Monday, January 10, 2011

Provincial Councillors, and the turpentine cat

I recently borrowed a copy of Tom Walsh's 1924 A Story of Devonport and the Old North Shore. The following isn't about the North Shore at all, but sprang from part of an article included by Walsh, called "Early Government", to do with the Auckland Provincial Council.

"Fourth Superintendent, Mr John Williamson, defeated Mr J A Gilfillan, 28/10/56-18/8/57. The sixth session called for 9/12/56 was noticeable for the strained relations between the Superintendent and the Council, which culminated in both the Council and the Superintendent issuing writs for the filling of a seat vacant through resignation. The two members who were elected both claimed the seat, and on one occasion the Council was locked up for a night and a day in connection with the wrangle. During the night that bugbear of politicians, the "mob", gathered outside the Council Chamber and hurled stones at the building, and as confidence grew pushed through an open window a cat with a tin of turpentine tied to its tail."

Well, not exactly correct, but I'd say Walsh was having just as much difficulty sorting through the bizarre politics of that summer of 1856-1857.

On an Auckland summer’s day, 17 February 1857, the Provincial Council was in session. A division was called for, and as per the rules, the doors were duly locked. The Speaker couldn’t accept the division lists, however, because there were 25 members present, instead of the required 24. The lists were returned to the tellers for a recount – but the tellers couldn’t come to an agreement. The Speaker couldn’t order the doors to be unlocked until the vote was decided, and he couldn’t decide the vote because there was one too many Council members – so the doors stayed locked. Retiring members could have counted themselves out, but didn’t; and the Speaker could have retired from the chair, also solving the impasse, but – he stoutly refused. The only option left seemed for the Speaker to become so exhausted that he would be forced to retire the chair. Or tumble from it, asleep, whichever came soonest.

A member from the Southern Division of the Province hoped to anger the Speaker so much he would leap up, affronted – and so retire by absence. The member accused the Speaker of partisanship, “in a manner most offensive”. It didn’t work. The Speaker remained in his seat until Wednesday afternoon. Then, as soon as he rose, the doorkeeper unlocked the doors and the weary members gathering up their makeshift bedding and tottered out into the sun.

On Thursday, it all started again, the Speaker “prepared for all contingencies, and would have been able to keep his seat … until released by the dawning of Sunday, should his duty require him so to do.” But there was still the same problem – one too many members.

The numbers problem with an bi-election during the term of the fourth session of the Provincial Council. One of the members, one for Auckland Suburbs, resigned. At the bi-election, the result was disputed, the victor being challenged by a petitioner who called foul. The victor, David Graham, resigned, “seeing a clear case against him”, and the Superintendent, without consulting the Council, accepted the resignation, and called for another election. But – the Council disagreed and voted acceptance of Graham as a member of the Council, the Speaker refused to put “an illegal question” on the Council rescinding their voted support for Graham, and at the two-candidate election (Daniel Pollen was the unsuccessful candidate), William Crush Daldy was duly elected to the same seat occupied by David Graham.

The Provincial Law Officer advised that the extra seat given to David Graham was an absurdity, but the issue was a political one: that of some members of the Council (called the “privilege party”) versus the Superintendent’s party.

Provincial Acts remained unsigned, the Speaker unable to do so because of the illegality of the extra Council member. Hugh Carleton for the Bay of Islands then put the spanner in the works even further – he called for an adjournment. Which was something that needed to be voted on, and a division was called. And the doors locked once again …

Some members of the Privilege party scarpered out the doors before they were locked. The division was called, the tellers couldn’t agree, and the Speaker stuck fast to his chair. The Superintendent’s party tried every which way to get him to retire from the chair, so that a temporary chairman could be installed, vital legislation approved, before the Superintendent called a halt to the session and prorogued it. From outside, apples were thrown in through the windows, and the members inside went scurrying after them. in a near riot Amidst banging and ringing and general uproar, a mob gathered outside the Council chambers, and a cat, with a tin of turpentine tied to her tail, was thrown into the room, dashing madly with her highly flammable attachment amongst the candles. The members and staff caught the cat in time, but through the night the wooden building was pelted by stones as the furore continued within. The Southern Cross writer felt sure at one stage a sledgehammer was being pounded to keep the Speaker awake.

But, the Speaker stood up to the punishment, and didn’t falter. Friday afternoon came – whatever his preparations had been, they appeared to have left him looking almost as fresh as a daisy.

Williamson, the Superintendent, had had enough, though. He issued the following statement.

Superintendent's Office, Auckland, February 20, 1857.
MESSAGE No. 51.
The Superintendent learns with deep regret that, at a moment when questions of high import to the public interests demand the immediate consideration of the Representatives of the Province, the action of the Provincial Council is arrested upon a point of order, and that there is no immediate probability that the Council will be permitted to relieve itself from its present embarrassment. Under these circumstances the Superintendent proposes to assume the responsibility of carrying on the business of the Province, and of actively prosecuting the several public works, pending the passing of the Appropriation Act for the year, in order that the present favourable season may not be lost, and that the distress which would inevitably be produced by throwing a large number of workmen out of employment may be averted. In the hope that upon mature reflection a better understanding amongst the members of the Council may be speedily arrived at. The Superintendent has resolved to prorogue the Provincial Council, and has accordingly issued the Proclamation which is transmitted herewith.
J Williamson, Superintendent.

Source: Southern Cross, from December 1856 to February 1857

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