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Government in New Zealand

1 — Constitutional Beginnings

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Constitutional Beginnings

Throughout their history the British peoples have exhibited a strong and at times even passionate conservatism in their attitude to political forms. Time and place have produced few modifications in the facade of the British parliamentary system. The New Zealand House of Representatives maintains, sometimes in minute detail, the formulas and conventions which are maintained in similar assemblies at Westminster, in Ottawa, Capetown, and Canberra. Moreover, those formulas and conventions differ little from the formulas and conventions maintained by the British House of Commons a century ago.

The student of politics must constantly remind himself that these similarities are misleading. In the century which has seen the development of the railway train, the motor car, and the aeroplane, methods of government have not remained stationary, even though the first Duke of Wellington brought back to life would not feel lost in the House of Lords of to-day. And although the New Zealand House of page 2Representatives models itself faithfully on the House of Commons, New Zealanders are not political antiquarians; they have, under pressure of social needs, evolved a political system which is in reality almost as different from the British as it is from the American or the French political system. But to perceive where the differences He and to state them precisely is diffi-cult. The fundamental institutions and principles are the same. The differences consist, not in obvious departures, but in an accumulation of more or less subtle variations of emphasis, of method, of ideology. Thus, an English county councillor visiting New Zealand might be tempted to conclude from a survey of externals that New Zealand has essentially the same system of rural local government as England; a day spent in the office of any New Zealand county clerk would show him that the resemblance between a New Zealand county council and an English county council goes no further than the name.

The systematic settlement of New Zealand began in 1840, following by less than a decade the great period of political reforms which gave to English political institutions their definitive form and by less than a year the publication of the Durham Report, the basic assumption of which was that the parliamentary system of representative and responsible government could, and should, be transplanted to the colonies. New Zealand's early settlers thus had no stimulus to political invention or improvisation.

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Unlike the Puritans who had gone to North America more than two centuries before, they were not seeking escape from a political system repugnant to their consciences. Unlike the American colonists in the reign of George III, they were conscious of no serious conflict between their own political aspirations and the authority of the British Government. Far from aspiring to create a new social order, the organisers and leaders of the first systematic colonising efforts deliberately set themselves to transfer to New Zealand cross-sections of English society. And if the colonists readily accepted the basic institutions and principles of English society, even more readily did they accept the basic institutions and principles of the British political system. In the half century after 1840 the prestige of the parliamentary system was at its peak and among the British peoples there was a unanimity over political principles such as has not existed since. It is significant that the great revolutionary movement of the period—Chartism—sought merely to carry to a logical extreme the principles implied in the Reform Act and the Municipal Corporations Act.

It is tempting to assume that the boldness shown by those men and women who left England to found a new society in a remote country on the other side of the world would communicate itself to their social and political thinking. But there is little evidence to support such an assumption. Indeed, a study of the life of the pioneer communities reveals a devotion to page 4the institutions and ways of thought of the old world carried at times to the point of incongruity. There is not much deliberate innovation in politics until the nineties, after the second generation of New Zealand-ers had begun to reach maturity and after the stream of immigration had been swelled by the gold rushes and by Vogel's public works policy and the related scheme of assisted immigration.

It is not to be inferred from this that the early colonists were lacking in spirit or independence of mind. On the contrary the first decade or so after 1840 was a period of vigorous and even strident political activity. The New Zealand colonists were quite as dubious of the wisdom, and as impatient of the conservatism, of the Colonial Office as similar groups of British colonists in other parts of the world. For the first few months after the cession of New Zealand to the British Crown, in February 1840, the new colony was governed as a dependency of New South Wales. In November 1840 New Zealand was granted its charter as a separate colony, supplemented by a set of royal instructions providing for a system of government of the type in force in all Crown colonies. New Zealand received a governor of its own, an executive council, and a legislative council consisting of the Colonial Secretary, the Attorney-General, the Treasurer, and the persons holding the first three places in the commission of the peace. Within three or four years a brisk agitation for more page 5liberal institutions was in progress. For the purposes of this survey it is not necessary to trace the history of the agitation. The point to be noted is that the Colonial Office and the British Government, no less than the colonists, regarded self-government for the new colony as ultimately inevitable. Disagreement was not over fundamentals but over questions of detail, over the rate of political progress that was justified by the development of the colony, over the place of the Maoris in any constitutional system which might be devised, and over the modifications in the representative system required to adapt it to the peculiar needs of the colony. This last problem was of particular importance. The division of the colony into two main islands, and the division of those islands by huge mountain ranges, impassable rivers, and tracts of dense forest, created difficulties of transport which made centralised government undesirable and indeed impossible. By 1850 the colony consisted of isolated communities of settlers, the most important of which were the New Zealand Company's settlements in Wellington, Taranaki, and Nelson, and the church-sponsored settlements in Canterbury and Otago. From Otago, the sea-journey to the capital, Auckland, took not less than ten days. In the case of the South Island differences of origin accentuated differences due to geography. Canterbury was English and Church of England, Otago Scottish and Presbyterian. This partly explains why all the earlier projects for a page 6system of representative government, including the abortive constitution of 1846, provided for decentralisation of political power.

The constitution finally adopted, and embodied in the Constitution Act of 1852, divided New Zealand into six provinces—Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago—each with an elected superintendent and an elected provincial council of not less than nine members. Outside certain specified exceptions, including justice, customs, currency, weights and measures, postal services, and Crown lands, the provincial councils had full legislative powers. It does not seem, however, that this essentially federal constitution was the result of a conscious application of the principles of federalism. Both Peel and Gladstone had contemplated satisfying the demands of the settlers for self-government in the period before the grant of full representative and responsible government at the centre was practicable by establishing democratic municipal institutions. With this the settlers were not satisfied; and the pressure they put on their Governor, Sir George Grey, caused him to represent to the British Government the need for conferring on the proposed municipalities powers which, in effect though not in intention, made them into federal units.

The provisions in the Constitution Act for the establishment of a General Assembly were remarkable for their liberality and for their incorporation of all page break
Captain Cargill Addresses A Meeting

Captain Cargill Addresses A Meeting

page 7the main features of the British parliamentary system. The lower chamber, the Legislative Assembly, was wholly elective on a property franchise the effect of which was to give the vote to every well-conducted man who had been a few years in the colony.

The Constitution Act left undefined the relationship between the executive and the legislature; that is, it established representative but not necessarily responsible government. Wynyard, who was acting as Governor when the Assembly met for its first session in May 1854, refused to take the responsibility of acceding to an immediate demand that he should appoint his ministers on the advice of the popular chamber. But the colonists were not required to enter upon a political struggle to vindicate the right of their elected representatives to choose and control the executive. The battle had been fought elsewhere; and the British Government had even abandoned the idea that responsible government should be introduced gradually. The session of 1856 saw the establishment of full responsible government qualified only by the British Government's retention of the right to deal with native affairs and certain other matters. The federal system of government in New Zealand lasted from 1854 until 1876. Though originally it was well suited to the needs of the colony, improvements in transport and communications, the growth of a sense of national unity, and the need for planning development works on a national scale, gradually rendered it page 8an obstacle to economic and social progress. Moreover, considered as a federal system, provincial government in New Zealand had serious defects. The financial relationship between the provincial governments and the centre, the crucial point in any federal system, was ill-defined and unsatisfactory in practice.

It was not the desire of the New Zealand colonists or the intention of their government that the abolition of the provinces should result in centralisation of government in Wellington. Throughout the nineteenth century, the development of British political institutions, in England and in the colonies, is powerfully influenced by a deep-rooted popular mistrust of paid officials and of any trend towards centralised bureaucracy, a mistrust which expressed itself positively in a firm and often uncritical belief in the value of local government. The century which saw the development of representative government in England saw also the development of a network of elective local authorities, both rural and urban, exercising extensive powers under general supervision from the centre. The New Zealanders followed naturally in the same path. The provincial governments had themselves encouraged, not always successfully or wisely, the development of municipal councils and of road boards in their areas. When it abolished the provincial governments, the central Parliament had no intention that it should be the sole legatee of their powers. It immediately set about the creation of a uniform page 9national system of local government which was to inherit from the provincial governments all functions not of direct national importance. Hence the Municipal Corporations Act of 1876; hence also the Counties Act of the same year. Popular municipal government had in England been the precursor of representative government on a national scale; and the English municipality had received its definitive form in the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. In England rural local government was in 1876 still in the hands of non-elective magistrates; but elective county councils were predictable. For the system of elective county councils established by the act of 1876 there was precedent in the United States and also in the neighbouring colony of Victoria, which had introduced a system of elective shire councils two years previously.

With the abolition of the provinces and the establishment of a national system of local authorities, the constructional period in New Zealand's political development came to an end. The ensuing sixty years have seen little alteration in the form of political institutions and few additions to their number. Political and administrative history after 1876 is in a large measure the history of the efforts of New Zealanders to make comfortable and convenient a house built for them by political architects influenced more by preconceptions than by immediate needs.