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Richard John Seddon

Richard John Seddon

Richard John Seddon (1845-1906) was a New Zealand political leader and Liberal prime minister who instituted liberal reforms and advocated imperial solidarity and expansion.

Richard John Seddon was born at St. Helens, Lancashire, England, on June 22, 1845, the son of a schoolmaster. He left school at the age of 12 and at 18 emigrated to Australia, where he worked on the goldfields in Victoria. He moved on to New Zealand in 1866 and established himself as a hotelkeeper. He entered local politics in 1869 and 10 years later transferred to the House of Representatives as a Liberal.

Seddon soon showed himself to be an astute party manager, a hard worker, and a loud, forceful, and verbose speaker who had little time for experts and possessed a strong faith in the virtues of the common man. In 1891 he became minister of public works, defense, and mines in the Liberal government, and in 1892, when John Ballance, the prime minister, became ill, Seddon acted as leader of the House. When Ballance died in 1893, Seddon was invited to form a government.

Seddon was prime minister for 13 years, and his administration pursued an energetic social program. Graduated land and income taxes were introduced, large holdings were broken up by means of taxes on unimproved property and estates with absentee owners, and attempts were made to encourage the small farmers. In 1894 industrial conciliation and arbitration boards were set up for what was the first compulsory system of state arbitration in the world. An 8-hour working day was established by law in 1897, old-age pensions were introduced in 1898, the free place system in secondary schools was established in 1903, and, somewhat by chance, female suffrage was adopted in 1893.

In external affairs Seddon was the most prominent colonial advocate of imperial preference. He favored a policy of imperial solidarity and expansion: the Cook Islands were annexed to New Zealand in 1900, and a contingent of New Zealand troops was dispatched to support the British Empire in the Boer War.

The social reforms were not necessarily Seddon's own handiwork, of course, but his support was always an essential factor in getting legislation passed. Personally, he was gross, vulgar, domineering, and probably dishonest, but he was well liked and gained a firm hold on the affections of the general public. He centralized the administration too much, and he held too many ministerial portfolios himself, but his personal style became the model for later leaders in New Zealand politics. He died in office on June 10, 1906.

Further Reading

The best biography is Randal M. Burdon, King Dick: A Biography of Richard John Seddon (1955). An earlier but still useful work is James Drummond, The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon (1907). □

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