Richard Seddon’s nickname, ‘King Dick’, says it all. Our longest-serving and most famous leader not only led the government, many argued he was the government. For 13 years he completely dominated politics.
Like Julius Vogel, Seddon followed gold to Victoria and New Zealand, in his case Westland, where he entered politics. In 1881 Kumara voters sent him to Parliament. His goldfields experience coloured his politics, explaining both his anti-Chinese prejudice and the pensions he gave to ageing pioneers.
This former publican was not John Ballance’s choice to succeed him, but with Sir Robert Stout away from Parliament, Seddon persuaded Cabinet to let him mind the shop until Stout returned. He then quickly persuaded his colleagues that a leadership dispute would risk the party’s precarious reforms. Stout was out.
After winning the 1893 election, Seddon entrenched the major Liberal reforms to land, labour and taxation previously thwarted by the upper house. He even took credit for enfranchising women, a reform he had opposed.
Sir John Hall spluttered that Seddon ‘canvasses & promises and appears at Polling Booths in his shirt sleeves’ but missed the point that this tubby, egotistical political dynamo lived and breathed pork barrel politics. Seddon dished out favours to voters and friends and was often dogged by minor scandals. But he survived, sometimes even convincing voters that his critics were harassing him.
Like his chief opponent, William Massey, Seddon refused a knighthood to stay a man of the people. If he privately regretted ‘having to let them think me a fool’, he knew that it helped him play them ‘like a pianner.’
Seddon, an ardent imperialist, sent troops to the South African War, dazzled imperial conferences, royal jubilees and coronations, and carved out a mini empire for New Zealand in the Pacific. His well-publicised excursions into Maori enclaves extended the empire domestically.
Seddon’s five consecutive election victories have never been matched. At his peak he exercised almost one-man, one-party rule, but the quality of his ministry declined as he monopolised important portfolios and meddled in the rest. By subordinating the extra-parliamentary party organisation, he weakened the Liberals.
But he enhanced his reputation by dying in the saddle. The 130 kg premier’s ill health had been downplayed, so New Zealanders were shocked when he died while returning from Australia. ‘King Dick’ did not invent the phrase, but Godzone still remembers his last shipboard telegram: ‘Just leaving for God’s own country.’
By Gavin McLean