Story: Self-government and independence

New Zealand does not have an Independence Day to celebrate – the country’s independence from Britain was gained in many small steps rather than all at once. In the 2000s New Zealand is independent from Britain in almost every way, but Queen Elizabeth II is still the country’s official head of state.

Story by W. David McIntyre
Main image: Lights celebrating Dominion Day

Story Summary

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Crown colony

In 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, New Zealand became a colony of Britain. At first it was a Crown colony, which meant it was ruled by a governor appointed by Britain – but European settlers wanted their own government.

Provincial and central government

In 1852 New Zealand was divided into provinces, each with their own government and elected representatives. There was also a national government, with an elected House of Representatives (lower house) and a Legislative Council (upper house) whose members were appointed by the governor. The national government was responsible for things such as courts, crime, currency and marriage law.

However, the governor was still above the national government until 1856. Even after that some issues, such as relations with foreign countries or matters related to Māori, were still the responsibility of the governor and the British government.

Relations with Māori

Tension was building between settlers who wanted more land and Māori who didn’t want to give up their land. In 1860 this led to war. Because government troops were provided by the British government, the New Zealand government couldn’t take over responsibility for Māori affairs until it provided its own military. It did this from 1864, leading to more independence from Britain.

Political independence

From 1865 the governor became more of a figurehead, and political power was held by the national and provincial governments. In 1876 provincial governments were abolished.

In the late 1890s New Zealand showed its sense of independence by deciding not to become part of Australia. In 1907 it became the Dominion of New Zealand, a symbolic recognition of the colony’s maturity. While New Zealand fought with Britain in the First World War, it was able to make its own decisions about how to contribute to the war effort. In 1920 New Zealand became a founding member of the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations.

Statute of Westminster

New Zealand still retained many ties with Britain. For example, it didn’t adopt the Statute of Westminster, a British law which said that no laws passed in the British Parliament would automatically be law in former British colonies such as New Zealand, until 1947 – 16 years after it was passed.

Moves towards full independence

In 1948 New Zealanders became New Zealand citizens – before that they had been British citizens. New Zealand gained full legal independence when Parliament passed the Constitution Act 1986. In 2003 a new Supreme Court was created, replacing Britain’s Privy Council as New Zealand’s final court of appeal.

In the early 2000s Queen Elizabeth II was still the official head of state, leading some people to argue that New Zealand should gain full independence by becoming a republic.

How to cite this page:

W. David McIntyre, 'Self-government and independence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/self-government-and-independence (accessed 22 October 2018)

Story by W. David McIntyre, published 20 Jun 2012