Story: Canterbury region

Page 11. Politics and government

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Canterbury province

A provincial government was formed three years after the founding of the settlement. The Canterbury Provincial Council was the main focus of political activity.

The Canterbury province of 1853 took in Westland and South Canterbury. It lay between the Waitaki and the Hurunui rivers, and the east and west coasts. Westland became an independent province in 1873, and South Canterbury sought provincial status (unsuccessfully) from the 1860s.

Canterbury local and regional government

After the abolition of the provinces in 1876, the former province was divided into a number of large counties. Now there are five local authorities in north and mid-Canterbury: Christchurch City (which from 2006 included Banks Peninsula) and Waimakariri, Selwyn, Ashburton and Hurunui districts.

The Canterbury United Council of 1979 was the first regional government body since the abolition of the provinces in 1876. In 1989 it was replaced by the Canterbury Regional Council or Environment Canterbury (ECan), which covers north, mid- and south Canterbury and Kaikōura. In March 2010 ECan was sacked by the government for reportedly delaying water management and resource consent issues. The 14 elected councillors were replaced by seven government-appointed commissioners. A return to elected councillors was due to take place in 2016. 

After the 2011 earthquake the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) was established to lead the rebuilding process. CERA had powers to relax, suspend or extend laws and regulations.

Christchurch local government

Christchurch was made a city by royal charter in 1856, and in 1862 became a municipal district. The Christchurch City Council originally administered only part of the urban area. In the first half of the 20th century, Christchurch City absorbed neighbouring boroughs, and areas run by county councils. The Christchurch Regional Planning Authority was established in 1954. In 1989 the entire built-up area was included in the city.

Canterbury in national politics

For the first national elections of 1853, the region was divided into four electorates – Christchurch Country, Christchurch Town, Lyttelton and Akaroa. The urban electorates of Christchurch grew in number, but rural electorates were fairly static.

For most of the first half of the 20th century there were five urban and four mostly rural electorates. North and mid-Canterbury now contain:

  • three mostly rural electorates (Kaikōura, Rangitātā and Selwyn, with the first two only partly in this region)
  • two partly urban electorates (Waimakariri and Port Hills)
  • four Christchurch seats: Ilam, Wigram, Central Christchurch and Christchurch East.

The Māori seat of Te Tai Tonga includes all of the South Island.

Nine of the South Island’s 16 general seats in Parliament are in north and mid- Canterbury.

Radical Christchurch

The Canterbury Association envisaged Canterbury society having a strong upper class, but Christchurch also has a tradition of radicalism.

In the 19th century, the suburb of Sydenham was ‘the capital of New Zealand prohibition’, although the only district in the region to go ‘dry’ was Ashburton. Kate Sheppard and other leading figures in the associated women’s suffrage movement were from Christchurch. Later, Christchurch gave the country its first woman member of Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs, and its first woman cabinet minister, Mabel Howard.

A city for the people

The Christchurch City Council has a long-standing commitment to ‘municipal socialism’. This prompted Auckland businessman Douglas Myers to describe the city as ‘the People’s Republic of Christchurch’ in 1998.

Christchurch was an early centre of the New Zealand Labour Party. In 1925, the city elected the country’s first Labour mayor, John Kendrick Archer, and the first Labour-controlled city council in 1927. Local left-wing politicians who had a national impact included William Pember Reeves, T. E. (Tommy) Taylor and Dan Sullivan. Unions were strong, and the 1889 Kaiapoi Woollen Company strike and 1932 tramway strike were key events.

From the 1970s there were vigorous campaigns against American military activity in Canterbury. In 1973 the country’s first environmental centre was set up in Christchurch.

Canterbury prime ministers

Four conservative prime ministers came from Canterbury:

  • runholder John Hall (premier, 1879–82)
  • Cheviot farmer George Forbes (prime minister through the depression, 1930–35)
  • businessman Sidney Holland (prime minister, 1949–57)
  • Jenny Shipley (first woman prime minister, 1997–99).

Three Labour prime ministers had strong Canterbury connections:

  • Norman Kirk (1972–74) sat successively for the seats of Lyttelton and Sydenham
  • Geoffrey Palmer (1989–90) represented Christchurch Central
  • Mike Moore (1990) held the Papanui seat.

In addition John Key (National prime minister, 2008–16) moved to Christchurch as a child and received his school and university education there.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury region - Politics and government', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/canterbury-region/page-11 (accessed 16 January 2018)

Story by John Wilson, published 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015