John Ballance (27 March 1839 – 27 April 1893) was an Irish-born New Zealand politician who was the 14th Premier of New Zealand, at the end of the 19th century, the founder of the Liberal Party (the country’s first organised political party), and a Georgist.
The eldest son of Samuel Ballance, a tenant farmer, and Mary McNiece (a quaker), Ballance was born on 27 March 1839 in Glenavy in County Antrim in Ireland. He was educated at a national school, then apprenticed to an ironmonger in Belfast. He later became a clerk in a wholesale ironmonger’s house in Birmingham, where he married. Ballance was highly interested in literature, and was known for spending vast amounts of time reading books. He also became interested in politics, mostly due to the influence of his parents – his father was active in conservative circles, while his mother was a liberal. It was from his mother that Ballance gained many of the ideas he was later to promote. Having witnessed religious rioting when in Belfast, he became committed to the principle of secularism.
In 1866, Ballance and his wife migrated to New Zealand, intending to start in business as a small jeweller. After settling in Wanganui, however, he took an opportunity to found a newspaper, The Wanganui Herald.He became the editor, and remained chief owner for the rest of his life. During the fighting with the Māori chief Titokowaru in 1867, Ballance was involved in the raising of a volunteer cavalry troop, in which he received a commission. He was later deprived of this owing to the appearance in the Herald of articles criticising the management of the campaign. He behaved well in the field, and, in spite of his dismissal, was awarded the New Zealand Medal.
Following the conflict, Ballance’s status in Wanganui grew. He was respected for his management of the Herald, particularly his forthright and direct approach to reporting. He became increasingly involved in the affairs of the town, establishing a number of societies and associations. Perhaps the least important to Wanganui but among the most important to him was the chess club – he became a skilled player. In 1868 his wife Fanny died of illness, aged only 24. Two years later, he married Ellen Anderson, daughter of a Wellington architect.
Ballance first contemplated moving into national politics in 1872, putting his name forward as a candidate for the seat of Egmont in a parliamentary by-election. However, Ballance withdrew from the ballot before the vote was held.In 1875, Ballance entered Parliament, having won Rangitikei in a by-election. He campaigned on two major issues – the abolition of the provinces (widely regarded as incompetent, petty, and obstructive) and the provision of free education. Ballance soon made his presence felt in Wellington. The abolition of the provinces occurred in 1876 under Julius Vogel—after which Ballance turned his attention to promoting closer land settlement, considering it the main political issue of the day.
In 1877, Ballance entered the cabinet of Sir George Grey, a former Governor who was then Premier. Grey’s policies were not closely aligned with those of Ballance, but Ballance believed that he could nevertheless accomplish something worthwhile. He was Minister of Customs, Minister of Education, and later Colonial Treasurer. His appointment to head the treasury was a surprise to most, giving a high office to a relative newcomer on the political stage.
On 6 August 1878, Ballance delivered a financial statement, which was seen as the most significant since the public works announcement by Julius Vogel in 1870. Ballance set about reforming the tariff system by removing duties on basic necessities and introducing a modest though somewhat symbolic land tax, an idea he later revisited. His alliance with Grey ended with a notorious and very painful quarrel. Ballance found Grey far too controlling and authoritarian, resigning his portfolios yet still gave him confidence in the house.
From 1879 Ballance represented Wanganui, but in 1881 he lost by just four votes (393 to 397), and it was reported that seven of his supporters were too late to vote as their carriage broke down.He returned to Parliament for Wanganui in 1884.
In 1893, at the height of his success and popularity, he died in Wellington of an intestinal disease after a major surgical operation. He is believed to have supported Stout as his successor, but the rapid onset of his illness prevented him from securing that outcome and he was followed by Seddon. He was the first New Zealand Prime Minister to die in office.
A statue was erected to his memory in front of Parliament House, Wellington, in front of the library – Parliament has since moved to a bigger, adjacent building. A statue was erected in Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui..