John Ballance: Nationbuilder

‘The Hidden Irish: Ulster: New Zealand Migration and Cultural Transfers’, a conference of the Irish-Scottish Studies Programme of the Stout Research Centre, 29-31 July, 2004.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

John Ballance was the first New Zealand premier to die in office, and is the second youngest to so die – at 54 years and a month, 30 months later than Norman Kirk. Like Kirk he was premier for a very short time, 26 months – although he had earlier been a cabinet minister for a total of four and a half years. Yet his premiership was one of the most important in New Zealand’s history, even if it gets forgotten behind that of his immediate successor, Richard John Seddon.

Ballance not only created New Zealand’s first effective political party, the Liberals, and instigated major constitutional changes, such as defining the powers of the Governor-General and introducing income tax. His political theories lived long after his death, resonating through the political debates of the early and middle twentieth century. For he was New Zealand’s first socialist prime minister – some would say he was the only one.

Despite Keith Sinclair’s sniffy ‘has anyone heard of an original New Zealand political idea?’ – one might say that of everyone after Plato – this paper focusses on Ballance’s theories, especially – given this conference’s interest in the role of Ulster in New Zealand – on their Irish foundations.

Ballance was born in 1839, at Ballypitmave, near Glenavy in County Antrim, less than 20 kilometres from the centre of Belfast. That made him around 18 years older than Reeves and James Carroll, 17 years older than Joseph Ward, 6 years older than Seddon, 5 years older than Robert Stout, a year younger than Jock McKenzie, and 4 years younger than Julius Vogel, political contemporaries who survived him.

He was the eldest of a family of eleven children of Samuel and Mary Ballance. The Ballances were of puritan stock who had come to Ireland in the wake of Cromwell’s rule. Samuel, a reasonably prosperous tenant farmer – his farm’s area was almost double the average – was an Anglican with ‘strict evangelical tendencies’, Orangeman, and voted Conservative. Although Samuel blooded his son in politics – taking him to meetings and having him write his speeches – his biographer, Tim McIvor, conjectures that there was a serious rupture between father and son. Certainly the son took a very different political path.

The more important influence was probably his mother who was almost two decades younger than her husband – they married when he was 39. She was brought up a Quaker, but attended a closer Methodist chapel – on Sunday afternoon, after the family attended church in the morning. His formal education was typical for his generation, leaving school at 14, with the Victorian ethic of self-help and self-education having him enrolling in evening classes in Birmingham to study politics, biography and history, and attending lectures by major figures of the day such as John Bright, Richard Cobden, Michael Faraday and Joseph Chamberlain.

McIvor suggests that by the time he was 18, his ‘attitude to the Irish question may have already been at some variance with mainline Protestant opinion, in that his mother’s liberal influence and his own somewhat bookish disposition combined to make him unsympathetic to the aggressiveness of the conservative Orange majority.’ McIvor does not think the Irish famine of the 1840s directly impacted on the Ballances, since it hardly affected his region. But the sectarian riots of 1857 did, and he wrote critically of them in later years. Soon after they petered out, he left Belfast for Birmingham. Nine years later, at the age of 27, he sailed with his wife, Fanny, to join her brother in Wanganui, where he settled for that part of his life which was not a Wellington politician. (The move was for health reasons: Fanny died three years later in 1868.)

This is not a biography of the man, but of his ideas, so it skips over his life, except to say that his employment was in various small commercial enterprises until he became the editor and proprietor of a Wanganui newspaper, and later entered parliament in 1875 where – other than between 1881 and 1884 following an electoral defeat – he was an MP to his death. As a cabinet minister under George Grey, with whom he did not get on, and Stout with whom he did, he held all major portfolios, excepting Colonial Secretary. Everyone seemed to like him for his amiability, courtesy, consideration, gentleness of manner, and transparent honesty although he had political enemies because of their perceptions of his views.

His essentially humanitarian views, adopted with a quiet enthusiasm and promoted with practical commonsense, evolved over time. Stout says that Ballance’s budget speech of 1878 was of the Manchester School. ‘As the years wore on he began to see that the laissez faire policy was not the last word spoken on political science. He gradually drifted away from the orthodox political economists, becoming more radical and socialistic, following in this way the lead of such men as Toynbee, Sedgwick, Marshall, Ingram and others.’ (Stout seems unaware that even in 1893, when he wrote the obituary, Marshall was very orthodox.) Stout goes on that Ballance was pragmatic ‘approach[ing] many questions as a merchant would, dealing keenly and in a business way with bankers and others who had business transactions with the Government and making a bargain with all the shrewdness of a business man.’

Stout’s ‘pragmatism’ may reflect what later writers saw as Ballance’s radicalism tempered by his commitment to democracy, frequently cautioning his followers that policies he supported could not be pursued because the electorate was not ready for them.

Ballance’s intellectual shift in the 1880s helps an understanding of one of the puzzles of late nineteenth century New Zealand politics upon which both Ed Bohan and David Hamer, among others ponder, and partly explains the bitter falling out with Grey in 1879. We might describe Grey as a political Liberal, in the sense that Samuel Ballance was a political Conservative. John Ballance may have started that way, but he became increasingly radical, in part no doubt from his reading, but also because of the Long Depression of the 1880s which, as his opponent Harry Atkinson was to learn, ‘orthodox’ economics – as it was – did not help much. Reeves is right to describe the Ballance led government as ‘Progressive’, even if it still called itself ‘Liberal’.

Yet despite this transition, and the associated impacts of reading and the political economy on him, one can see that his Ulster background shaped him, albeit it was not that of a conventional Ulster protestant. His support for women’s franchise, a characteristic of most ‘progressives’, is usually attributed to the keen interest of his second wife, Ellen. His mother, who had died when he was 25, may also have influenced him. In any case, Ellen came from County Down.

We make take too, that Mary Ballance was also influential in encouraging her son’s religious tolerance, and while his approach to the Maori was not as liberal as one might have wish by today’s standards, it was considerably more enlightened than his predecessor Native Minister John Bryce (who, coincidentally, was jointly from the same electorate in multiple MP days).

Ballance’s farm background may suggest his particular interest in land issues, although there is the puzzle why as eldest son he did not take over the family farm. Brad Patterson argues convincingly, there was a strong Celtic influence on New Zealand land policies. But there was a strong New Zealand dimension too. At the end of the nineteenth century almost 40 percent of the Pakeha workforce were farmers or farm workers, and many of the rest depended on farmers for their business. Moreover, the structure of farming was changing dramatically, for the introduction of refrigeration made possible the small farms which Ballance promoted. This new form of pastoral farming was the leading growth sector of its time, around which the rest of the economy and society followed.

Ballance was an agrarian socialist. He wanted land farmed by independent tenanted family farmers – rather than collectives – under a benign public landlord. His policies, implemented by McKenzie, conflicted with the Henry George single taxers, since Ballance favoured a progressive land tax to burst up large estates. Success would reduce fiscal revenue as the size of farms diminished. Hence his introduction of income tax.

Ballance was also an economic nationalist, albeit – as in the case of his views on economic structure – one which reflected his day. His term for this nationalism was ‘self-reliance’, an opposition to borrowing with the objective of freeing New Zealand from ‘servile dependence’ to foreign moneylenders. In his last, 1892, Financial Statement (budget) Ballance announced that the government would not place a loan on the English money-market but would endeavour to finance public works out of the budget surplus. Hamer describes the tone of the statement as ‘ultra-nationalist. ‘He spoke of making New Zealand “a great country” and insisted that the New Zealand Parliament must be free to carry out reforms without hindrance from external influences. If New Zealand had to be sensitive to its credit rating with overseas creditors, then it might not be able to undertake experiments such as the land tax. The priority of the reforms that would make the New World a better place than the Old.’ Those sentiments echoes through later New Zealand politics.

No doubt the speech is also alluding to his dispute with the Governors of New Zealand who had reserved powers for themselves, which Ballance disputed. The British Colonial Office sided with him. Undoubtedly some of his antagonism to moneylending came from his petty commercial experience, some from his reading, but McIvor suggests an Ulster dimension in Balance’s responses to the Irish Question.

‘Initially Ballance hoped that loyalty to the English Crown could be restored through removing rural poverty, which he saw as the basis of discontent. Later he advocated Home Rule, arguing that the Ulster Protestants were by no means solidly against the idea. … In 1881 he moved a resolution … in support of the National Land League and in sympathy with evicted tenants, whom he described as victims of misgovernment, persecution and tyranny. A few years later he wrote … that the Irish Church and the land laws were “the foremost evils to be grappled with” in Ireland.’

Thus both his views on farming and on the relationship between the imperial centre and colonial periphery arose out of his Irish experience. Earlier I listed seven political colleagues of Ballance. Only two (Seddon and Vogel) of the eight were born in England (and despite his snobbish ambitions Vogel as a Jew was an English outsider). Of the remaining six, Carroll and Reeves were born in New Zealand, Ballance in Ireland, McKenzie and Stout in Scotland, and Ward in Australia of Irish parentage. Thus a good part of New Zealand nationalism of the late Nineteenth Century came from people who although born and growing up abroad were already separated from England. It is a nationalism partly rooted in Celtic Lands.

The roots were deep and diverse. Ballance’s early death followed by Seddon’s long regime meant he became a forgotten political figure. Although not immediately, for over the next two decades, his political ideology represented a standard against which any Liberal policy was tested. Yet even as he became personally forgotten, his ideas were absorbed into New Zealand progressive thought. We would do well to remember him.

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