Foundation of System
The New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 established a quasi-federal system of government and provided for the division of the country into six provinces – Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago. Elective Superintendents and Provincial Councils were made responsible for local government of their areas, but provincial legislation could be repealed by the General Assembly which also had power to create new provinces or alter the boundaries of existing ones. In 1858 the province of New Plymouth was renamed Taranaki, and between 1858 and 1873 four new provinces were created – Hawke's Bay, Marlborough, Southland, and Westland. Provincial organisation disappeared under the Abolition of the Provinces Act of 1875.
The boundaries of the original six provinces, defined by Governor Sir George Grey early in 1853, were drawn as far away as possible from existing areas of European settlement. They followed rivers or were straight lines across unmapped or unexplored country, as in the case of the southern boundary of Auckland Province which followed the thirty-ninth parallel of latitude. Despite their often arbitrary nature these boundaries caused little inconvenience, as close settlement rarely occurred along them prior to the abolition of the provinces. Only in the lower Grey River, on the South Island West Coast, did a provincial boundary separate closely settled areas and divide the hinterland of a substantial town.
The Constitution Act conferred on the Provincial Councils full legislative powers, apart from certain defined fields including justice, customs, postal services, and the disposal of Crown lands. Although the then Secretary of State for Colonies, Sir John Pakington, held that the Provincial Councils would have the role of mere municipalities, the provinces vigorously asserted their powers and, in 1856, through the strength of provincial representation in the General Assembly, they acquired the right to dispose of Crown lands. The provinces thus became the effective agents of development within their areas, being responsible for surveys, land legislation, immigration, public works and harbours, education and hospitals. Small-scale local works were progressively delegated to boroughs and road boards, which came to form a “third tier” of governmental units within the provincial and national structure.