Richard John Seddon

(1845—1906) prime minister of New Zealand

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(b. 22 June 1845, d. 9 July 1931).

Premier of New Zealand 1893–1906

Early career

Born in Lancashire (UK), he emigrated to Australia in 1863, where he found employment in mining and engineering, and arrived in New Zealand in 1866. He was attracted to the Waimea gold mines, where he used his experience to become prosperous. He became involved in local politics, and was elected the first mayor of the newly created borough of Kumara. Seddon became a radical Liberal member of the House of Representatives in 1879. As the representative of a mining constituency, he was one of the first to recognize the importance of the nascent labour movement, and advocated those measures which would improve the condition of the workforce or extend the franchise. He was primarily engaged in ‘parochial’ politics in the 1880s, but gradually realized that a strong state was best suited to improve conditions in outlying areas such as his constituency, the west coast. He entered the government in 1891 to become responsible for mines, defence, and public works, and his populist and crude style became a major asset. His popularity also increased owing to his tireless tours of the country.

In office

He became Premier in 1893 and steered his party to victory in the general elections of that year. As Native Minister (1893–99), he pursued paternalistic policies, encouraging Maori people to sell their land to the government. In 1896 he concentrated power into his own hands through taking over the portfolios of the Treasury and Labour. Incapable of delegating, he was also Minister of Public Works (1893–6), of Defence (1893–6, 1900–6), and Education (1903–6). Overall, he is remembered as laying the foundations of the welfare state in New Zealand. His government passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1894, and he accepted the introduction of votes for women, despite his personal opposition. He passed the Old Age Pensions Act of 1898 against strong opposition, and introduced a pension scheme for teachers in 1905. He was also an imperialist, urging the administration of Fiji and the Samoan Islands, and annexing the Cook Islands in 1901. He died in office in 1906, having led the Liberal Party through five successive election victories.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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