Operatically triumphant, Jeanine Graham

Edward Stafford: New Zealand’s First Statesman
Edmund Bohan
Hazard Press $49.95

Years of exposure to the drama and rhetoric of the performing arts and a professional lifetime of meticulous attention to accuracy and detail have enabled Edmund Bohan to bring a unique perspective to his historical research. The result is a biography as exciting and inspiring as any operatic triumph. Throughout a tightly‑structured and superbly‑directed performance, principals move on and off stage in a lengthy sequence of act and scene, the complexity of which is a salutary reminder that small-screen-sized snippets are no substitute for sustained scholarly scrutiny. Discounted for a century, Edward Stafford’s contribution to the life and progress of this country has at last been fully and fairly documented and evaluated.

Bohan’s essay in the first volume of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography outlined what this sustained biography confirms: Stafford’s record of achievement is outstanding. Pioneer, political activist, provincial superintendent, premier, runholder, horsebreeder, jockey and sportsman; civil service reformer, advocate of income tax and visionary, this man was an extraordinarily talented, energetic and astute Scottish‑Irish presence in colonial life. An environmentalist well before his time, Stafford nurtured the establishment of the Auckland Domain, landscaped the gardens of Government House and agitated unceasingly for the protection and controlled management of the colony’s forests. Convinced that the only certain future for New Zealand was one in which racial and administrative divisions played no part, he found himself persistently in strong opposition to the paternalism of Donald McLean and the extreme provincialism of such men as William Fitzherbert and William Reeves. His manner irritated; his superciliousness gave offence; he showed no verbal mercy towards political opponents who misrepresented him; and his pragmatism triumphed. Only three politicians since have held prime ministerial office for longer than the nine years in which Stafford served the country as premier (1856‑1861, 1865‑69, 1872); none have been younger than the 37‑year‑old Stafford when first appointed to that position.

“Stafford was a small man with a large personality”, his biographer writes (p10); “he had the confidence and manner of the opera tenor. He also had acute intelligence and formidable general knowledge” ‑ and he could arouse vituperative opposition, much of which was expressed within the House and through the columns of a far‑from-impartial colonial press. Bohan has used such material to advantage, quoting extensively from the contemporary comments in both public record and private manuscript: the outcome is not just an insight into how Stafford operated but an enriched understanding of the political culture of the era.

W P Morrell’s 1938 study of the provincial system and A H McLintock’s 1958 analysis of the Crown colony era laid secure foundations for extended work but relatively few researchers since have chosen to build on them. There are now some biographies ‑ of Harry Atkinson, Grey, Monro, Vogel, Weld; there are some theses and articles ‑ it seems curious that the works of D G Herron and G A Wood are not listed in the bibliography. Yet the portrait gallery, neatly captioned and inserted in the text, provides a visual prompt that so many of the major figures of this critical period in our history still await their biographers: Featherston, Fenton, Fox, Fitzherbert and FitzGerald, J C and C W Richmond and Donald McLean, whose handwriting defeats all but the most dedicated. The lack of scholarly analysis of such men seriously hampers our understanding of why so many policies which continue to impact upon race relations, economic and political development took the particular form that they did. Present‑day debates over Maori representation, for example, could only be enhanced by the insights which Stafford provides into the attitudes of legislators towards that issue when it was first discussed more than a century ago.

For readers with a present‑centred approach to the past, there is much scope for reflection: the unacceptably high personal price of political life; the struggle to provide care for the mentally ill, the widespread disregard for sound financial practice in order to gain political advantage; the refusal to recognise that partnership not paternalism was the only secure foundation for a bicultural future. Stafford paid the first, maintained the second, tried unsuccessfully to counteract the third and remained committed to a policy of inclusion throughout his life. He argued vehemently for an equality of access to quality education; he recognised the need for controlled overseas investment in New Zealand’s economic development ‑ and he heard but did not alleviate the discomfort of the four non‑smoking parliamentarians forced to endure the pollution caused by their 100 smoking colleagues. Stafford’s vision throughout his entire political career was for a united nation, not a series of competing regional enterprises. He also believed in strict accountability of government expenditure and was prepared to incur the wrath of supporters and the displeasure of both Governor and Imperial Government in the process.

Bohan’s own penchant for close attention to detail emulates that of his subject: the outcome is a series of well-argued insights exposing the chicanery of those whose responsibility it was to act with integrity. Sir George Bowen’s behaviour in October 1872 is a case in point: “When a man gives two different reasons for his conduct, the chances are that neither is quite the true one.” (p328)

Bohan’s final commentary should be compulsory reading for all historians, journalists and television commentators in training ‑ and for current practitioners in these fields. The prejudice and opposition which led to Stafford’s contribution being ignored, obscured or devalued for more than a century is clearly outlined.

Historians, good and otherwise, have been the most culpable. It is not simply that Stafford’s reputation has been “the casualty of the well‑turned sentence” (p387); it is the very failure of such scholars to question the veracity of their sources which has done Stafford such a disservice. There was very little syndication or successful stifling of the independence of the colonial press during Stafford’s time in politics ‑ but there was precious little impartiality either. Politicians exploited media opportunities to the full, Domett with the Nelson Examiner, William Reeves at the Lyttleton Times; FitzGerald and then Edward Stevens at the Christchurch Press; Vogel’s use of the Otago Daily Times: The proprietorship of these southern and other papers was always public knowledge, as Pat Day’s The Making of the New Zealand Press, 18401880 confirms.

Contemporaries clearly understood that political points-scoring would continue well beyond the House. Later commentators appear to have underestimated the consequences of that practice. It was no accident that William Pember Reeves effectively wrote his father’s most hated political opponent out of New Zealand history but Bohan’s analysis of how that distortion was perpetuated by successive generations of historians should be a strong inducement to contemporary politicians to begin their own memoirs. As both past and very recent experiences have shown, personal explanation could scarcely be less unreliable than the diatribes of political opponents as a source for scholars to consider.

At its best, political biography is one of the most effective means we can have of coming to terms with our colonial past. Bohan’s analysis of Stafford is so convincing, so refreshingly well‑written and so forthright in approach that it has completely recharged my sense of excitement about a period in which I was once immersed but have since ceased to research.

This is the first major study for which volume 1 of the DNZB could be fully utilised. To acknowledge the value of that resource is not in any way to diminish Bohan’s beautifully‑crafted pen portraits of all the major personalities in Stafford’s world. It is simply to emphasise to those who have the financial power to reduce or to enlarge our cultural inheritance that investment in projects which so patently enrich a people’s understanding of their past is an investment which endures. Bohan is the first to acknowledge that funding from the Historical Branch and QEII Arts Council contributed significantly to the preparation and publication of this book. The pity is that such cost‑effective assistance is so difficult to obtain and so persistently underfunded.

One can only hope that Stafford finds its way onto many an MP’s summer reading list, for the timely outcome might just be a realisation that it is much better to ensure that one’s contribution is evaluated by a dedicated scholar than left to the mercy of contemporary commentator. And please will an astute young historian in search of a good PhD take up the challenge to explore the influence of Wellington’s political wives?

Jeanine Graham is a senior lecturer in history at Waikato University. Her biography of Frederick Weld was published in 1983. The latest Stout Centre Review (vol 4 no 3) contains essays by Bohan on Stafford, by Barry Gustafson on Muldoon, and by Michael Bassett on Ward and Coates.

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