Story: English

Page 10. Contribution to government

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Representative government

The English either brought many major institutions with them, or campaigned to secure them in the new colony. In Wellington, the association established in 1848 to pressure the imperial government into granting a constitution was led by prominent English settlers, notably William Fitzherbert, William Rhodes, Charles Clifford, Frederick Weld and Isaac Featherston. The aims, at least of some, owed much to English Chartism (a working-class protest and reform movement) and included universal suffrage for men, secret ballot, and triennial parliaments. The outcome, the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, was a remarkably liberal measure which laid the basis of modern New Zealand democracy. By reserving key responsibilities to Parliament rather than allocating them to the provincial councils, the act helped to create an early measure of colonial uniformity and to ensure the emergence of a strong central government.

Responsible government

In the first Parliament, English members of the House of Representatives pressed for, and in 1856 gained, responsible self-government. This paved the way for the establishment of a premier (prime minister) and cabinet bound by the principle of collective responsibility, and accountable to Parliament.

New Zealand’s civil service, though structured differently, was also based on the English model, including the office of permanent secretary. The concept of a loyal parliamentary opposition is similarly of English origin. New Zealand also looked to English models of counties and boroughs for its local and territorial authorities.


The English attached importance to political debate and were to the fore in establishing a vigorous press in New Zealand, with London-born Samuel Revans labelled ‘the father of journalism’. English immigrants have continued to play a significant role as television interviewers, such as Austin Mitchell, and as radio interviewers, such as Kim Hill and Geoff Robinson.


Although New Zealand’s early settlers included many immigrants from Scotland (which had its own legal system), it was English law that was adopted and which profoundly influenced the development of the New Zealand legal system. In the 19th century the New Zealand Parliament frequently duplicated or adapted English statute law or followed British initiatives. For example, the English Acts Act 1854 adopted 19 English statutes, the Trade Union Act 1878 was based on British precedents, changes in divorce law followed British reforms, and the Criminal Code Act 1893 was based on earlier English efforts to codify criminal law.

The creation of municipal rather than church cemeteries followed English legislation of 1853, while the early reservation of public parks and recreation areas was based on English developments in the mid-19th century.

The courts established in New Zealand followed English models, as did the practice by which lower courts were bound by the decisions of higher courts. The contribution of judges to creating law followed English precedents, the English terms ‘barrister’ and ‘solicitor’ were adopted, and English lawyers were prominent in the profession. The first chief justices and judges of New Zealand’s Supreme Court were English-born lawyers.

How to cite this page:

Terry Hearn, 'English - Contribution to government', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Terry Hearn, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015