John Ballance was born at Ballypitmave, near Glenavy in County Antrim, Ireland, into a comfortably off but not prosperous family. His date of birth is said to have been 27 March 1839; he was baptised on 7 April that year. His father, Samuel Ballance, was a Protestant tenant farmer 'with evangelical tendencies'; his mother, Mary McNiece, was a Quaker from a prominent local family. The eldest of 11 children, John was educated at the local national school and at Wilson's Academy in Belfast. Early impressions of him are of a sturdy but rather lazy boy with a propensity to do nothing all day but read. Samuel Ballance was active in politics, at times nominating conservative candidates for Belfast, and his son took a precocious interest in these activities. At 16 years of age he was helping to write his father's speeches. But if it was his father who brought John Ballance into early contact with political life, it was his more liberal mother who influenced the direction of his own political philosophy. A series of major sectarian riots in Belfast also made a lasting impression.
Ballance left Wilson's Academy before completing his education and took a job with a Belfast hardware firm. In 1857 he left Belfast for Birmingham, where he worked as a travelling salesman. Caught up in the Victorian ethic of self-help and self-education, he enrolled in evening classes at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, studying politics, biography and history. Birmingham was at the centre of important political and philosophical movements and Ballance took a lively interest in current affairs. He heard speeches by major figures of the day such as John Bright, Michael Faraday and Joseph Chamberlain.
In Birmingham Ballance also met Fanny Taylor, the daughter of a licensed victualler; they were married at St Peter and St Paul's Church, Aston, on 17 June 1863. Not long afterwards, due in part to Fanny's ill health, they decided to emigrate to New Zealand where she had a brother living in Whanganui. In April 1866 they left London on the Ruahine bound for Melbourne, Australia, and after a short stay continued to New Zealand on the Albion. They arrived at Wellington on 11 August, and a few days later travelled on to Whanganui.
In Whanganui John Ballance opened a shop on Taupō Quay, selling jewellery he had purchased in Australia. The business was neither successful nor something Ballance contemplated pursuing for long. Instead his chosen career was journalism. In 1867 he established the Evening Herald in partnership with local printer A. D. Willis. An able and innovative journalist, Ballance managed and edited the Evening Herald (from 1876 the Wanganui Herald ) and its weekly edition, the Weekly Herald (later the Yeoman) with considerable success, particularly in the years before the economic downturn of the 1880s.
During the war against Tītokowaru of Ngāti Ruanui in 1868–69, when the township of Whanganui felt itself under immediate threat, the Herald was outspoken in its criticism of the poor performance of the British forces and vehement in its attitude to Tītokowaru's forces. Regarded by authorities as a maverick troublemaker, Ballance spent a night in jail after refusing to respond to an order to turn out as part of the local militia, the compulsory nature of which offended his liberal beliefs. However, he later saw some limited action with the Wanganui Cavalry Volunteers, which he had helped to found. Not slow to turn the situation to his own advantage, he combined the roles of soldier and war correspondent to build on a personal reputation that quickly spread beyond Whanganui. The public perception gained of Ballance at this time through his bellicose editorials in the Herald was of a man who 'called a spade a spade'. The later testimony of friends, however, spoke of his soft-hearted and kindly personality.
Ballance became increasingly involved in Whanganui affairs, helping to found the Wanganui and Rangitīkei Land and Building Society and the local Oddfellows lodge. He had a great passion for chess, at which he was extremely competent, and started a chess club in the 1870s; he also had an interest in horse racing. In March 1868 Fanny Ballance died after a short illness, at the age of 24. Two years later, at Wellington, on 19 May 1870, John Ballance married Ellen Anderson, the daughter of Wellington merchant David Anderson and his wife, Ann Thompson. There were no children from either marriage, but in 1886 Ellen and John adopted Ellen's four-year-old niece, Florence Anderson, whom they re-christened Kathleen.
In 1872 Ballance put his name forward at a parliamentary by-election for the seat of Egmont, but withdrew before the vote. Three years later he narrowly won in Rangitīkei, on a platform stressing abolition of the provincial system and arguing in favour of state education. He increased his majority at the general election of 1876.
Ballance made an early impact in Wellington. Following the abolition of the provinces in 1876 he focused on the promotion of closer land settlement, which he considered to be the major political issue of the day. He joined George Grey's ministry in January 1878 as commissioner of customs, commissioner of stamp duties and minister of education. Shortly afterwards he became colonial treasurer – high office for a relatively young and politically inexperienced man. His financial statement of 6 August 1878 was arguably the most important since Julius Vogel's public works announcement eight years earlier. As colonial treasurer Ballance reformed the tariff (including removing duty on basic necessities) and introduced a modest but symbolically important land tax. However, with the government in disarray and the economy in decline, he resigned in 1879 after quarrelling with the authoritarian Grey.
Ballance won the Whanganui seat in 1879 but two years later suffered what was to be his only electoral defeat. Out of Parliament he continued to advocate legislative and other measures to promote closer land settlement; encouraging, for example, the establishment of small farm associations. He reorganised his newspaper business (turning the Herald into a joint stock company) and wrote a series of articles (published in 1887 as a pamphlet, A national land policy based on the principle of state ownership) outlining his views on land reform and nationalisation. He also became involved in the freethought movement. A convinced secularist, he formed the Wanganui Freethought Association with Willis in 1883 and brought out the monthly Freethought Review (1883–85).
At the 1884 general election Ballance was returned for Whanganui by a sizeable majority. He subsequently joined the Stout–Vogel ministry, holding the lands and immigration, native affairs and defence portfolios. With his Land Act 1885, a major piece of legislation, he sought to place as many people as possible on the land by encouraging leasehold tenure and establishing government-assisted special settlement schemes. The former device proved more successful than the latter. As native minister he pursued an enlightened, if somewhat paternalistic, policy aimed at protecting Māori land from private sale. He removed a substantial number of armed constabulary from sensitive areas on the grounds that their presence in large numbers aggravated tension between Māori and European. Ballance visited Māori throughout the North Island and made an effort to acquire some proficiency in their language. It was at his suggestion that Horonuku Te Heuheu Tūkino IV of Ngāti Tūwharetoa gifted land in the central plateau of the North Island for the establishment of Tongariro National Park in 1887. But while his willingness to consult on Māori affairs enhanced Ballance's reputation as compared with that of his predecessor, John Bryce, he did not revise Bryce's policy of reducing expenditure on native affairs, and Māori hopes that Ballance's Native Land Administration Act 1886 would restore to them control of their land were not fulfilled.
In a victory that contrasted sharply with the poor performance of other leading government candidates, Ballance took the Whanganui seat at the 1887 election with more than twice the number of votes gained by his opponent. Ill health and financial difficulties prevented his full commitment to politics during the next two years, but in July 1889 he was able to accept the leadership of the opposition. A radical land policy was the dominant theme of Ballance's campaign at the 1890 election, which took place against a background of strikes and economic depression. He won Whanganui by just 27 votes. Elsewhere, Liberals and their trade unionist allies in the cities fared well. When the sitting premier, H. A. Atkinson, resigned after being defeated in the House in January 1891, Ballance was ready to form the country's first Liberal government.
Surrounding himself with a cabinet of considerable talent, Ballance steered his government through two difficult years before his death from cancer in 1893. A major problem was opposition to his legislation from the Legislative Council. Defeated at the polls, Atkinson had arranged for the appointment of seven councillors in an attempt to provide a block to the new government. The Council subsequently rejected major measures passed in the lower house. Ballance failed to persuade the governor to redress Atkinson's actions by appointing a batch of Ballance nominees. The matter was passed to the Colonial Office which in late 1892 ruled in Ballance's favour. This decision was critical in securing the passage of Liberal legislation, and constitutionally established beyond doubt that the governor was obliged to accept the advice of ministers on appointments to the Legislative Council.
During his premiership Ballance established the Liberal Federation. This was the first attempt in New Zealand to form a nationwide party organisation. Although the federation was not particularly robust it marked a maturing of New Zealand politics and set an important precedent for later, more successful organisations. In his capacity as colonial treasurer he introduced land and income taxes to replace the property tax. Other legislation passed in this period included the Land Act 1892 and the Land for Settlements Act 1892. The new taxes met with considerable criticism both at home and overseas, but this was largely silenced when the premier announced a record budget surplus in 1892. Coming after long years of depression and coinciding with an improvement in the economy, the announcement marked the beginning of the public's association of Ballance 'the Rain-Maker' with the return of prosperity.
In his last months in office Ballance supported moves to enfranchise women, a reform of which he had long been an advocate. Speaking in the House in 1890 he declared: 'I believe in the absolute equality of the sexes, and I think they should be in the enjoyment of equal privileges in political matters.' Once female enfranchisement passed the House of Representatives in 1892, however, he sought to delay its implementation until after the 1893 election, believing that the majority of women were politically uneducated and that their vote in the coming election would not be to the Liberals' advantage. In his support for women's suffrage Ballance was strongly influenced by the views of his wife. Ellen Ballance was prominent in the growing feminist movement in New Zealand and was vice president of the Women's Progressive Society, an international organisation. A thoughtful, intelligent and politically astute woman, Ellen shared fully her husband's political interests. She regularly attended Parliament to listen to the debates from the gallery, and she was highly regarded in Wellington's political circles.
The personal qualities John Ballance possessed fitted him well for the task he faced as premier. He was kindly, courteous and considerate and displayed great patience. He was a man of honesty and integrity. As a result he attracted extraordinary loyalty among his cabinet and party. Robert Stout wrote of his 'magnetic power of attaching people to him'. Many viewed his mild temperament as a sign of weakness as a leader. In fact he possessed much political toughness, although it was often hidden and seldom acknowledged. W. P. Reeves described him as 'absolutely the most unassuming and unpretentious' of all the successful and able men he had known. But, he added, 'as a Premier – and I say it emphatically – he knew how to be master in his own house.'
Ballance was not a charismatic leader. He led by example. Although he was not a great public speaker, with experience he became an increasingly impressive and effective one. He spoke clearly, precisely and without passion, bringing people with him through reasoned argument and the obvious sincerity of his words, but on occasion he genuinely moved his audience and in his latter years delivered some fine, fervent speeches.
John Ballance died in Wellington on 27 April 1893. After a state funeral he was buried at Whanganui three days later. A statue of him, unfortunately bearing little resemblance to the man, was placed in the grounds of Parliament in 1897. A portrait painted by Philip Tennyson Cole about 1892 is now held at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui. Ellen Ballance survived her husband by 42 years. She remained active in community organisations in Whanganui, including the Anglican church, the Wanganui Orphanage and the Plunket Society. She died at Whanganui on 14 June 1935.