respectable views, and not likely to frighten ordinary members, who would claim the respect of the country and appeal to public opinion for a fair trial.”
Mr. Seddon's practical suggestions were adopted by the party, which met the Government without a leader. It was guided by a small committee, consisting of Sir William Steward and Messrs. J. D. Lance and O. Samuel. Mr. Lance took the chair at meetings of the party, and occasionally appeared as a prominent member, but for all practical purposes the Opposition had no head; and the Conservatives were surprised to find that, at the beginning of their new reign, measure after measure was allowed to pass without combined attacks from the other side of the House.
Sir Harry Atkinson began his retrenchment scheme by borrowing £2,400,000, amidst the reproaches of his followers. Several of them attempted, when too late, to reduce his borrowing powers, but he was stronger than they, and he ignored their protests as well as his opponents' demands. He pruned the Civil Service for the second time, and cut down the salaries and travelling allowances of Ministers and the expenses of Land Boards, and reduced the Parliamentary honorarium.
There was a cry for retrenchment throughout the whole colony. In Parliament there was formed among the Conservative members a small party of extreme economists, who soon earned for themselves the title of “The Skinflints.” Many schemes were suggested for retrenching to the last penny. One, which brought Mr. Seddon to his feet with an angry roar, was that the school age should be raised to seven years, and that page 92 free education should end with the Fourth Standard. This scheme was not adopted.
The artizans and the working classes, tired of appealing in vain to Government after Government, and of being bluntly told that nothing could be done for them, prepared to carry out their threat to forsake New Zealand and go to other countries, where they could at least obtain sufficient work to keep them from starvation and abject poverty.
They went to Sir Harry Atkinson for the last time, and once again asked him to help them. “No Government,” he replied, “can do more than give effect to the will of the people. The movement must go upwards, not downwards. You must depend upon yourselves and look to yourselves more than you do.”
He told them that he had worked for low wages in pioneering days, and that when his wages rose from 2s. 6d. to 4s. a day it had been said that he was making his fortune. He had made his own house, he informed them, and had carried his provisions on his back, and he was as happy then as ever he had been in his life. When he met the Knights of Labour in Christchurch he lectured them on their moral obligations, and they lectured him on political economy and the duties of the State. After that, the people gave themselves up to the inevitable. They no longer placed their hope in the Government. They began to leave the colony in swarms, like migratory rats that are starved out of one district and pass on irresistibly to another in search of food.
This movement is known in the colony's history as “The Exodus.”
At first it was depressing. Then it became alarming; and finally those who had a real interest in the colony's welfare felt that if steps were not taken to stop the migration, New Zealand must indeed sink under the great burden of its sorrows. With “The Exodus” the colony lost a great deal of its vitality. It had suffered for nine years from a long drawn-out depression. This last strain was too much for its strength. Victoria, which was enjoying a “boom” that made New Zealand's depression all the harder to bear, was the country to page 93 which most of the emigrants turned their eyes. The intercolonial vessels took passengers from New Zealand's shores at the rate of 1400 a month, for several months. It was a serious drain on a population of 600,000 people. The holds of the vessels were fitted up with temporary berths, and the rush of passengers was so great sometimes that cargo was refused. Additional steamers were placed on the service to deal with the traffic, and every sailing vessel had its complement of passengers.
The volunteering movement languished for want of men. Boy-labour was common, and in most trades apprentices found that as soon as they had completed their apprenticeship they had to continue at apprentices' wages or leave; and they generally left. The State that had brought out thousands of immigrants at great cost a few years previously was now losing its population. It was pointed out that the colony spent £400,000 a year on educating its children, many of whom gave other countries the benefit of their knowledge. Large numbers of those who took part in “The Exodus” were married men with families. When they left, their families fell back on the Charitable Aid Boards or on private charity.
When it was seen that the colony was losing the flower of its manhood, public meetings were held to devise some means of retaining and employing the population. The scheme favoured most was the institution of a strong protective tariff on articles that could be manufactured locally. The substitution of a land and income-tax for the old obnoxious property-tax was also demanded.
Prices for produce continued to fall. Wheat had not been so low in the world's markets for many years. After farmers had met the heavy interest on their mortgages and the ordinary expenses of the seasons, they had hardly anything left with which to improve their properties. Consequently, they offered little employment to farm hands.
The colony asked for a protective policy to foster industries and combat the invasion that was being conducted with remarkable vigour by Germany and America. The movement in favour of protection was pushed forward so energetically that page 94 a meeting was held in Wellington in April, 1888, to form a new political organisation. Nearly all parts of the colony were represented at the meeting. It was decided that the time had come for the consolidation of the great industrial party of the colony as an Industrial Protection League. Its avowed object was to support municipal and Parliamentary representatives pledged to secure efficient protection to all classes of producers, and to watch the action of Parliament in regard to the colony's industries. It appointed a governing body and established branches in all the principal centres of population.
It was thought that the tariff in existence, having been framed mainly for revenue purposes, was very unequal in its operations. Sometimes it taxed the local manufacturers' raw material at the same time as it taxed the finished article. The intense competition amongst manufacturers in Europe and America induced the Americans to ship to New Zealand large quantities of surplus stocks. These stocks interfered with ordinary operations of. trade inside the colony, embarrassed the colonial manufacturer, and diminished the output. Coming on top of the depression, this movement placed a heavy handicap on industries, and had a direct effect on permanent employment and wages.
Clothing made under the sweating system was imported in large quantities and with a small duty. The tariff encouraged the importation of boots and shoes while large numbers of competent artizans in that line were idle. There was not an engineers' shop in the colony that did not feel the unfair pressure of the importer. Most of the apprentices in the iron trade, as soon as they were out of their time, left for other countries, where they found work that was denied to them in their native country. On top of this, there was a threatened invasion of cheap Chinese labour, which had already reached Australia.
The Protective Conference believed that if the changes it proposed were adopted, every existing industry would be stimulated, home production would be increased, the community would have a larger wage-earning power, and new industries would come into oporation. It was in this way that Sir Harry Atkinson's hands were forced.page 95
Seeing that the position was as critical as it could be, and that the colony was drifting from bad to worse, he made up his mind to do something to appease the people, at any rate. He announced that he would introduce a Tariff Bill which would satisfy the protectionists, and would not be so drastic as to seriously hurt the feelings of his freetrade followers.
He had faced many difficult positions before, but none which was so full of danger, and which demanded so much thought, alertness, and courage. There were falling revenues; a deepening depression; a depleted population; an incomplete scheme of retrenchment, which had brought him into great disfavour and had not done much good; and fresh and heavy liabilities.
In the midst of it all, he was in wretched health, a broken man with a wrecked constitution, and hardly anything to help him except his own brave and undaunted spirit. He wanted revenue before anything else. Secluded in his private residence, he spent days and nights pouring over the tariff, rearranging the items, taking from this and adding to that, decreasing here and increasing there, seeking to help old industries and to encourage the establishment of new ones, but always looking out for the increased revenue that was to carry him through his difficulties.
After a dramatic pause in the business of the House, during which members were kept in a state of almost absolute idleness, the Financial Statement of 1888, with the momentous tariff proposals, came down.
It is the clearest and best Statement the famous Colonial Treasurer ever delivered. Every line speaks of his anxiety to raise the colony from the terrible depths to which it had been allowed to fall. He offered a substantial measure of protection to boot manufacturers, clothiers, machinery makers, and workers in brass and iron. He proposed that an additional 3d. a gallon should be placed on beer, 6d. a gallon on spirits, and 1s. a gallon on wines; he doubled the opium duty, and asked the House to agree that the tax on tea should be increased from 4d. to 6d. a pound, half of the tea-duty to be set aside for subsidies given to local bodies.page 96
The longer the freetrade members looked at the new tariff, the less they liked it; and as most of the freetraders came from the country districts and were naturally with the Government, Sir Harry woke up the morning after he had delivered his Statement to find that his party was falling to pieces. Nearly all the freetraders, in fact, were in open revolt.
Before the fatal tariff had been prepared, he counted in his party fifty-four men. Thirty-four of these, known as the “Government Swallowers,” swallowed the tariff proposals without any apparent difficulty; but twenty, distinguished as the “Government Malcontents,” went about crying out against the tariff, and saying that they would have none of its revolutionary proposals.
Ignoring both threats and supplications, Sir Harry said that it was his tariff, and as it was the best he could devise, and as he believed that it was required to save the country, he would stand by it or fall with it.
The tariff proved to be one of those measures in the face of which New Zealand politicians sink party feelings and act for the common good. There were protectionists on both sides of the House, and when the Government found that the withdrawal of free trade followers made it powerless to carry the tariff by its own strength, it applied to the Opposition for sufficient men to make up the deficiency.
This the Opposition agreed to give. When the second reading of the Tariff Bill was voted on, a heavy contingent went from one side of the House to the other, and gave the Government a larger majority than it had ever had before, Ballance, Seddon, W. P. Beeves, Perceval, Lance, Cadman, Ward, and Steward, all strong men in the Liberal ranks, voting for the Government's measure, in the same lobby as Atkinson, Hall, Hislop, and other members of the opposing party.
In this way the Liberal Party followed the course Mr. Seddon had mapped out for it, and freely offered to help the Conservative Government when it felt that help, not obstruction, was in the colony's interests.
With the aid of those Liberal members, item after item of the tariff went through without much difficulty, until the page 97 proposal to increase the duty on tea was reached. Sir William Russell, a leading member of the Conservative Party, moved to have the item retained at 4d. He carried with him an unusually large number of “Malcontents”; and Mr. Seddon, breaking away from the Opposition protectionists, with whom he had voted, strongly opposed the increase proposed by the Conservative Premier.
In regard to most of the items Mr. Seddon had supported the Government, believing that it was right to make a sacrifice for the sake of local industries; but he maintained that it would be better to bring about all other reductions first and leave tea to the last, so that it might be taken in the nature of a stand-by.
The Premier informed a crowded House and packed galleries that he regarded the tea-duty as an integral part of his Budget. Those who voted against the duty, de declared, voted against the Government, and if the duty was struck out he would adjourn the House in order that the Government might consider its position. His determined attitude had the desired effect. The protectionists rallied round him. The tea-duty was carried by a majority of eight, Mr. Seddon and some other members of the Liberal Party voting against the Government, and Mr. Ballance leading a large number of Liberals into the Government's lobby.
Elated by his success in forcing the tea-duty on to the House, Sir Harry assumed a still more determined attitude, which led to his first reverse during the session. It was administered by Mr. Seddon, who was still taking a prominent part in all important discussions.
Seeing that it was easier to drive than to lead a large section of his followers, Sir Harry unexpectedly announced at the beginning of an evening's sitting that he would consider his estimates at once. Members, who had had no opportunity of examining the estimates, were taken completely by surprise, and one after another they warned him that he, with his weak and wavering party, was going too far. Nothing but his famous “hob-nail boots” policy, however, could satisfy him that night, and he trampled on his followers' protests with an utter disregard, apparently, for their opinions and for the delicate position of the Government.page 98
Mr. Seddon moved the postponement of consideration of the estimates. He did not do it in a hostile spirit, but merely to allow the House time to see what it was doing, and he begged the obstinate Premier to agree to the course he suggested without going to a division. The Premier, in his fractious mood, however, could not be shaken. He believed that he could force his estimates through the House with as much success as had resulted from his policy in regard to the tea-duty. To his surprise, many members followed Mr. Seddon, who actually defeated him by nine votes. His confidence had betrayed him, and the unexpected result threw him completely off his guard.
The blow could easily have been averted. Mr. Seddon, indeed, had never intended to strike it; but Sir Harry seems to have felt that he had not been treated courteously by some members of his party; and realising, no doubt, that the end of the party's rule was in sight, he went straight forward, allowing no consideration to turn him aside, and caring little what happened so long as he was not kept in dreadful suspense. It was pointed out to him, after the division had been taken, that the days for overawing an Opposition by the “big-boots” demeanour had passed away, especially in a House in which there were three distinct sections, the smallest of which was the faithful Ministerial Party.
When the result was known, the Premier moved the adjournment of the House, and for half-an-hour afterwards the members explained the votes they had given. The result of the division was evidently a surprise to many, and a shock to some. Several had voted without any fixed idea as to what they were doing, and they hardly realised that Mr. Seddon had defeated the Government. Recovering from his surprise, the Premier soundly rated Mr. Seddon. He did not take the motion as one of no-confidence, but immediately put on his big boots again, and threatened that if the estimates were not considered next sitting day the Government would take the refusal of the House as an indication of want of confidence, and would certainly resign.
As the Liberal Party was anxious to see the tariff, which had not been finally dealt with, passed into law, it gave way before the peremptory demands of the Premier. The estimates were passed, and the tariff was sent on to the Statute Book.page 99
It is typical of the main motives which actuated Mr. Seddon even in those advanced days of his career, that when the Tariff Bill passed its last stage he explained that he had voted against the duties on both tea and sugar because he believed that they were opposed to the interests of the miners. The West Coast still loomed largely in his mind. Had he lived a few months longer there would have been very important amendments in the present tariff. One of the great principles that had been instilled in his mind by Sir George Grey was that the people should be given a free breakfast table. It had always been Mr. Seddon's ambition to give them this great boon, and he believed that in 1906 the time had come to go at least a long way in that direction. In that year he spent many days over the tariff, revising and altering it, and went sufficiently far to announce that large reductions, representing £350,000 a year, would be made. It was his conviction that the breakfast table should be absolutely free that led him to strongly oppose Sir Harry Atkinson's tea-duty and induced him to break away from his party leaders for a short time in 1888.
The Continuous Ministry, weak and disorganised though it was, carried out with remarkable success the protective policy Sir Julius Vogel had twice failed to bring into operation.
The action of the Liberal members in coming to the assistance of the Conservative Government in the session of 1888 is one of the brightest events in the history of the Liberal Party. The House had never been so dislocated. Owing to protection having been dragged into the very front of politics, parties had seldom been more mixed. The Liberal Party was subjected to a strong temptation to turn the Government from office. It could have done so at almost any moment, but as it had pledged itself to help to enforce the policy the Conservative leader had taken in hand, it effaced itself and sank all party considerations in its desire to attend to the colony's business.
For a second time the colony was amused with the strange spectacle of a Conservative Government holding office, not because it was supported by a majority of members, but because its opponents would not unite to turn it out; and it laughed page 100 again at the idea of the Liberal Party being dragged into the Conservative lobby.
The tariff having been disposed of, the Liberal protectionists went back to their former position, and took up the duty of criticising, modifying, or opposing the Government's measures at the point where they had laid down that duty for a time to give the country's industries the protection sought for. There were suggestions of a coalition, and rather broad hints were made to Sir Harry that it would be diplomatic on his part to get rid of two or three weak members of his Ministry and to fill their places from the front ranks of the Opposition; but this he resolutely declined to do, saying that he had treated the tariff as a non-party question, and although parties had disappeared while the Tariff Bill was being discussed, they must come into full view again now that the Bill had been passed.
The Opposition took up the challenge. It organised itself and prepared a scheme of operations. A committee of seven, including Messrs. Ballance and Seddon, was appointed to direct the party's actions, and the Government's weakness was soon noticeable. Business was checked. The House became so confused that it hardly knew what it was doing. Sir Harry failed to instil enthusiasm into his followers. As he did not know, and, apparently, did not greatly care, when the Opposition would strike a decisive blow, the session dragged along in a weary manner. The Government existed, but it did little work, and its leader realised that rule by a small majority was a difficult matter.
It was not until members had assembled in Wellington for the session of 1889 that the Liberal Party, now forty strong in a House of ninety-five members, felt itself sufficiently well organised to work under a leader. At the first meeting during the session, the leading position was unanimously offered to Mr. Ballance, who, after two days' consideration and consultation with his friends, agreed to fall in with their wishes, and immediately set about preparing a scheme of action for the session.
The House was again divided into distinct parties, and again took up party government on approved lines. Friends page 101 of the Liberal Party hailed the action of its members in submitting itself to rule and discipline as the beginning of a better state of affairs. Experience had proved that the old scheme of a Committee of Management was not workable, and that unless jealousies were put on one side, and a capable leader was appointed, the party must be a party without influence and without a fixed principle or policy. Most men would be pardoned for declining to take the responsibility of leading the party against Sir Harry Atkinson, whose generalship had become a household word in the colony, and who had been in and out of office so often that none knew better how to ward off the enemy's attack and make his position secure. As a matter of fact, Mr. Ballance was reluctant to take the lead. There were only two candidates. Neither sought to lead, and both would have been content to be led. One of the candidates was Mr. Ballance; the other was Mr. W. C. Walker, afterwards Minister for Education in Mr. Seddon's Ministry.
After much discussion had taken place, it was decided that Mr. Ballance, who had been in both the famous Grey Ministry and the Stout-Vogel Ministry, and had earned the respect and confidence of the Liberal Party as a whole, should, on account of his priority of claim, be asked to take office first. If he had refused, it would have been offered to Mr. Walker. When Mr. Ballance heard of this arrangement he said that if the fact of his taking the lead would divide the party, he would stand aside and give a fair support to any Liberal who might be more acceptable. Shortly after he made this statement, he received assurance of support from both northern and southern members, Mr. Walker being among the first to come forward and ask him not to hesitate. He then decided to accept the position, which was thus forced upon him.
Appointing Dr. Fitchett and Sir Westby Perceval, two members of the Young New Zealand Party, as his Whips, and having Mr. Seddon as his lieutenant, he at once took up the attitude of the leader of an orthodox political party, meeting the Government at every turn, and criticising without stint its general policy.page 102
He acted with good feeling and wisdom in bringing the young members round him. The House had a large number of these, some of whom evidently intended to play an important part in politics. A Young New Zealand Party had sprung into existence in the session of 1887. The Hon. W. P. Reeves, Mr. James Mills, Sir Westby Perceval, Sir Joseph Ward, and Sir J. McKenzie were its most prominent members. Some of the members were young in every sense, but others were young merely by courtesy. Several were grey-headed. It included four country members, as well as two Ministers of the Crown. It counted its force as twenty strong. It originated in a social meeting held during the early weeks of the session of 1887, at which party politics were prohibited. During the meeting, a strong wish was expressed on all sides to work together when possible for the good of the country in which all had a stake. The result of the suggestion was that those who attended the meeting agreed in an informal way to look upon Mr. Mills as their leader and to work with him when party ties were not binding. The party, however, did not do very much beyond identifying itself rather timidly with the cry for economy that had been raised, and it saw only one session.
The battle-ground of the session of 1889 covered a wide area, but Sir Harry, with the courage that never deserted him throughout his career, went out to meet the Opposition as soon as it was ready to fight to a finish. He took his Financial Statement, his Public Works Statement, and an amendment to the Property Tax Act in one hand, and throwing them in front of the Opposition, challenged it to discuss the three in one great battle, which should decide once and for all whether the Conservative Government ought to retain its position or resign.
In the ranks of the Liberal Party, there was Mr. F. J. Moss, member for Parnell, who vied with Mr. Ballance in his bitter dislike of the property tax. During a previous discussion on the tax, Mr. Moss had hastily drawn up a motion and moved it. This motion had no special importance attached to it until Sir Harry announced that the debate on the tax would be combined with the debate on the Financial Statement and the Public Works Statement. Mr. Moss's motion suited the views of a page 103 large number of Liberal members. Sir Harry said that the motion would be taken as a direct vote of no-confidence. Mr. Ballance accepted it in that light, and brought out in its support the full force of the party of which he was now the popular leader. The motion that precipitated this no-confidence debate, and subjected the Conservative Government to the severest criticism it had received, set forth, in a few words, that the property tax was unfair in its incidence, and harassing in its effects, and was an obstacle to the progress and settlement of the country.
Mr. Ballance led the attack with one of the best speeches he made in the House. He reviewed the policy of the Government from end to end, and was followed by leading members of his party, Mr. Seddon, however, holding aloof from the discussion, although he took an active interest in the warfare.
The discussion was continued with hardly a break for a whole week. At the end Sir Harry was victorious again, and he once more held power with a bare majority, the Opposition having come within four votes of his full strength. The peculiar nature of the discussion, and the different subjects it dealt with, however, left Sir Harry in great doubt as to whether he was safe. There were members of his party who were strongly opposed to the property tax. Some of them discarded their allegiance to the Government and stood by their pledges to their constituents, but others preferred their party to all other considerations. On the other hand, members of the Opposition had promised not to abolish the property tax, and they voted against the motion, although they would gladly have seen the Government thrown out of office. The debate and the vote at the end of it, in fact, gave rise to many strange actions, and it was not unusual to find a member delivering a ferocious attack on the Ministry, and, a few hours later, following Sir Harry as he went into the Government lobby.
In this year the attention of the colony was drawn to the rapid spread of the sweating evil in New Zealand. The public was shocked by many of the revelations made by the newspapers, which set searching inquiries on foot. The subject was first brought prominently forward by the “Otago Daily Times.” page 104 It published a series of articles on the conditions under which women and girls worked in Dunedin. Other newspapers, notably the “Lyttelton Times,” took the crusade in hand, with the result that a deplorable state of affairs was disclosed in all the principal centres. Many manufacturers had been unable to make both ends meet, and they had been forced into a position in which they had to cut down wages to the lowest possible minimum. This action was specially noticeable in regard to women's work.
The sweating system, in short, had seized hold of the colony like a plague. It was in its most aggravated form. Large numbers of women were paid wages that hardly kept body and soul together. A woman made shirts at 4 ½d. a piece and found the cotton, the buttons, and other requisites. She could not make more than three shirts a day, and, even to do that, she would have to work at night. Her daily earnings, therefore, amounted to 1s. or 1s. 4d. Private workmen had to compete with establishments where children were employed as apprentices. These children received no wages at all for a time, and then were paid merely a nominal sum, about 2s. 6d. a week.
Large manufacturing establishments, making frantic efforts to right themselves, introduced the “cutting” system, and wholesale houses followed on the same lines. Women workers aided the “cutters” by competing bitterly for the work, as it was the only means they had of keeping off absolute starvation. Their husbands or brothers could get no work, and they were compelled to do what they could, no matter how small their contribution to the household funds might be. Women who had been taught in their youth to use their needle and were deft with it went out and begged for work, and in many cases they offered to do it under the prices which the warehousemen and manufacturers had brought down.
A few years previously, the price for making crimean shirts was 16s. a dozen, with cotton and buttons supplied by the house. In 1889, the same work was done for 6s. a dozen and the workers had to find both cotton and buttons. The wages for making men's flannel shirts fell from 9s. 6d. a dozen to about 4s. 6d. A great deal of the work in the clothing trade page 105 was done by contract, and the contractors employed underpaid, and, as far as possible, unpaid labour. They monopolised the work of many factories, and the warehousemen considered that they were bound to keep the contractors going.
At an enthusiastic public meeting in Dunedin, a committee appointed previously to inquire into the subject reported that it had asked the warehousemen to agree to a minimum scale, under which the workers could earn fair wages. It also suggested that in giving out work to contractors, the warehousemen and the merchants should obtain a guarantee that the contractors would pay the workers not less than the tariff rates, and, when that rule was violated, work should be withdrawn from the contractors until reparation was made.
The meeting asked the Government to appoint a committee to inquire into the best method of dealing with the whole subject. It also urged that all citizens should use their efforts to form a Trades Union of tailoresses, shirt manufacturers, finishers, and pressers, the Union to embrace all those trades throughout the whole of the colony. A strong committee, with Sir Robert Stout at its head, was appointed to see that the decision of the meeting was given effect to, and there was established a movement that had a marked influence on the future of New Zealand.
It was taken up by nearly all associations that came into touch with the masses of the people. The New Zealand Protection League, for instance, when it held its annual session in Christchurch in June, 1889, discussed the subject at length, and passed a motion stating that the development of the sweating system, especially with regard to several branches of female industry, called loudly for parliamentary interference.
The league's idea of remedying or removing the evil was to establish a Labour Bureau on a large scale and under a responsible head, so that it might record all wage-scales mutually agreed upon by employers and workers, adjust disputes by arbitration, and obtain statistical information in regard to the labour market, and also have an agency that would be capable of drafting the unemployed to districts where they could be given work.page 106
The boot manufacturing trade suffered more than any other industry from frequent disputes, which sometimes developed into strikes and lock-outs. The boot trade, in fact, earned notoriety for the number of its troubles. In some cases, the differences, apparently, arose out of trivial causes. The trade was rapidly coming near the top of the colony's list of industries, and all who took an interest in industrial matters deplored the bad feeling that existed. In Christchurch in 1889 the men demanded a minimum wage of 35s. a week for “clickers,” who earned various sums according to their ability, ranging up to about £3 a week. The employers declined to pay a minimum of 35s., and the men, who had other grievances of a minor nature, struck. This dispute was only one of many, and neither employer nor worker in any branch of industry had the least idea when trade would not be dislocated.
It was shown that the baking trade in Christchurch was in a most unsatisfactory position. One journeyman baker declared before the Government Sweating Committee, sitting in that city, that he had to work thirteen and even fourteen hours a day to earn £1 week. He was transferred to an easier place, and even then had to work from eleven hours and a half to twelve hours a day for the same wages. Then he was turned away in order to make room for a lad employed at 7s. 6d. a week. He stated that the men employed by one firm had to work fifteen hours a day, and that few young journeymen earned more than 17s. 6d. a week.
An emissary of the American Knights of Labour, sent out to the colonies, appeared in New Zealand, and worked his way from north to south, through public meetings and private conversations, explaining, exhorting, arranging and founding branches. The great Dock Strike in London had attracted attention in all parts of the world, and the emissary's words were listened to by eager crowds of workers. The Order of the Knights of Labour had already been established in New Zealand, but in a rather half-hearted manner; and the parent branch sent its representative to induce New Zealand to help in the federation of the world's labour. The idea was well received in many parts of the colony by men who were in no way connected page 107 with the working classes, but who believed that industrial warfare would wreck the colony's future.
Late in 1889 hopeful people preferred to believe that the colony had turned the corner, and had commenced to make its way towards the old prosperity that it had lost for many years.
The signs of progress, however, were not very marked. In all parts of the colony, wherever the traveller inquired in respect to general conditions, he received the same answer: “There is no life; no trade, no speculation, no confidence.”
There had been two good harvests, and prices had improved in some directions, but business remained dull in several places and stagnant in many. A proof of the presence of the deep depression is found in the banking returns. The banks were slow to make advances. They tightened their purse-strings, and gave little credit. Instead of increasing their advances, in fact, they made determined attempts to draw in advances that had been made already. From July, 1888, to June 20th, 1889, for instance, the banks called in moneys advanced to their customers to the amount of £1,269,845. It was an enormous contraction of credit in a small community, and was felt in all parts of the colony and by all classes. In this way the depression acted upon the banking institutions, and the banking institutions acted upon the depression, making conditions pass from bad to worse.
The most galling aspect of the case was that nearly the whole of Australia was going through a “boom” of unprecedented prosperity. The banks' advances in Victoria had increased in two years by no less than £10,500,000, in New South Wales by £6,920,000, and in Queensland by £5,590,000, making a total of nearly £23,000,000 of increased advances in a population of two millions and a quarter in two years.
There seemed, indeed, to be no hope for New Zealand, which was beginning to resign itself to its despair.
A feature of the session, which had a far-reaching effect on the future of the Liberal Party, was Sir George Grey's success in having the one-man-one-vote principle affirmed by Parliament and recorded on the Statute Book. He had introduced the page 108 principle into his first Electoral Bill ten years previously, and he and Mr. Seddon, Mr. Ballance, and others had fought steadily for the reform throughout the decade. The opportunity came at last in August, 1889, when Sir Harry Atkinson introduced a Representation Bill. The measure was the means of raising a cry of Town versus Country, and, after being bitterly assailed, was passed.
On its second reading, Sir George Grey, who seemed to have regained his old force of expression and his fiery eloquence, made a stirring speech, in which the masses, as of old, received most consideration. He had striven to put an end to plurality of votes; he had often almost gained his object; but he had been disappointed again and again. Members of the wealthy classes, by exercising the privilege of giving six, seven, or perhaps eight votes at the same general election, had turned the scales in a larger number of contests in the colony. These fetters, as the old politician called them, bound the people.
In making this appeal to the House, Grey felt, no doubt, that it was one of the last he would make. His health had been going from bad to worse. His back was bent; he tottered rather than walked along the streets of Wellington; his voice was weak and quavering. He remained in the House for some time afterwards, but did not speak often, and was evidently greatly fatigued with his efforts.
On the evening of July 23rd, 1889, he was in his old form. His theme was the condition of the workers, their hardships and grievances, and the difficulties they had to deal with.
“Look at the dirty lanes of the town,” he said; “look at men and women working in some hot factory all day, learning to do some single act, perhaps of a trifling nature, and spending their lives in doing that instead of in the varied lives of the country. The labour of the town is far more unhealthy than the labour of the country. It is far more difficult to bear. The temptations of the town are great: the lassitude and the weakness arising from its toil often tempt men to drink who would not drink otherwise. That continuous life in one unvarying occupation for many years deadens men's mental energies. Why should these people be deprived of the one weapon which enables them to resist oppression? Men in the towns and in the country have one common object at present. It is that the profits derived from human labour should be duly divided; all that which is made by capital in excess of fair interest, all that which is so achieved page 109 by the labour of human beings, should be fairly shared between those human beings and the masters who employ them. A fair division of capital is the one object which should engross them. It is the one thing which they can win for their little ones to save them from the fate which nearly all children in great cities have to undergo at present—namely, lives of misery and woe almost indescribable. Both the town and the country require this one equal weapon of the single vote. They require union of heart and union of mind, and there should be no division between them. I cannot impress upon members too strongly that our duty to ourselves and even to our Maker, who has given us the power of determining this great question, is to insist on one vote being given to one man.”
When the Representation Bill was in committee on August 5th, he moved that no man should be allowed to vote in respect of more than one electorate. The motion was carried by the splendid majority of 27, and the old Liberal leader placed the coping-stone on the manhood franchise. It is one of the few of his reforms he was allowed to complete with his own hands. It is the greatest practical gift he gave to the party he had created.
Otherwise the session of 1889 was not productive of great results. The Government announced at the beginning that “a number of Bills dealing with matters of great public interest would be placed before the House.” To nearly all these policy measures the Opposition took strong exception. Under Mr. Ballance's leadership it fought each measure as it came up.
The Government tried to alter the constitution of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council, however, quickly decided the matter itself, and said that its constitution did not need alteration. It was then announced that the electoral laws would be reviewed, and that a new departure would be taken. The new departure took the shape of a Bill to introduce the Hare system of voting, and the “rash and revolutionary proposal,” as it was called by the Opposition, was practically kicked to death. Then came a proposal to deal with the whole question of the Civil Service, going into the promotion, classification, and payment of Civil Servants on defined principles; but nothing resulted, and no Bill embodying the proposals was submitted. A Hospitals and Charitable Aid Bill was strongly opposed by local bodies as soon as its provisions were published, page 110 and it was dropped. An amendment of the Property Tax Act was opposed by the Opposition so strongly that a no-confidence motion was moved on it, and this motion was rejected by only a very narrow majority. When other amendments were spoken of the Government shelved the Bill. A Bankruptey Bill was prepared, but no effort was made to move it, and a Medical Bill was killed, nominally by the Legislative Council, but really by hostile feeling outside Parliament.