Story: Parliament

Page 7. Structural changes, 1890s to 1950s

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The rise of political parties

In the 1890s, when the Liberals established the first formal political party, political power shifted from the House of Representatives to elections, parties and leaders. The Reform Party was formed in 1909, and the Labour Party in 1916. The National Party emerged in 1936 from the fusion of Reform and the other main conservative party, United.

Two-party political structure

In the 20th century, following a transitional period of three-party politics, a two-party political structure existed in New Zealand. The two main parties – National and Labour – developed huge grassroots memberships.

Numbers and occupations of MPs

The number of MPs remained at 80 from 1902 until 1966. About 30% were farmers, but the election of a Labour government in 1935 increased the number of trade unionists in Parliament.

Māori

From the early 1900s the Young Maori Party MPs had some impact. In the 1930s the Rātana Church entered an alliance with Labour, and by 1943 all the Māori seats were held by Labour MPs who were Rātana members.

Maces and black rods

Some rituals of Parliament, along with certain positions, have English origins. The serjeant at arms leads the speaker in and out of the debating chamber, carrying the mace, which is a symbol of the speaker’s authority. The equivalent for the Legislative Council was what was then known as the gentleman usher of the black rod (the ceremonial staff of office). In the 2000s the usher of the black rod summons MPs into the governor-general’s presence in the Legislative Council chamber to hear the speech from the throne by knocking three times on the door of the House of Representatives chamber.

Women

Women were not eligible to stand for Parliament until 1919, and it was not until 1933 that the first woman, Elizabeth McCombs, was elected to Parliament. Mabel Howard became the first female cabinet minister in 1947 and Iriaka Rātana the first Māori woman MP in 1949. However, overall there were very few female MPs before the 1980s.

Government control of Parliament

From the 1890s the government began to exercise greater control over both the business and administration of Parliament. A minister was responsible for Parliament and its expenditure from 1912.

Legislative sovereignty

Until after the Second World War, in theory Parliament did not have full legislative powers but had to seek the approval of Britain. In practice, Britain’s role was minimal from the 1890s. In 1947 all restrictions were removed when New Zealand adopted the Statute of Westminster. This had been passed by the British Parliament in 1931, and confirmed that the New Zealand Parliament had full power to make the country’s laws.

Abolition of the Legislative Council

From 1892 appointment to the Legislative Council was for a seven-year term, making it easier for governments to control the council. Successive governments ‘stacked’ the Legislative Council with their own appointees. When the Labour government did so in the 1940s, the National Party advocated the abolition of the council. After National came to power in 1949 it made its own appointees, known as the ‘suicide squad’, to the council. This new council accepted a bill passed by the House of Representatives to abolish it. The Legislative Council ceased on 1 January 1951, and Parliament became unicameral (comprising a single House).

Post-war politics

During the period of prosperity after the Second World War MPs’ salaries rose. While there were more MPs with professional or business backgrounds, farming remained the most common occupation.

How to cite this page:

John E. Martin, 'Parliament - Structural changes, 1890s to 1950s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/parliament/page-7 (accessed 19 November 2018)

Story by John E. Martin, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Feb 2015