Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LVI: the working of the government - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LVI: the working of the government - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the working of the government
Whoever examines the phenomena of politics and puttie life as they exist to-day in New Zealand must never forget how many facts are there absent which control or colour political conditions in European States.
To begin with there are no racial questions. The white population is homogeneous, for though one region, Otago, in the South Island, is predominantly Scottish, that makes no difference for political purposes. The Maoris return their own four members and are on the best terms with the whites. Nothing does more credit to New Zealanders than this friendliness of the races.
There are no religious questions. Even the Roman Catholic Church, which exerts great political influence in Canada, and scarcely less in New South Wales, does not make itself felt politically here, for the Irish element is small, and weak in the legislature.
There are no questions of foreign policy, because that is left to the Motherland, nor of colonial policy, for the Cook Islands, the management of which was entrusted by Britain to New Zealand in 1901, are insignificant in size and population, and the only thing that needs to be done for them is to appoint competent and sympathetic administrators. The mandate given to New Zealand by the League of Nations for the administration of some of the Samoan islands increases the need for care in the choice of such administrators.
There are no constitutional questions, for democracy has got down as far as it can well go, unless indeed some should propose to shorten parliaments to one year from three, or to introduce the Initiative and Keferendum in legislation, changes which would hardly make the system more effectively popular than it is at present.
There are no local disputes affecting general politics, i.e. none which set any considerable district of the country against another, or tend to make the views of districts on public affairs divergent. Questions affecting the distribution of money for public works are numerous enough, but they do not become party matters, though a local election may sometimes be won on them.
Think what a difference it makes to a people to be free from many causes of dissension and from many of those preoccupations with grave issues, often lying outside the knowledge of the ordinary man, which distract the minds of most free peoples! Undistracted by these, New Zealanders can better devote their thoughts to matters touching their domestic and especially their economic welfare.
There is in New Zealand no aristocracy of birth or rank or hereditary wealth, no great fortunes, no considerable class of indigent people, trembling on the verge of pauperism. Social distinctions and social ambitions have not quite disappeared, for there is a small class, colloquially known as “The Push,” who consider themselves select, and desire invitations to parties at Government House, a privilege ungrudgingly accorded to those who have reached a certain position in the agricultural or business world. There is also a measure of suspicion or jealousy — it hardly amounts to the aversion evident in Australia — observable among the working-class towards the employers and the richer people generally. But class distinctions of this nature, in which, moreover, there are no sharp lines between poorer, middle, and upper, have no perceptible effect upon politics, except in so far as they make the wage-earners prefer one of themselves as a candidate for Parliament. Such slight antagonism as exists seems due to the bitterness aroused by labour conflicts, and to that sort of envy which is generally felt towards the richer in a community where differences of wealth exist, while the sense of equality has extinguished the old deference. The significant fact is that what Europeans would call the “upper class” exerts no more political influence than any other class. It does not lead even so much as the like class does in Switzerland or the United States, not to speak of England or Italy, where social status and wealth still count for something. The one form of influence, operating as a slight check on the power of numbers, which is still discernible in the older democracies, is here conspicuous by its absence.
There are no constitutional checks such as exist in the United States, and, to a less degree, in Switzerland. Nothing inhibits the power of the popular House to carry any measure it desires. The Legislative Council of nominees sitting for seven years has been a negligible factor. So, too, the veto of the British Government is practically no longer used, though a case involving Imperial interests may be imagined in which it might be resorted to. Whether a Referendum would prove a serviceable check may be doubted, but it never has been tried except when submitted by the legislature as respects the prohibition of the sale of liquor. The House of Representatives is absolute master of the situation, being virtually able not only to pass laws but to alter the constitution at its pleasure.
The conservative element in New Zealand — there is even here, as there always must be everywhere, a certain conservative element — is to be found in the rural population. In Australia each of the four great cities of the four chief States contains one-third of the population of those States. In New Zealand the four large cities (the other towns being quite small) contain about one-fifth of the total, and the proportion of the population occupied in manufacturing industries is even smaller. The rural population, moreover, consists to a larger extent than in Australia of small farmers, who quickly acquire the so-called instinct of property.
Political Parties.— With these facts in mind, let us come to the parties. In 1915, when the European War caused the formation of a Coalition or “National” Government, there were two old parties, the Reformers and Liberals, nearly equal in parliamentary strength, and the new Labour party, a creation of the preceding eight years, with seven or eight members in the House, but probably a larger proportionate strength in the country as a whole. It was mainly a party of urban wage-earners. The Reform party includes the bulk of the larger landowners, of manufacturers, and of merchants, the minority of these, as well as a good many of the poorer people, forming the Liberal party. Thus it is only the Labourites who are a class party, the two others, as in Australia before the Coalition of 1908, being drawn from both rich and poor.
Of the three, it is only the Labour men, now called the Social Democratic party, who have any regular organization, the Trade Unions having in many towns created political Trade and Labour Councils, whose delegates meet in an annual central Congress, the most powerful unofficial body in the Dominion, though it does not represent all the workers. The wage-earners are also organized in a body called the United Federation of Labour. The other parties have local political committees, but with no such complete and controlling organization as that which the “Liberal” (or anti-Labourite) party had created for itself in Australia in 1912. Candidates for the House of Representatives offer themselves to the electors, and if more than one of the same party come forward, the question who shall be the party standard-bearer is, if not settled locally, referred to the parliamentary chief. In New Zealand party ties are not and never have been strict, and party spirit, except sometimes in the Assembly during conflicts, has not been intense, much less bitter. Neither has the Labour party created any such powerful centre for its political action in the legislature as is the parliamentary Labour Caucus in Australia. Of its two sections, the larger and more moderate includes Socialists and Trade Unionists of the older type, while the smaller and more advanced is under Syndicalist and revolutionary influences, and goes by the name “Red Feds,” as its leaders formed the kernel of the former Federation of Labour. The party programme for the election of 1915 demanded a Right to Work Bill, with minimum wage, a citizen army “democratically organized” on a volunteer basis, and never to be used in industrial disputes, and the Referendum, Initiative, and Recall. The extreme section has been much influenced by the most advanced Socialists of Australia, and seems to be growing. Being weaker than the Australian Labour party, and having had less immediate prospect of carrying the legislation it desires, it is even more disposed to the policy of strikes, yet hopes to secure some of its measures by parliamentary pressure on the other parties.
The Liberals and Reformers were distinguished rather by tendencies than by specific tenets. When the former lost power in 1912, they had no bold legislative programme, for the work done in the twenty years preceding had left them comparatively little to accomplish. They have, however, been more identified than their rivals with the extension of State action and the promotion of the interests of the workers. The Reformers came into power on an unexciting platform, the chief features of which were the disposal of land to small owners on freehold rather than leasehold tenure, with retrenchment, i.e. small borrowings and careful administration, this being, as both parties admit, a chief need for the country. Towards Labour questions their attitude has been that of caution and criticism, for they conceive that the country has gone far enough for the present in the extension of State action and in piling taxation upon the rich, but they uphold compulsory arbitration and the system of advances to settlers. Liquor legislation is the subject which rouses most controversy, but upon it neither party has ventured to announce a distinctive policy. When a sharp conflict arose over a proposal that the Bible should be read in the public schools the issue, though raised by a Ministerial Bill, was fought not on party lines, but rather as between Episcopalians and Presbyterians on one side and the secularist Social Democratic party on the other, the latter supported by some of the smaller religious communities.
The languor of party feeling and action in the country had been, even before 1914, reflected in the Assembly, where political life ought to be most vigorous. In point of composition, the House fairly represents all the elements of New Zealand society. There are some few working men, and about as many landowners, while all the other classes, manufacturers, merchants, shopkeepers, farmers, and professional men contribute their quota. The lawyers are, as in Australia, a comparatively small element. Members of the House receive a salary of £300 a year, those of the Legislative Council £200. There is a time-limit on speeches, a rule needed to check obstruction, called here, as in Australia, “stone-walling.”1
The House of Representatives is in one sense too representative, for its members are little above the average of their electors in knowledge or ability. That average is no doubt high, but nearly all my New Zealand informants declared that the quality of the legislature, instead of rising with the growth of the country, had declined during the last thirty years, and that the debates were now on a lower level than in the days of Sir George Grey or Sir Harry Atkinson. Some said the declension dated from the rise of Seddon, which led the more cultivated class to withdraw. Up till then every member was, according to M. Siegfried, ex officio admitted to the Wellington Club. The country has no lack of capable men, thoughtful and well educated,— none of the self-governing Dominions has a larger proportion,— but very few of those seem to find their way into the Legislature. When travelling through New Zealand I had the good fortune to meet in each of the four chief cities a group of men who used to come together to discuss the problem of the relations of each Dominion to the British Empire as a whole, and they impressed me, in every city, by their high intelligence and sound judgment. But hardly any of them belonged to, or seemed to think of standing for, the Assembly, which is left to persons five-sixths of whom do not rise above the level of the town councillors of an English town. English town councillors are good citizens capable of managing the daily business of their community in an efficient way, but their functions seldom require more than practical common sense, whereas the New Zealand Assembly holds in its hands the fortunes of a young nation which will some day be a great nation, and has to deal with most of those complex problems of law-making which tax to its utmost the capacity of every European legislature.
Why do not the electors choose men of marked ability? They abound, and are not excluded by the cost of elections, for there is no bribery in New Zealand, and legitimate election expenses are light. Except in the very few constituencies which the Labour Unions dominate, there is not, as frequently in the United States, a party machine which controls the choice of candidates, nor, as frequently in Australia, an aversion to candidates who belong to the wealthier class. Neither is the choice of a candidate confined to persons resident in the electoral district.
The reasons lie partly in the conditions of parliamentary life, partly in the competition of other careers. The position of a member carries very little social prestige, and has many disagreeable incidents. The member is expected to be the slave of his constituents, and to act, as one of them observed,1 as a sort of labour agent. His chief business is to get something for the constituency, or for individuals who belong to it, by constantly preferring requests to Ministers, an ungrateful task, and one that distracts him from his proper duties. His merits are measured by whatever benefits he can manage to secure for the place or some of its inhabitants.
Other careers are more attractive. A lawyer or a college professor or a business man, unless he happens to live in Wellington (the capital), must neglect his duties or his private business if he has to attend the sittings of the House, for the other three chief cities lie far off, and two of them can be reached only by a voyage over a stormy sea. There is no leisured class in the country, although one finds some families retaining that tradition of familiarity with public life which used to be strong in England, and is not extinct in the older States of the American Union. The prizes of public life are few, not to add that here, as elsewhere, small is the number of persons who, while enabled by their private means to enter that career, feel themselves called to it by motives of pure patriotic duty.
It may be suggested that the Legislative Council, a Second Chamber in which work is lighter, and a seat is secure for seven years at least, might be used to gather in a number of persons who, when they had already secured a competence, or could leave their farms or business to the care of younger men, would be willing to place their experience and ability at the service of the country. The Council has, however, exercised little attraction, for its powers are limited, its life is sluggish, as it has nothing to do with installing or ejecting a Ministry, and its debates are little reported or read or regarded. With members selected for nomination chiefly because they had rendered steady support to their party it had become an almost superfluous part of the constitutional machinery. Now, however, it has by recent legislation been turned into an elective body, which is ultimately to consist of forty persons, to be chosen from districts, of which there are to be two in each island, so a prospect of usefulness is opening before it.1
These things being so, the standard not only of attainments, but of debates and of manners also, leaves something to be desired. Thinking bears a low ratio to talking. Legislation tends to be, as in most democracies, too copious and too hasty. There are — so far as I know — no scenes of disorder, but there is a good deal of rudeness, and personalities are freely bandied to and fro. A most acute and experienced observer (quoted by M. Siegfried) 2 noted in 1898
“an absence of refinement among politicians without distinction of parties, which is the' result of the pioneer life they have led. What is more serious is the absence throughout the Colony of serious economic study, of scientific investigation of those industrial and social problems which the politicians themselves attempted to solve.”
The first part of this judgment seems to me, as to M. Siegfried, rather too sweeping. But there is certainly what one may call a sort of commonness, a want of that elevation and dignity which ought to raise above their ordinary level those who administer the affairs of a self-governing community with a great future; and this lowers the moral influence of Parliament upon the community itself. Against these defects one must not forget to set the personal probity in public affairs of nearly all the New Zealand politicians. Innumerable jobs are done for constituencies and party interests, but rarely is any one charged with abusing office or parliamentary position for the purposes of pecuniary gain. In this respect New Zealand stands, and always has stood, well above some older and larger democratic countries.
For some time there was a second ballot law, providing for a second election where no candidate obtained a majority of all the votes cast, but this was recently repealed by the Reform Ministry.
See ante, p. 308.
The voting is to be on the preferential system. The Council's powers in finance Bills are limited to the right of suggesting amendments to the House of Representatives, but it may amend or reject other Bills, and if a disagreement between the Houses cannot be otherwise settled, the Houses are to sit and vote together as one body, and if the Bill whereon they differ is not affirmed by such a voting, a dissolution of both Houses may follow.
Op. cit. p. 75 (English translation).