1855–70 Provincial Politics
By the mid-1850s the colony was established; its future would be troubled, but secure. Settlers, though still outnumbered by Maoris, had become very numerous. Out of some 31,000 in 1853, 20,000 lived in the North Island where were the great majority of the Maoris. European population was densest around the original settlements, and immense areas were left untouched. Economic life was coming to centre upon sheep; much of the South Island and, in the North, Wairarapa, and Hawke's Bay, flourished as the flocks expanded.
Between the Governor, retaining native affairs, and the Provincial Councils, concerned with day by day government, the General Assembly had little to do and initially met infrequently. Its early confusion was resolved by the administration of Stafford which lasted from 1856 to 1861. Provincialism dominated politics simply because the provinces were the immediate reality to most colonists; Stafford's success (repeated when he returned to power for a second long spell from 1865–69 after an interim of renewed flux) was due to his ability to balance faction against faction, to reconcile province with province. But the initial provincial framework did not long suit the necessities of the colony; by the end of the decade settlement had expanded into regions which felt little identity with the provinces in which they were set: Hawke's Bay, Southland, and Marlborough became separate provinces under an Act of 1858 and the West Coast followed suit later.
Permitted to exercise wide powers, each province went its own way, especially in land policy. In Canterbury the residual Wakefieldians, notably Sewell and FitzGerald, tried by a high-price policy to retain the hierarchical pattern of the original plan; in Otago a low-sale price was instituted, with supposedly rigid qualifications governing occupancy; in Auckland much land was given away to emigrants, and much passed through the hands of speculators; in Wellington the pastoralist generally had things his own way. The chief battles in provincial politics were over land policy, the advocates of small holding in conflict with the defenders of the large owner or lessee. The pastoralist sought generous leases, and protection from subdivision and sale; usually he had his way, and, in the 1860s was able to freehold his considerable estates.
Taranaki was the waif of the provincial family. While others, notably Canterbury and Otago, grew wealthy on land sales, the Taranaki settlers were confined to small areas (Grey had been able to buy only some 27,000 acres) surrounded by Maoris increasingly reluctant to part with their land. It is not surprising that the Maori Wars began here in 1860. Grey had bought enough land to maintain the progress of settlement and, though his 1853 sales had been conducted in a high-pressure manner that augured ill for the future, typically he had taken care to satisfy all Maori claimants. Donald McLean, responsible to the Governor alike for native policy and for land purchases, imitated the speed of Grey's 1853 purchases rather than the caution of his earlier years. He was impelled by heightened settler demands for land (by the end of the 1850s there were 34,000 Europeans in the North Island out of a total of 75,000); settler demands made more and more Maoris reluctant to sell; their reluctance, in turn, inclined McLean to hole-in-corner transactions, treating only with those native possessors who were willing to sell, ignoring the claims of others. McLean acted directly under the Governor, but he was as responsive to settler pressure as any minister. In fact the politicians were not ready to leave native (i.e. land) policy alone; from 1856 C. W. Richmond, significantly a Taranaki settler, was effectively (and, in 1858, titularly) Native Minister. This duality of authority had unfortunate results.