The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times
Chapter XVIII. — Dissolution of National Government
Dissolution of National Government.
Election of 1919—Massey's victory—Bell's leadership of the Council—His administration and growing reputation.
"It is a memorable Parliament that is drawing to a close," said Bell, in 1919, "extending over five years instead of the statutory period of three years. We who were members have seen nearly every phase of the great struggle between the champions of liberty and the protagonists of tyranny. It seems to me that the danger to the world was as great in the time this Parliament has had to face as in the days of Marathon and Actium, when barbarian hosts threatened the civilization of the world."
It is an old saying that a Government's popularity begins to wane from the day it takes office. All through the later years of its existence, the National Government was falling more and more out of any popular favour it may have once enjoyed. The commercial classes were irritated by high taxation, compulsory War loans, and the repeated yielding by the Government to the demands of the powerful industrial unions. The workers were restive under the rising cost of living and the fear that military conscription would be supple-page 170mented by industrial conscription. Several by-elections went against the Government in its last years of office.
But in justice to the National Government it must be remembered that during three long periods of its existence it was handicapped by the absence of its leaders. Massey and Ward were called to London to Imperial Conferences for nine months (September, 1916, to June, 1917), five months (May to October, 1918), and eight months to the Peace Conference (December, 1918, to August, 1919). It must be admitted that however able other Ministers may be, and however willing to take responsibility, they cannot act with the same authority and firmness as if they were in full and absolute control.
No doubt the Liberals had the right to terminate their partnership in the National Government when the War ended; nevertheless, in doing so, they made one of the worst miscalculations in the history of New Zealand politics. It is well known on the authority of some of those who attended their caucus that their decision to dissolve the Government was based on the idea that their prospects would be better in going to the country as an Opposition than as part of the Government. They assumed that the Government which had conducted New Zealand's War-effort and imposed so many unpopular burdens in taxation, trade regulations, and conscription was sure to meet with overwhelming defeat at the hands of the voters. Accordingly, a month or two before the election of 1919, Sir Joseph Ward and his colleagues withdrew from the Ministry and went as a separate Party to the election with a spectacular programme of promises.
Whether the electors resented this attempt to throw page 171all the sins and short-comings of the National Government upon Massey, or whether they considered Ward's programme grotesque and impossible, the fact remains that at the election Massey was accorded the greatest political triumph of his career. His party came back with an overwhelming majority. The Liberal Party was shattered and Ward lost his own seat.
Long before the National Government dissolved, Bell had established a complete ascendancy as Leader of the Legislative Council, and gained the confidence and admiration of his fellow-members. As early as 1917 he was able to state that he had been Leader of the Council for a longer continuous period than any Minister since Parliament first sat under the Constitution.
"We recognize," said one Councillor, "that if the honourable gentleman gives us information we can rely upon it. In fact, that is his great strength in this Council, that whatever information he gives us, or whenever he passes his word, no more is to be said, because we have all learned by experience to rely upon his word."
Many such tributes might be quoted, all testifying to Bell's great ability and absolute firmness. It was recognized that as the representative of a National Government he had carried far greater responsibilities than would have been the case had he been merely the representative of a Party. In the House of Representatives each Minister had to deal with only the problems of his own Department, but in the Council it fell to the Leader to expound and pilot through every Government measure.page 172
"As we listened," said another Councillor," to his words and watched his face we have wondered often how much he has disapproved of. But he has never taken advantage of us, and we have never had any distrust with regard to him."
On his part Bell constantly sought to maintain the rights and dignity of the Council.
"Our position is this," said Bell." If a matter of serious political import arises, and it is clearly determined by the representatives of the people in the House of Representatives, then it is their right to determine and our duty to consider merely the form and frame of the legislation which carries the principle into effect; but we have to be very clear that the representatives of the people have in that determination the mandate of the people."
He pointed out that the House of Representatives had the constitutional power to enforce the passing of legislation which they insisted on as essential, by the constitutional method of appointing more Legislative Councillors:
"But it is a degradation of this branch of the Legislature to assert that because on a matter of this kind, the House in one or two or a dozen sessions sends a Bill to this branch of the Legislature, we are therefore bound to pass it … I do regard it as important that there should not be promulgated by the holder of any position of responsibility in this Council the doctrine that we are tame helots of the other branch of the Legislature, and that we are not entitled to decide for ourselves matters of mere social interest, and have no right even to express, much less to give effect to, our opinions."