Harry Atkinson was premier four times – five if you count the ‘reconstitution’ of his first ministry on a technicality a fortnight into its life. Like Edward Stafford, he was a stabilising force, someone who transcended regional concerns for the national interest.
Atkinson farmed in impoverished colonial Taranaki, where he combined provincial politics with active military service. He was defence minister in Weld’s ‘self reliance’ ministry and after 1873 he was, with three exceptions, in every Cabinet until 1891, personifying the term ‘Continuous Ministry’. Although often labelled ‘conservative’, cautious and pragmatic is more accurate. Thus he supported votes for women, abolished plural voting and sought a progressive national insurance scheme. Voters accustomed to Vogel’s pork barrel public spending sprees found his cautious attitude to borrowing for development frustrating.
Atkinson, Sir Harry since 1888, was beaten by John Ballance’s Liberals in 1890. In the interim between the election and Parliament reconvening, he unwisely colluded with the governor to stack the Legislative Council with conservatives, himself included. He died there as speaker in 1892.
By Gavin McLean