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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XIX. — Acting Prime Minister, 1921

page 173

Chapter XIX.
Acting Prime Minister, 1921.

Sectarian controversy and the censorship—Seditious literatureMr. Holland, M.P., on censorship—Letters from Lord Jellicoe.


In 1921 Massey had to leave New Zealand again for another Imperial Conference, and during his absence Bell was Acting Prime Minister.*

To Arthur Bell, February 9, 1921.

"About the English voyage it was always meant that I should be at the Conference because it was thought Massey could not attend. Now we all think Massey can and should go—all but me consider that if he goes I must stay in his place—so that puts me off till next year for a voyage unless something unforeseen happens. If one is ass enough to put one's neck in a collar one must be guided by the rein or suffer consequences. So many want the job I want to discard. You remember—Optat ephippia bos piger optat arare caballus."

A short session was held in March before Massey

* Bell always refused to use the term "Acting Prime Minister," contending that there was no such office, and that some one only acted in the place of the Prime Minister—a distinction that will seem rather subtle to the layman.

"The lazy ox desires the caparisons of a horse. The packhorse wishes to plough" (i.e., no one is satisfied with his own trade).

page 174left, and there was the usual complaint against the ordinary business of Parliament being suspended during the absence of the Prime Minister. But in New Zealand it seldom occurs that Parliament carries on if the Prime Minister is out of the country.

"The Massey Government was intrinsically strong enough to do in 1921 what the Seddon Government did in 1902, but the fact that Massey's second in command, Sir Francis Bell, was in the Legislative Council created a special difficulty."*

Bell found himself faced with a series of important problems during Massey's absence. One arose from a conflict with the American Meat Trust., which involved a discussion as to the correct diplomatic channels through which the communications should pass. Another controversy arose over the censorship; and more important than either of these, the spectre of unemployment loomed up in a marked degree. On these and other questions he spoke with a clear voice, and impressed the public by his capacity and frankness.

It would prove wearisome to the reader to recall the details of these old controversies, but to illustrate how, in handling them, Bell laid down fundamental principles, I may refer briefly to the question of censorship of literature.


There were two main phases of this controversy. The first occurred in 1918, soon after Bell became Attorney-General during the last year of the War. It arose from a bitter sectarian controversy in which the more extreme Protestant organizations were engaged in

* Round Table,September, 1921, p. 959.

page 175an active and provocative anti-Roman Catholic campaign. On the other hand, one Roman Catholic paper was being checked on account of some articles which appeared to applaud the outbreak of violence, sedition, and rebellion in Ireland. All this violent sectarian strife might well have been ignored in normal times, but in War time it was regarded by the Government as tending to divide the nation, and to be disruptive of national unity. Seeing that the main reason for the creation of the National Government was to avoid internal strife while a state of war existed, it had been deemed necessary to pass War Regulations to check the importation and circulation of offensive sectarian propaganda. Bell frankly admitted that in normal times it would be wrong to exercise such control and regulation, and although power was taken to subject publications to censorship before they were printed or published, this power was never fully exercised. The most that was done was to issue warnings that prepublication censorship would have to be imposed if the tone of the articles was not modified.

The lurid titles of some of these pamplets are a sufficient indication of their contents—Convent Life Unveiled, Maria the Black. Monk, The Convent Horror, and so on. It is difficult at this day to realize how violent the controversy became, unless one looks over the contemporary files. Massey, an Ulster man, was accused of aiding and abetting a no-Popery campaign. Sir John Salmond recommended the prosecution of one Roman Catholic paper on the ground that it was encouraging sedition and rebellion in Ireland. Bell did his best to hold the balance fairly, and entrusted Mr. Martin Chapman, K.C., with the task page 176of reading these books and pamphlets, and so far as possible he reviewed Chapman's recommendations, and accepted full responsibility for the decisions arrived at. He believed that the public peace and safety would be endangered by the outrageous nature of some of these publications, but he made no attempt to suppress papers merely engaged in controversy on religious doctrines. His impartiality was recognized even by the heated disputants. To one large deputation of clergymen, Bell declared that they could advocate what they liked so long as their advocacy was not so offensive as to create class strife.

"For myself," he said, "I am a perfect Gallio in these matters."

This seemed to satisfy the deputation, but his colleague the Minister of Customs, who was a Jew, and not familiar with New Testament figures, said to Bell later, "Who was that man, Gallio, you quoted? His name seemed to work like a charm."

"Gallio," replied Bell, "was the greatest judge who ever lived. He laid down the perfect rule of conduct in such cases as we are now engaged on. 'If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you: But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters.'"

All forms of censorship are unpopular, but there is no doubt that Bell's fair and firm control had a sobering and beneficial effect on-factions, which, in the ardour of their mutual recriminations, tended to forget that the nation was engaged in a life and death struggle. These War Regulations were modified after the Armistice, and page 177abolished after peace was declared, except that advocacy of violence was prohibited; and it was this last-named restriction that caused the next outcry.


In 1920 and the following year, a large mass of post-War revolutionary literature began to pour into New Zealand from Russia and elsewhere. It is important to remember that no restriction was placed on literature merely because it advocated Socialism, Communism, Fascism, or any other plan to reshape society, provided it did not advocate violence for the overthrow of the existing form of society. The reason for this distinction will appear presently. But the cry was raised that the Government was prohibiting the circulation of what was called "Working-class literature," and protests poured into Bell as Attorney-General and to myself as Minister of Customs, from trade-unions and other organizations in all parts of the country. At that time I was of opinion that instead of trying to prevent seditious literature coming in by intercepting it at the Customs or at the Post Office, it would be simpler to allow the law to be enforced by prosecution before a Magistrate of those possessing or distributing such literature.

Bell to Downie Stewart, March 4, 1922:

"If you are satisfied that the broadcast distribution of seditious literature can be stopped by legislating in a similar manner as we have for indecent literature then I should cordially agree with your suggestion to leave the door open and punish the holder of the literature. But is not the difficulty this page 178—that the sedition is so disguised often by philosophical disquisition that conviction may be impossible?

"The key on the door prevents the dissemination of what we consider dangerous stuff. The prosecution afterwards leaves every loophole to the disseminator unless the stuff is flagrantly seditious. We both know that nothing prevents the stuff arriving by post in limited quantities. But sermons don't affect the crowd as pamphlets in the hands of each do. I quote Horace: Segnius irritant animarn demissa per aurem Quam quae sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus.* If after considering these suggestions you decide to open the door I shall not oppose or try to alter your decision."

In practice it was found that different Magistrates took different views as to both what was seditious and also what was indecent literature. This created such difficulties and so much uncertainty for the booksellers and the public that it was decided to follow Bell's advice and put "the key on the door" as far as possible. The complaint was then made that a clerk in the Customs Office was the arbiter of what people were allowed to read. This complaint was unfounded, as all books under challenge were submitted to the Solicitor-General for advice. But as his competency was also criticized I substituted a Committee consisting of the Librarians of the General Assembly Library and the Free Public Library with a representative of the Bookseller's Association. In addition to this, any person aggrieved by their decision had still the right of appeal to the Courts of law.

* "The mind is more readily influenced through sight than through hearing."

page 179

Mr. Holland, M.P., the Leader of the Labour Party, was an earnest and able controversialist. Year after year in Parliament he denounced the censorship as an attempt to suppress freedom of thought. His correspondence with Bell threatened to reach what the latter called "portentous proportions," for at one stage he sent a letter of twelve typewritten foolscap pages. The following letters will perhaps serve as examples to convey to the reader the arguments on both sides of the question. These letters are worthy of study by reason of the clear, cogent and courteous language in which both controversialists state their arguments:

Mr. Holland's Questions:

"Dear Sir,

—I have just learned that Brieux's great drama Damaged Goods is being held up by the New Zealand authorities, and refused circulation within the Dominion. Brieux's work is of the widest scientific and social value, and has been long since staged throughout this country.

"I also desire to draw your attention to the sentence of three months' hard labour imposed yesterday on a member of the Wellington Socialist Party for having allegedly sold copies of The Communist Programme and other pamphlets at a recent meeting. It is not necessary to agree with all that a book contains when one insists that there can be no intellectual progress unless men are permitted to read—and thus to know—every viewpoint. I have read The Communist Programme, and other pamphlets, and while I do not endorse the attitude of some of the writers, page 180with respect to tactics, I say most emphatically that the first-named pamphlet does contain a most valuable presentation of the case for constructive industrialism. This portion of the pamphlet does not appear to have been mentioned during the hearing of the case; and I do not think that the prosecution is to be complimented on its method of stripping away the context from certain passages, and using the mutilated passages as evidence.

"While urging the release of the imprisoned man, Mr. Johnstone, there is one aspect of this censorship of literature which I wish to raise, and concerning which I should esteem it a very great favour if you would let me have a definite statement. I personally know some scores of returned soldiers—most of them are my constituents—who are in possession of The Communist Programme and also Red Europe (another book banned by your Government) and who do not hesitate to circulate both works. These returned soldiers claim that they went to Europe to fight for mental freedom quite as much as for political freedom. They know, as you and I know, that there can be neither political or industrial freedom unless there is the most unrestricted liberty in every department of human thought, and the widest possible access to every avenue of knowledge. Along with the working-men, generally, these soldier constituents of mine strongly resent the repressive legislation and administration which makes criminals of men whose only offence is that they seek to know how men of other lands are thinking; and on their behalf I ask if the Government proposes to prosecute and imprison them if they continue to read and circulate page 181the books I have mentioned—in other words, if they persist in upholding the principles of liberty for which your Government told them they were going to fight. They desire to know where they stand and some of them have told me that they are as ready to go to prison for what they believe to be the right as they were to go to Europe. I may add that all of these works which are being prohibited in New Zealand are allowed freely to circulate in both Great Britain and Australia. Why does the New Zealand Government forbid literature which other Governments permit?

"In urging that all restrictions on cleanly worded literature be removed, may I add the claim that no great material change can ever be made unless it is preceded by an intellectual change—a change in the thoughts of men; and it follows that there can be no 'right' change of thought unless it is based on knowledge. There can be no real knowledge where any avenue of information is closed to the reader. When you write and administer laws which penalise men who dare to seek to know every viewpoint, you make the Magistrate the agent of reaction, and the Police Court the machine of an error as hateful and as hated as anything Prussia and Russia ever knew in the terroristic days of their liberty—destroying imperialism, force-sustained, and foundationed on a blood-and-iron absolutism. It is surely not well that New Zealand should follow an example so pregnant with, danger.—Yours faithfully, (Signed) H. E. Holland, April 16, 1921."

page 182

Sir Francis Bell's Reply.

"H. E. Holland, Esq., M.P.


"Dear Sir,

—I did not immediately reply to your letter of the 16th instant, because I desired to give careful consideration to your suggestions and requests, and to the points upon which you invite an indication of the view and intention of the Government.

"With regard to the drama Damaged Goods, you must be aware that the question of dramatic representation relating to such subjects is one upon which very diverse opinions are held. Personally, I should not be disposed to interfere with the discretion of the Censor on a point of that kind; but I think I ought to add that in my view a decision to prohibit the representation of the drama would be wise. I have no official information on the subject.

"With regard to the sentence imposed on the foreigner who distributed copies of certain documents, I entirely agree with your insistence that there can be no full intellectual progress unless we are permitted to read (and thus to know) every viewpoint. And I do not contest your conclusion that the pamphlet entitled The Communist Programme contains 'a valuable presentation of the case for constructive industrialism.' I am not as competent as yourself to express an opinion on that point. But surely you must see that neither of those contentions of yours has any bearing upon the question whether the person charged committed a flagrant offence against the law of New Zealand. Each of the documents which the offender was proved to have distributed advocated page 183in the plainest manner bloodshed and violence as the method by which its propaganda were to be carried into effect. It is greatly to be regretted that in your temperately-worded letter you should have avoided the real and precise issue deliberately raised by those on whose behalf the offender distributed the pamphlets. I do not suggest that you are one of those who instigated and approved the distribution and circulation of literature advocating such methods. But your words can only mean that it is not criminal to advocate murder as a method of attaining social or political conditions or a constitutional change. That is the issue between the Government of a civilized country and offenders of the class for whom you ask that the prerogative of pardon should be exercised.

"In a country where universal suffrage prevails, no section of the community can contend with any show of reason that it is unable to attain power by peaceful and constitutional means, if and when a majority of the people can be persuaded to hold the views which that section advocates. But in a free country no minority can justly claim to hold power over a majority. Pray do not meet this with the usual futile argument, that so long as more than two parties exist, power may be held by a party which has not a full majority over the other two combined. This argument is good platform stuff, but appeals no more to your reason than to mine. If your case and opinions prevail with a majority of the people of New Zealand then you know as well as I do that your party can attain power at any General Election. And, again, if persons holding views far more extreme page 184than your own can persuade the majority of the people of New Zealand that what they advocate is right, those extremists will attain and hold power. Therefore, plainly it is not only unnecessary but criminal and wicked to advocate the attainment of power or alterations of the Constitution by bloodshed and violence. You are as fully aware as I am that the possession of universal suffrage by a people is a guarantee that power shall be held by persons who represent the political views of the majority.

"You must pardon me for saying that you are not just, either to the Government or to yourself, in presenting a contention that liberty of speech and freedom of advocacy of any form of constitutional or even of revolutionary change has been in any manner curtailed in this Dominion since the War ended. The restrictions imposed during the War were rendered necessary by the circumstances of the War itself. You know that every such restriction has been cancelled by legislation introduced by the Government, with the single exception expressed in the Police Offences Amendment Act of 1919, and in the War Regulations Continuance Act of 1920, that advocacy of violence or lawlessness is prohibited. So long as men refrain in print or language from inciting to violence or lawlessness, they are absolutely free to hold and express any opinions, and to advocate any change, however revolutionary, in the Constitution or in the form of Government. The continued War Regulations prohibit the expression of seditious intention, which may possibly have misled you and others into the belief that advocacy of Communism page 185or Socialism, or of a republic is prohibited. You will find, however, that by section 118 of the Crimes Act it is provided that 'no one shall be deemed to have a seditious intention only because he intends in good faith to incite His Majesty's subjects to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter affecting the Constitution, laws, or Government of the United Kingdom or of New Zealand; or to point out, in order to their removal, matters producing or having a tendency to produce feelings of hatred and ill-will between different classes of His Majesty's subjects.' In other words, it is neither unlawful nor seditious to advocate the wildest form of Socialism or Communism. What is unlawful and seditious is to advocate murder and violence as legitimate methods for attainment of political ends. If your contentions were carried to their logical conclusions, it would be legitimate for any section of the community to drill and arm, with the avowed object of slaughtering the majority who could not be otherwise coerced

"You must, therefore, take my answer to be that the Government of New Zealand does not now interfere, and does not propose to interfere, with liberty of speech or action; but that it does intend to prevent, and will use all its powers to prevent, violence and lawlessness; and that its officers will, in accordance with the duty imposed upon them by law, endeavour to bring to justice persons who refuse to comply with that condition, and that the Government will not establish a practice of exercising the prerogative of pardon in favour of such persons when convicted.

page 186

"Your contention that the mere possession of literature of that kind is an offence is perhaps technically correct, but that is not the offence seriously contemplated by the law; circulation of such documents, or the possession of a number of such documents, obviously for the purpose of circulation, is in itself plainly deliberate advocacy of murder, and therefore criminal and punishable.

"Your statement that literature of the nature in question is allowed free circulation in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, I am not concerned either to admit or dispute. With regard to the Commonwealth, there is mutual respect and goodwill between the Governments of Australia and New Zealand, but neither is guided in its legislation or procedure by the precedent of the other. In the United Kingdom advocacy of violence is treated rather as a matter for contempt than for repression, because of the existence of regular armed forces of the Crown to protect the majority of the people against unlawful violence from a minority. Here in New Zealand we are, fortunately, able to rely upon a very small police force to maintain order, because that force has the support of the law-abiding people of the Dominion. But peace, order, and good government require that violence to attain political ends shall be as unlawful as is to secure private advantage, and that there shall be no distinction between that class of crime and any other crime. The law of England has from time immemorial treated a person who incites to any crime as equally guilty with the criminal who effects the crime.

page 187

"May I suggest that if you think fit to publish your own letter to me, you should publish with it this reply. Your letter very clearly expresses your views, and this reply, which I assure you is intended to be without personal offence to yourself, is the answer of the Government to your contentions.—Yours faithfully, (Signed) F. H. D. Bell, April 22, 1921."


"I shall be seventy at the end of this month," writes Bell to his brother Arthur on March 24, 1921, "and yet (by hypothesis) fit to preside over the Cabinet in time of stress. How does that tally with the Divine afflatus of your friend the psalmist? Or do you rely on him to prophesy that the show must bust if so engineered."

At the expiry of Bell's term of office as Acting Prime Minister, the Governor-General, Lord Jellicoe, telegraphed to him expressing his deep appreciation of the advice and assistance which he had given during the preceding five and a half months and added "I feel sure that your colleagues and the people of the Dominion realize the debt that they owe you for your work." On the same date he wrote to Bell and Massey, as follows:

"Government House,

"My Dear Sir Francis,—Your very kind letter of the 29th has given me real pleasure. You have made my duties so easy for me, and if I may presume to page 188say so, have handled the affairs of the Dominion so tactfully and courageously that the success of your period of administration was assured.

"I cannot let to-day pass, the last as you say of your special term of responsibility, without sending you my warmest congratulations on that success, and my grateful thanks for the unfailing consideration and kindness which you have shown me. I have only one regret, and that is that the duties of your office have been so heavy as to stand a little in the way of seeing as much as I should have liked of the man filling that office.

"The regrets are intensified by the thought that you will soon be leaving us for your holiday at Home. I hope most sincerely that the holiday will be thoroughly enjoyable both to Lady Bell and to yourself.

Yours very sincerely,


"Government House,

"Dear Mr. Massey,—I feel that it is my duty to place on record my deep appreciation of the advice and assistance which Sir Francis Bell has given during your absence from the Dominion.

"I am sure that you will learn from your colleagues of the tactful and masterly manner in which he has handled affairs during the last five and a half months.

"So far as I am able to judge, everything has page 189worked very smoothly, and this in spite of the fact that the Ministry has been short handed for much of the time.

"I know of course that Sir Francis has been faced with difficult situations, and he has felt the responsibility. I have greatly admired the manner in which he has dealt with all difficulties.

"Our correspondence with the Colonial Office has been kept well up to date and there are few questions outstanding.

"My own personal dealings with Sir Francis have afforded me great pleasure and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude for all that he has done.

Yours sincerely,