Provincialism was a product of the colonisation of New Zealand by widely dispersed British communities. Separatist feeling was rationalised by pointing to the diverse schemes of colonisation or the independent interests and varied origins of the settlements. The “off-centre” location of Auckland as the national capital and the lack of easy communication between the settlements would have made centralised administration difficult in the 1850s. Although influential settlers opposed the establishment of six “vestry parliaments” for a white population of some 30,000, the prevailing political sentiment in New Zealand was provincial, at least during the 1850s. The introduction of regular steamer services between the provinces by 1860 and the advent of the electric telegraph in 1862 weakened the case for provincial government. Had the settlement of New Zealand been delayed until the 1860s it is questionable whether a provincial structure of government would have been thought necessary.
The strength of provincial sentiment tended to diminish outwards from the early settled heart of each province. Settlers in outlying districts complained that they received little share of provincial expenditure and, in some provinces, outlying runholders were concerned at the growing influence of small-farmer and urban radicalism on the provincial councils. In 1858 the General Assembly secured passage of the New Provinces Act, which made it remarkably easy for a disaffected outlying district to be erected into a new province simply by Order in Council and without reference to the General Assembly or the provincial council concerned. The qualifications for candidature as a new province were trivial – a European population of not less than 1,000 in a district of more than half a million but less than 3 million acres, and a petition signed by at least 150 registered electors. An amended New Provinces Act of 1865 increased the minimum population of any new province and required a special Act of the Legislature. The disaffected district would thus have to put its case to the General Assembly. Whatever the intention, the effect of these Acts was to discredit the provincial system of government by the proliferation of small and financially weak provinces.
Three sparsely settled pastoral districts achieved provincial status under the 1858 Act – Hawke's Bay in 1858, Marlborough in 1859, and Southland in 1861. That proportion of Canterbury to the west of the main divide was separated to form the County of Westland in 1868. As an experiment in a less cumbersome form of local government, the County was given only the administrative function of a province and legislative powers resided in the General Assembly. In 1870 Southland was reincorporated in the Province of Otago and, in 1873, Westland was accorded full provincial status. At various times the General Assembly received petitions seeking the creation of new provinces or counties from areas in North Auckland, Gisborne, North Otago, Wanganui, the Buller district, South Canterbury, and parts of Marlborough, while several petitions sought revision of the boundary between Nelson and Westland.