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Colonial and provincial government

by Malcolm McKinnon

The first attempt to set up provincial assemblies in New Zealand was a failure. One met once, and the other never met. However, regional government suited the dispersed and sparse population of the country, and between 1853 and 1876 New Zealand had provincial governments.

The crown colony, 1840 to 1852

In 1840, when New Zealand became a British colony, colonial government was already an established practice within the British Empire. Colonies were British territories ruled by a governor, appointed by the Colonial Office in London. In 1840 there were 40 colonies – four in British North America, three in Australia, the Cape Colony and Natal in South Africa, and numerous islands and parts of islands in the West Indies and elsewhere.

New South Wales and New Zealand

In 1839, Britain included New Zealand in the colony of New South Wales, and from 16 June 1840 New South Wales laws were deemed to operate in New Zealand. This was a transitional arrangement and in November 1840 New Zealand became a separate colony.

The governor ruled with the aid of an executive and a legislative council (the former the forerunner of cabinet, the latter of Parliament). The principal government officials sat on the executive council, and officials plus some prominent men of affairs sat on the legislative council. The early governors were British military or naval officers.

Debate over colonies

To many Britons colonies were an unnecessary cost, although some argued their value for defence and as ‘outdoor prisons’ – the role of the Australian settlements.

From the 1820s colonial reformers, amongst them Edward Gibbon Wakefield, argued that colonies could be an asset to, not a drain on, the empire, provided their political economies were reorganised. For these reformers South Australia (which became a colony in 1836) and New Zealand were to be the models for ‘systematic colonisation’. The New Zealand Company was formed in London for that purpose.

Conflicts in New Zealand

The government was expected to protect Māori from outsiders as much as to govern British settlers. The Colonial Office was influenced by missionaries who feared the impact of untrammelled colonisation on Māori.

Colonial reformers, the New Zealand Company and settlers in New Zealand did not agree – they wanted colonisation to advance rapidly, and clashed with the Colonial Office and the administration in New Zealand.

The clash was exacerbated because the capital of the colony was in the upper North Island (at Auckland), close to the largest Māori populations, whereas the New Zealand Company settlements were in the middle of the country, at New Plymouth, Port Nicholson (Wellington) and Tasman Bay (Nelson).

Colonial government, settlers and Māori

The colonial government was expected to finance itself from local revenues, but these were modest. It could only enforce laws in and near the European settlements.

In June 1843, 22 Nelson settlers were killed in an altercation with Māori at Tuamarina, near present-day Blenheim. New Zealand Company settlers became enraged now not by the oppression of colonial government but by its absence, and in particular by the reluctance of Governor Robert FitzRoy to pursue those whom they considered to be the perpetrators.

FitzRoy was recalled by the Colonial Office, which then gave more money and soldiers to the new governor, George Grey. Grey rapidly established his authority around Cook Strait.

Why ‘provinces’?

The choice of ‘province’ emphasised that these institutions were not thought of as self-contained or self-governing entities, but as part of a larger whole. The term had earlier been used to describe French Quebec, annexed by Britain in 1763. ‘Province’ was also used of some conquered territories in India and described the four principal divisions of Ireland – Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. These precedents may have prompted the use of the term in New Zealand.

Constitutional change

The Crown-colony regime – under which New Zealand was ruled by a non-elected governor – was intended to be transitional. The New Zealand Constitution Act 1846 replaced the governor and unelected executive and legislative councils with a colonial assembly, two provinces that each had an assembly,, and town councils. However, Governor Grey convinced the Colonial Office in London to delay establishment of the assemblies for five years to give the government an opportunity to assimilate Māori – the majority of the population – into the colonial order.

The two provinces – New Munster (Wellington, the South Island and Stewart Island) and New Ulster (the rest of the North Island) – were established, with their own lieutenant-governors and executive and legislative councils for the settler population. However, the legislative council for New Ulster never met and New Munster’s met only once, in 1849. The settlers were not happy, and constitutional associations demanding self-government thrived in the New Zealand Company settlements.

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 established the Legislative Council, an upper house to which members were appointed; the House of Representatives, a lower house with elected representatives; and six provinces. With the act’s implementation in 1853–54, the Crown colony came to an end.

Colony and provinces, 1853 to 1863

‘Responsible’ government

The first General Assembly met in 1854. The Colonial Office expected members of the executive council to be drawn from the assembly and have its support. After two parliamentary sessions in which attempts were made to establish this system, it was finally introduced at the beginning of the 1856 session, with Henry Sewell becoming New Zealand’s first premier.

The ‘heads of department’, who had previously been officials on the executive council, were replaced by members of the House of Representatives (Parliament), who became ‘ministers’.


Like the 1846 constitution, that of 1852 established provinces, but six rather than two: Auckland, New Plymouth (later renamed Taranaki), Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago.

Provinces had elected councils and an elected chief official, called a superintendent. These officials were elected in 1853, before the colony-wide General Assembly had met.

Vogel on the provinces, 1870

Julius Vogel, who was colonial treasurer and premier, said, ‘Provincialism, as it is called, is consequent upon, and not the cause of, the manner in which the country was settled. It was an ambitious effort to attempt to settle the colony from so many points.’1

Provinces as states

Provinces resembled federal states in their relative autonomy and independence.

  • The six provincial centres were dispersed along the length of a country that was larger than the island of Great Britain, and there were no roads, railways or timetabled shipping or mail services linking them.
  • The superintendents were the principal government officials in their district and the councils followed parliamentary procedure.
  • The ‘compact of 1856’ on the financial arrangements between the provinces and the colonial government saw all the revenue from the sale of Crown land allocated to the provinces, as well as three-eighths of the customs revenue.
  • With proceeds from land sales and other revenue, provinces had the resources to promote colonisation – the primary colonial activity, which involved organising immigration and public works, notably roads (and later railways) and land settlement.

Provinces as local government

Provinces were also like local governments because their independence was limited.

  • Superintendents were elected in the same fashion as mayors in English towns.
  • Town governments could be established, but none were at first; it was expected that provincial government would fulfil that role for some time.
  • The General Assembly (the Parliament for the whole colony) could change the status of the provinces.
  • The 1856 compact rested on an agreement that the General Assembly would allocate ordinary (not land) revenue amongst the provinces after its own requirements had been met.

Māori districts

Section 71 of the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 provided for the establishment of native districts within which Māori law, customs and usages should be observed. This provision was never acted on.

The Native Districts Act 1857 was to apply to areas where native title had not been ‘extinguished’. It had a ‘civilising’ element – it included such subjects as cattle trespass, fencing, control of weeds, liquor and health. Provincial laws would not apply, but the districts would lapse once there was no land under Māori title left in them. No districts were set up under this act either.

New provinces

European settlers in outlying areas felt disadvantaged, believing their districts did not get a fair share of provincial spending. In some instances there were also political differences, for example over land tenure. The New Provinces Act 1858 allowed a new province to be established provided it had:

  • an area of more than 500,000 acres (about 200,000 hectares) but less than three million acres (1.2 million hectares)
  • a port
  • a settler population of at least 1,000
  • a petition signed by at least 150 electors
  • with some exceptions, to be at no place closer than 60 miles (100 kilometres) to the existing provincial capital.

Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Southland provinces were set up between 1858 and 1861.

Provincial activity

Provinces that had land to sell, buyers for it, and a buoyant import trade (which generated customs revenue) did well. Enterprising superintendents, such as Isaac Featherston in Wellington, William Moorhouse in Canterbury, James Menzies in Southland and James Macandrew in Otago, built on such strengths or sought to create them. In the early 1860s a number of provinces took out large loans for immigration and public works – up to £500,000 (equivalent to more than $70 million in 2023) in the cases of Canterbury and Otago – even though they were uncertain of their ability to service them.

New institutions for Māori

In the aftermath of the first Taranaki war (1860–61) between the Crown and Māori, Governor Grey formulated ‘new institutions’, including districts, in an effort to reconcile Māori to the colonial state. Districts were to be divided into ‘hundreds’ (in England a ‘hundred’ was a subdivision of a county). Civil commissioners would work with chiefs, and magistrates with wardens and karere (messengers). The outbreak of the Waikato war in 1863 put an end to these plans.

    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1870, B-2, p. 15. Back

War, debt and the provinces, 1863 to 1870

War and debt

In July 1863, British and colonial forces invaded Waikato. The colony borrowed £3 million (equivalent to more than $420 million in 2023) to pay for the war. In late 1864 and early 1865 land in Waikato, Taranaki and elsewhere was confiscated from its Māori owners. The government hoped the sale of these lands would pay for the loan.

Otago separatism

Otago had become wealthy on account of revenue from the gold finds in the province since 1861 and the commerce that had resulted from them. It wanted to prevent its wealth being used to pay for the northern troubles. One idea was that all revenue should in the first instance be provincial, with grants made to the central government. The General Assembly did not agree.

Auckland separatism

The government led by Frederick Weld shifted the capital from Auckland to Wellington in 1865. Aucklanders felt the interests of their province, in which much of the fighting had taken place, would be overlooked, especially once British forces were withdrawn. Auckland also thought it might be left to the mercy of Māori, or lose control of the confiscated land; it demanded separation. ‘What Otago had demanded in her prosperity,’ said the Nelson Examiner in a comment two years later, ‘Auckland was demanding in her adversity.’1

Degrees of devolution

Southland’s financial difficulties prompted an amended New Provinces Act 1865, which required the General Assembly to approve new provinces. This made it much less likely they would be established.

Districts such as Ōamaru (North Otago), Tīmaru (South Canterbury), Whanganui and Gisborne continued to lobby for separation from their parent provinces, but unsuccessfully.

South Canterbury acquired a ‘board of works’ in 1867 – it was given a quarter of Canterbury’s land revenue for the purposes of carrying out public works, including bridges, and harbour works at Tīmaru.

West Canterbury, where there was a gold rush in 1865, became the county of Westland in 1868 – it controlled its own finances for public works but had no provincial institutions.

Road boards for settled country areas were established in all provinces except Hawke’s Bay. The system was most developed in Otago. From 1868, 40% of Otago’s land revenue was paid into a road endowment fund, with half then paid to road boards.

By the mid-1860s there were many towns, and Otago and Canterbury had introduced systems of town government. The Municipal Corporations Act 1867 set up a template for towns throughout the colony.


The Post Office Act 1858 had created a uniform postal system throughout the colony. By 1863 Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers had a mail service every five days, and Bluff, Picton, Nelson, New Plymouth and Napier every 10 days.

The establishment of the capital at a central location in 1865 made the colonial government more accessible from most parts of New Zealand.

Time was standardised throughout the country in 1868, a product in part of the advent of the telegraph, which linked Wellington and the South Island centres by 1866 (and Auckland by 1872).

In setting up the county of Westland, the General Assembly gave itself the right to abolish or alter any province at any time.

Game over

In 1866, Colonial Treasurer Francis Jollie announced that ‘the time appears to have gone by when the provinces can expect to receive from the colonial revenue the same rate of contribution as heretofore. In the altered circumstances of the country consequent upon the immense efforts it has made during the last three years for suppressing Native disorder and rebellion, it is, I believe, no longer possible for this or any other Government to continue the old arrangement of subsidizing the Provinces with three-eighths of the Customs ... [they] should rely more and more upon ... their own local revenues.’2

Financial pressure

The colony’s £3 million loan failed to pay its way, but still had to be serviced. Spending had eaten up most of the loan, while the confiscated land did not sell and the colony faced heavy defence spending.

In 1867 Colonial Treasurer William Fitzherbert consolidated a number of provincial loans and paid off some provincial debts, and after this provinces were stopped from borrowing. Fitzherbert also split ‘ordinary’ revenue (that is, excluding the proceeds from land sales) 50/50, with the colonial government getting half and the provinces getting the other half. This halted unexpected claims by provinces on the colony but left some provinces even worse off.

Depressed economic conditions throughout the colony in the late 1860s made matters more difficult for the provinces. In 1868, for the first time, the revenue of the colony was less than it had been the year before.

    • Nelson Examiner, 12 Oct 1867, p. 2. Back
    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1866, B-6, pp. 6–7 Back

Julius Vogel and the abolition of provincial government

Vogel’s public works statement

In 1870 Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel announced a colonial borrowing programme (the provinces were still prevented from borrowing) to finance immigration, and road, rail and other public works. This ‘colonisation’ was the principal task of the provinces and Vogel expected them to carry out the work. But he thought the work more important than the provinces – if a choice had to be made between preserving the provinces and promoting colonisation, he would support the latter.

Vogel believed the provinces needed ‘remodelling’. All except Otago and Canterbury were in financial difficulties. Vogel introduced a capitation scheme – provinces would be funded on a population basis.

It was too late for Southland and Marlborough, both of which were bankrupt. Southland was re-annexed to Otago. Marlborough was to be re-annexed to Nelson but instead received supplementary grants from the colonial government; so, increasingly, did other provinces.

The colonial government takes over

The colonial government increasingly played the major role in Vogel’s public-works scheme. It standardised the rail gauge in 1870, and from 1871 took over direct management of immigration, and much of the public works in the North Island.

Other measures also diminished the role of provincial government. The Harbour Boards Act 1870 set up elected boards for managing ports. Vogel offered substantial grants to road boards – £100,000 in 1871, equivalent to more than $17 million in 2023.

Vogel and the provinces at odds

In 1873 Vogel proposed reserving not more than 3% of ‘waste’ (unused) land of provinces as ‘forest’; this would be security for the £3 million loan and the revenue would ultimately be used to pay it off. The provinces feared they would lose rights to future land revenue and killed the proposal.

In 1874 Vogel announced a plan to abolish the North Island provinces. When Parliament met for the 1875 session, the government announced the abolition of all the provinces (including Westland, which had been given provincial status in 1873). The second (principal) reading of the bill was carried 52–17, with the superintendents of Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay and Nelson (all members of Parliament) amongst those voting in favour.

The demise of the provinces

Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel said, ‘The provinces have broken down because of their coming into conflict with the colonial government on many points, and especially on points of finance. Their doom was only a question of time, when it became obvious that they could not raise their own revenue; that they had to look to the general government to supply deficiencies; and that they could not borrow without the colony becoming liable.’1

Otago and Auckland opposition

The principal opposition to abolishing the provinces came from Auckland and Otago.

George Grey, former governor and now an Auckland resident, threw himself into the fray, claiming the provinces as his creation. He became provincial superintendent early in 1875, and entered Parliament in the middle of the year.

Auckland was not in a financially sound position, but it was geographically and economically very distinct from the other provinces. Grey was a popular figure who embodied that distinctiveness.

James Macandrew, superintendent of Otago, sought to keep provincial control of both the land fund and the education endowments, in respect of which Otago was well-placed.

It was agreed that abolition of the provinces would not take place until after an election and the conclusion of the parliamentary session which followed, that is, late in 1876. The election returned a majority for abolition, except in Auckland and Otago, and it came into effect on 1 November 1876. The Counties Act 1876 divided the rural parts of the colony into counties, which were in effect combinations of road boards; towns survived unchanged.

    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1876, B-2, p. 12. Back

After abolition

The land fund

George Grey, who became premier in 1877, did not restore the provincial governments, despite his opposition to their abolition. In fact he proceeded to centralise the land fund, making provision for 20% (33% in some instances) of land revenue to be paid to local authorities.


The provinces had adopted different land-sale and land-tenure systems, and different schooling and charitable-aid systems. New laws in 1877 and 1885 standardised practice in such matters throughout the country (in the case of land law, it was not until 1892 that the process was completed). Provincial police forces were absorbed by the colonial constabulary.

Māori ‘provinces’

The survival of de facto Māori provinces in south-west Taranaki (to 1881), the King Country (to 1884) and Te Urewera (to around 1920) after the abolition of the Pākehā provinces was a transitional phase. It was the product of a hiatus in land buying and settler pressure, to which all eventually succumbed when the pressure resumed.

Provincial districts

After the end of provincial government, provinces did not completely disappear. Even with the expansion of European settlement, they represented for the most part meaningful geographical divisions. They were labelled ‘provincial districts’, and statistical and other information continued to be presented for them until the 1950s. Statistical districts were replaced by ‘statistical areas’ in the 1961 census.

Land districts and education boards

Land districts closely followed the former provincial boundaries, especially in the South Island. In the North Island, where the settlement frontier continued expanding until the 1920s, there was subdivision. Two new land districts – North Auckland and Gisborne – were formed in 1919 and 1922 respectively.

Education boards also followed provincial boundaries for the most part. However, Whanganui and South Canterbury both gained their own boards in 1877.

‘How provincial!’

In 1981 language expert Ian Gordon explained that in New Zealand the words ‘province’ and ‘provincial’ had taken on a life of their own. Provinces were entities of equal status, they were not the opposite of a metropolis or capital, or outlying areas, as in France and Britain. In fact the two usages coexist in New Zealand. The notion of Southland or Taranaki province is familiar, but so also is a phrase such as ‘out in the provinces’ – that is, in centres beyond the major cities.

Non-official provinces

Through the 20th century most organisations – including the Farmers Union (later Federated Farmers) and the Rugby Football Union – described their regional entities as provinces.

Provinces and regions

Regions were previously seen as physical rather than human arrangements, but this changed in the 1960s. Influenced by developments in Europe, ‘regions’ were seen as forward looking – unlike provinces – and associated with planned development. When the Ministry of Works investigated economic development throughout the country in the 1960s, it did so through a series of regional studies.

The lack of economic growth in parts of New Zealand became an issue in the late 1960s. It was a theme of the Labour government of 1972–1975, and its initiatives to address the problem were labelled regional development.

Regional authorities and councils

An overarching council set up for Auckland in 1963 was titled the Auckland Regional Authority. Other regional authorities were set up in subsequent years. When 14 councils with environmental responsibilities, covering the whole country, were established in 1989, they were called regional councils.

Health and hospital boards

In 1935 only around one-third of hospital board funding came from central government. Thereafter the proportion grew markedly but they retained elected boards. The boards were reconstructed as area health boards in 1983, as crown health enterprises in 1992 and as district health boards in 2002. In 2022 the latter were replaced by two national organisations, Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand and Te Aka Whai Ora Māori Health Authority.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Malcolm McKinnon, 'Colonial and provincial government', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 20 June 2012, reviewed & revised 6 October 2023