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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.





Prime Minister, newspaper editor and proprietor.

A new biography of Ballance, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Ballance was born on 27 March 1839, the eldest son of Samuel Ballance, at Glenavy in County Antrim, Ireland. His father was a farmer, a descendant of seventeenth century Puritan immigrants to the north of Ireland from England. His mother was Mary, née McNiece, a Quaker.

Ballance was educated at the local national school. At the age of 14 he left home and, for four years, was apprenticed to an ironmonger in Belfast where he learned the rudiments of commercial practice. In 1857, when 18 years old, he secured employment in an ironmongery warehouse in Birmingham, where his education proceeded rapidly. In Birmingham, then “a centre of Radicalism and home of self-culture”, he attended classes at the Midland Institute, concentrating on the study of history and modern politics. He belonged to various literary and debating societies, acquiring something of a reputation as a speaker and as a writer of articles for the press. As a traveller for his firm he gained impressions of social conditions in nineteenth century industrial England.

In 1866 Ballance migrated to New Zealand, where he settled in Wanganui. Lacking the capital to make a satisfactory start on the land, as he had intended to do, he opened a jeweller's shop on Taupo Quay. In 1867 he gave up shopkeeping in favour of newspaper publishing. On 4 June 1867 Ballance and his partner, A. D. Willis, brought out the first number of the Herald, a penny evening paper which appeared three times a week. Later, Ballance became sole proprietor and editor, making a reputation in Wanganui as an energetic, well informed writer of independent mind. In 1868 Titokowaru's attacks on Wanganui and Patea opened a fresh phase of the Maori Wars in which Ballance had peculiarly mixed fortunes. In his paper and at a public meeting, which he summoned, he played a leading part in founding a cavalry unit. His vigorous denunciation in the Herald of a proclamation which ordered all men into the ranks of the militia led to his arrest. After his release, he served in the cavalry at Nukumaru and around Waitotara, earning promotion first to corporal and then to cornet. But, contrary to traditional practice in the services, Ballance also acted as a war correspondent for his paper. One Herald article was so fiercely critical of the Government's war policy that Ballance's commission was cancelled without any official inquiry.

In 1873 Ballance entered politics, standing for the Egmont electorate. The main issue was provincialism versus centralism. As a supporter of Stafford's “Centralist” policy, Ballance retired in favour of Sir Harry Atkinson who was elected. In 1875 Ballance entered the House of Representatives as a member for the Rangitikei, speaking and voting in favour of the abolition of the provinces. Two years later, Ballance severed his connection with the Atkinson Government and, following his natural inclinations, he joined the Liberals under Sir George Grey. In January 1878 he became Commissioner of Customs and Minister of Education in the Grey Government, and in July of the same year he became Colonial Treasurer. The outstanding feature of his Budget was the introduction of the land tax, aimed not at speeding up subdivision but at raising revenue in an equitable manner. It imposed a tax of a halfpenny in the pound on the unimproved value of landed estates valued at more than £500. Ballance also favoured an income tax on companies' profits and an excise duty on beer but neither of these measures was accepted by the Parliament of the day. After a series of differences and quarrels with Sir George Grey, in which both men apparently lost their tempers, Ballance resigned from the Government in July 1878 but continued to support it in the House.

In 1879 Ballance became a member for Wanganui, and in the next two years he enhanced his reputation as a debater and political strategist. In the 1881 election, however, he showed overconfidence and a neglect of tactical considerations by going with friends to assist and vote in a neighbouring constituency with the result that he himself was defeated by four votes. Local sympathy for the strong-arm policy of John Bryce against the Maori prophet, Te Whiti, at Parihaka, which Ballance had criticised, also contributed to his defeat. In 1884, however, Ballance was returned to Parliament by a substantial majority for the constituency of Wanganui which also re-elected him in 1887 and 1890.

In the Stout-Vogel administration, which held office from September 1884 till October 1887, Ballance took over the portfolios of Lands, Defence, and Native Affairs. Advancing ideas which he had publicised in newspaper articles and in a pamphlet, A National Land Policy (1882), Ballance sought to limit the alienation of Crown lands, on the one hand, and the undue aggregation of land by a few private monopolists, on the other. His scheme of village settlements was designed to cure unemployment and to get more people on the land. It was not an unqualified success, partly because of the poor choice of areas for development. Nevertheless, in 18 months, over 1,000 families were placed on the land. Ballance also set aside the large National Park of some 66,000 acres on the slopes of Tongariro and Ruapehu. As Defence Minister, during the Russian scare of 1885, he instituted a system of coastal defences and fortifications. As Native Minister, he began negotiations with the Maoris of the King Country and, through his “one policeman policy”, dispensed with the services of military forces for preserving law and order among the Maoris.

In the Opposition of 1887–90, Ballance was the outstanding leader, although he was not formally elected leader until 1889. During those years he not only adapted the theoretical teachings of Cobden, Bright, Marshall, Sidgwick, and other English politicians and thinkers, to practical New Zealand needs but also turned more deliberately towards winning the support of the growing working class in the towns. At the election on 5 December 1890, the year of strikes in London, Australia, and New Zealand, Ballance led the Liberals to victory. In addition to his Liberal following of 37, he could count on the six Labour members and some of the seven independents for support. On the resignation of the Atkinson Government in January 1891, Ballance became Premier, Colonial Treasurer, and Commissioner of Customs in a Liberal Government which contained only one other member with previous ministerial experience (Buckley in the Legislative Council), but did contain men such as R. J. Seddon, J. McKenzie, W. P. Reeves, and J. G. Ward. In 1892 Ballance added James Carroll, a half-caste Maori, to the Cabinet as a representative of the Maori race.

To fulfil election promises was no easy task, but Ballance set the pace with a Land and Income Tax Bill which instituted direct taxation and also put a graduated tax on land, as well as repealing the former inequitable property tax. He also imposed for the first time a totalisator tax of 1½ per cent of the money passed through the racecourse totalisators. Associated with his determination to reduce Government expenditure and to enforce retrenchment until the economy of the depression-ridden country was placed on a sounder footing was his refusal to go to the London market for any loans. He held that a self-reliant financial policy would end a period of “servile dependence” and would improve New Zealand's prospects in the future. His Ministry inaugurated the era of social legislation for which, under the Liberal-Labour Government New Zealand became famous, with a new Factory Act, an Employers' Liability Act, and four other Acts designed to improve conditions of labour for workers of different kinds.

Ballance's Government was accused of being socialist. The term “State Socialism” was frequently used by the Opposition press as a term of opprobrium. But Ballance and his colleagues were really concerned with “legislating for the masses” in what they believed to be a practical way rather than with implementing plans to erect a socialist State. The Legislative Council or Upper House of Parliament remained the great stumbling block to much of the Government's legislation. No fewer than five important Government Bills and three minor ones failed to pass the Legislative Council in a manner satisfactory to Ballance's Government. These Bills included McKenzie's Land Bill which was considered to be of primary importance in the Liberal programme and the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Bill introduced by Reeves. The more conservative side of the Legislative Council had been strengthened in January 1891, that is, after the decisive election of the previous month, by the addition of six nominees of the retiring Atkinson Government. Ballance therefore asked that the Governor, Lord Onslow, should appoint 12 new Liberal nominees. Lord Onslow refused on the ground that this would mean “swamping” the Upper House. His successor, Lord Glasgow, took a similar stand. Ballance had already in 1891 succeeded in having the tenure of office of a new Legislative Councillor reduced from life to seven years but he was determined that government in New Zealand should be by the elected representatives of the people and not by the nominees of past Governments. He insisted that the question at issue should be submitted to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Marquess of Ripon, who ruled that, as Imperial interests were not affected, the Governor should accept the advice of his Ministers. Throughout the controversy Ballance acted with quiet dignity, but, in a private letter to his intimate friend and former colleague, Sir Robert Stout he referred to Lord Ripon's decision as “the completest vindication of the rights of the people under responsible government which has perhaps ever been made”. Of Ballance's 12 nominees, four represented Labour, a fact which emphasised the democratic character of the Government. Ballance also insisted that the prerogative of pardon should be exercised by the Governor only on the advice of his responsible Ministers.

Ballance was interested in external affairs. In the Pacific he favoured an expansionist policy in the Cook Islands and objected to any increase in French influence in the New Hebrides. He opposed New Zealand's entry into any Australian or Australasian federation.

During 1892 Ballance became seriously ill and although, as his health permitted, he continued to attend to ministerial business up until 23 April 1893, he died after two operations on 27 April 1893, the first Premier of New Zealand to die in office.

Despite his lack of formal academic training, Ballance was a studious scholarly man who read both widely and deeply on political and social questions. Gentle and kindly, he was no weakling but a man of great sincerity and considerable determination. His kindness of heart was such that he was sometimes imposed upon. His private secretary claimed that, despite the irksome cares of office, Ballance was never irritable and always showed the most amazing patience. Neither particularly brilliant nor ready in debate, he was nonetheless a clear and forceful speaker who prepared his main speeches with elaborate care. In this respect, he improved with experience and, as Leader of the House, he built up a reputation for knowledgeable speaking and great courtesy.

Ballance's greatest contribution to New Zealand history lay in his quality as a leader and in his success in forming a strong political party which was able to hold the reins of office for 20 years. In opposition, he successfully welded the Liberal members into a team, and, in power, he fused the Liberal and Labour elements among his supporters into one party. Seddon inherited not only a policy and a political programme but also an instrument of political power. Ballance's colleagues paid high tribute to his qualities as a man.

Seddon said:

“He has been a good, true, and faithful servant to the colony. Parliament will miss his wise counsel and the great ability which distinguished his efforts as a legislator and a public man. He was ever generous alike to opponents and friends. He was a wise counsellor, and he had the entire confidence of those whom he led. I can go further, and say that he was loved and respected by all; and I might say truthfully that we shall never see his like again. I am unable to do full justice to his worth. His life proves that he sought not riches; but what he did seek, and what he obtained, was the good will of his fellow-men.”

Stout recorded:

“He had a magnetic power of attaching people to him; no one had warmer friends. This very power, however, led many people to be bitterly opposed to him, and he had as every public man has, some bitter, sometimes not very scrupulous foes; but even to his bitterest opponent he was always considerate.”

Reeves held that:

“Though too quiet and unassertive to be popular with the masses, he was solid enough to be respected, amiable enough to be liked by friends and too unaggressive to be hated by enemies.”

Ballance was twice married: in 1863 he married Fanny Taylor, who died in 1868, and in 1870 he married Ellen Anderson. He had no children but adopted one of his nieces.


Angus Ross, M.C. AND BAR, M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D.(CANTAB.), Professor of History, University of Otago.

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