King Dick: supreme populist of God's Own

By Andrew Stone

Author Tom Brooking found long-time Premier Richard Seddon had a knack of making people feel special

Richard "King Dick" Seddon.
Richard "King Dick" Seddon.

The last word Richard John Seddon uttered as he collapsed from a massive heart attack was "Mother!"

King Dick's ticker had finally succumbed after years of keeping the burly politician going at a frantic pace. Seddon, just two weeks shy of turning 61, died on the shoulder of wife Louise - "mother" of their 11 children - in a cabin on board Owestry Grange, a 10,000-tonne steamer taking the populist New Zealand Prime Minister home from a month-long stay in Australia.

Welcomed in Sydney and Melbourne as a political celebrity, Seddon had the press eating out of his sizeable hands. The Sydney Morning Herald rated him a better class of "genus politician" than anyone else on offer, while the nationalistic Bulletin, which in the past had caned him for behaving in an "oafish" manner, offered some doggerel: "Now the toiler's friend is here, Raise a whoop or two in praise of Digger Dick."

So Seddon completed his last jaunt embalmed in a casket. The sudden demise of the political colossus left both countries reeling in shock. Trains in Melbourne blew their whistles in synchronised tribute while firms in New Zealand shut their doors for half a day.

At Parliament, where Seddon's body lay in state, Maori from iwi which had been loyal to the Liberal leader paid special farewells before about 35,000 mourners who filed past the coffin. The uncrowned king of "Maoriland" was laid to rest at Bolton St Cemetery with a rousing haka, the crack of a rifle volley and the Last Post.

It was the biggest funeral the country had seen and utterly fitting, says historian Tom Brooking, author of Richard Seddon King of God's Own, the first major biography of the long-serving Premier in half a century.

"He was our first real populist Prime Minister," says Brooking, a professor of history at Otago University.

"He was charismatic and dynamic. That's why he was able to dominate politics for so long.

"He had extraordinary energy and he was constantly stomping the country by steamship, in a train, on horseback and, if necessary, he got up on his tootsies and walked."

All that effort paid off. Seddon spent 13 years in office as the top dog, a record that has never been bettered in New Zealand. His Liberal Party held power for 21 years, its rule ending in 1912 when William Massey's Reform Party dangled a freehold promise to property leaseholders.

In office, aided by talented colleagues such as William Pember Reeves and James Carroll, Seddon - warily - secured the vote for women, sent troopers to the Boer War, resisted federation with Australia partly because of the uncertainty it held for Maori, blunted the forces of temperance, played a deft nepotistic hand, passed an act to protect New Zealand's scenic beauty, made secondary education more available and nationalised river beds for power supplies.

Just how then did a politician, a rough-hewn product of Lancashire, a mechanic, goldminer, storekeeper and publican who could talk the leg off a chair, become such a stellar performer that the first impression visitors to Parliament's grounds encounter is an imposing bronze statue of Seddon in full oratorical flight?

Brooking's answer - he spent 10 years on the book, diving into Seddon's history as time allowed - is that the big, gruff, pear-shaped campaigner, who tipped the scales at 130kg, had a gift of connecting effortlessly with his constituents, even though his idea of a sound-bite was a 60-minute discourse, often wrapping up with a song.

"He had an uncanny knack," Brooking suggests, "of telling an audience what they wanted to hear and making them feel special."

And beyond that, Seddon on the stump was a force of nature who could project ideals to a broad reach of voters, from the West Coast miners where he cut his political teeth to the small farmers and skilled workers in the larger centres. Seddon grasped that the best pace for reform was slow and methodical so as not to stretch too far from his constituents.

While a critical press scoffed at his diction - he dropped his "h"s - Seddon knew both the limits of his audience and their appetite for change.

Brooking contends that Seddon's core themes - his assault on privilege, his targeting of the biggest landowners and powerful monopolies, his promise to make "God's Own" a better place and, less attractively, his racial hostility towards Chinese migrants - struck a chord with supporters.

No recordings have emerged of Seddon from these times, though black and white photographs show him stern-faced, engaging directly with outdoor audiences. Picture research for Brooking's 580-page biography turned up a single image of a smiling Premier: it captures Seddon clearly enjoying a haka delivered by James Carroll, his invaluable ally in connecting with Maori, and a group of bowler-hatted Tuhoe men.

The author thinks the pictorial absence of a laughing leader had more to do with turn-of-the-century cameras, which required patience from their subjects, as well as the state of Seddon's teeth.

"It's a bit difficult smiling if your teeth are all over the place."

Brooking says the time was right to tackle a new account of Seddon, who was last the subject of a biography in 1955. The Dunedin academic says he wanted to draw on fresh historical scholarship, tap into Maori assessment of Seddon, follow the Premier's global tracks as far as possible and unpick some myths around "King Dick".

The popular impression of Seddon, says Brooking, is that of an anti-intellectual populist, who did a successful sideline in demagoguery, racism, jingoism and misogynism.

The author finds traces of these elements in Seddon's character, but a whole lot more besides.

On his relationship with Maori, Brooking calls it complex and uneven. He rewarded loyal iwi, but failed with others, doing his best, writes Brooking, "to help improve the lot of an indigenous people whom he truly admired".

And while Seddon may have been reluctant to extend the franchise to women, he seemed to listen to the wishes of his influential wife and daughters and hesitated over suffrage for fear that female voters would throw the Liberals out of office.

The second son of two school teachers, Seddon was a teenager when he left the grimy industrial town of St Helens, Lancashire, in 1862 and worked his passage to Victoria, Australia. He stayed for four years, using his engineering skills at a railway workshops and making the acquaintance of his future wife, Louisa Jane Spotswood. In 1866, Seddon sailed for Hokitika, where the West Cast was in the grip of a gold rush.

Using his mechanical talents to build water races, Seddon opened a store, secured a liquor licence and became a miner's agent. According to legend, he settled the odd unpaid account with a bout of fisticuffs - losing only one bout to a certain "Red Dan" who had to cheat to win.

Towards the end of Seddon's career, says Brooking, the master politician had become adept at burnishing his reputation as both a nationalist and an imperialist.

As the 1905 All Blacks - the "Originals" - swept nearly all before them in Britain (he blamed the referee for the 3-0 loss to Wales) Seddon had scores transmitted from London.

When Dave Gallaher's team came home, the opportunist Premier - dubbed the "Minister of Football" by Wellington's Evening Post - arranged a civic reception and hitched his star to the players - the first, but certainly not the last, politician to seek a bit of reflected All Black glory. Brooking calls Seddon a "maintenance man".

"He's not the architect but he's definitely a builder and just as importantly a maintenance man, someone high up who fixes things as they go. That's an essential element in a political party ... the one who keeps the wheels turning."

Richard Seddon King of God's Own by Tom Brooking ( Penguin RRP $65)

- NZ Herald

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