Story: Self-government and independence

Page 2. New Zealand Constitution Act 1852

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Governor Grey’s scheme

Following the postponement of the 1846 self-government charter, Governor Grey bombarded the British Colonial Office with proposals for a new scheme he thought was appropriate to New Zealand’s situation. He sought to establish three principles:

  • that the scattered nature of settlement required a provincially based scheme
  • that the vote should be extended to all who had a ‘stake in the Colony’, namely property owners and householders
  • that this vote should be extended to Māori who met the qualifications, since Grey expected that rapid colonisation combined with peace and prosperity would soon fuse the ‘two races into one nation’.1

Most of Grey’s ideas were incorporated in the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 passed by the British Parliament, and brought into operation during 1853 and 1854. This gave the colony ‘representative government’ – which meant that at least half the legislature was elected.

Provincial and central government

Under the constitution, the country was divided into six provinces: Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago – with provision for adding more. Each was to be governed by an elected provincial council of not less than nine members and led by a superintendent chosen by council members.

For the colony as a whole there was to be an elected House of Representatives (lower house) of between 24 and 42 members, an appointed Legislative Council (upper house) of not less than 10 members, and a governor. Provincial councils would manage such things as the provision of public works (including railways) and immigration. Courts, crime, customs, coinage, ports, weights and measures, banking, shipping, crown lands, marriage and wills were the responsibility of the General Assembly (the national government). The governor would have the power to disallow legislation that was ‘repugnant’ to British law and would retain control of native land sales and external affairs.

Māori self-government

Section 71 of the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 allowed for the provision of self-governing Māori districts – as envisaged in the 1846 constitution. Māori saw this as implementation of the tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) guaranteed to them under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Māori King movement sought such autonomy in Waikato before and after the New Zealand wars, as did the Kotahitanga (Māori parliament movement), which formed a Māori parliament in the 1890s. This was never recognised by the government. Section 71 remained unimplemented and was finally repealed by the Constitution Act 1986.

Voting rights

The franchise (voting rights) for both provincial councils and the national government was property-based. However, with the qualifications set comparatively low, it was very democratic for the time. Males aged 21 or over, who had freehold land valued at £50 or more, or leasehold land worth £10 more, or who paid at least £10 a year rent in a town, or £5 in the country, could vote. This included a large proportion of the male settler population. People who owned property in more than one electorate had more than one vote until the abolition of property qualifications in 1879. The democratic scope of the franchise was extended in 1860 when a gold prospector’s ‘miner’s right’ (which cost £1) also gave the right to vote.

While Māori owned land, it was owned collectively rather than by individuals. The Māori franchise was delayed by a court decision that communal ownership did not bestow the vote. However, the creation of four Māori seats in Parliament rectified this in 1867. Women gained the vote in 1893.

Representative government only

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 provided for the election of a representative parliament, but did not change the Crown colony executive – Parliament was still subordinate to the governor. This did not satisfy the leaders of the colonists. What they wanted was responsible government, as at Westminster in Britain, where the leaders of the parliamentary majority formed the government executive or cabinet.

  1. Quoted in W. David McIntyre, and W. J. Gardner, eds, Speeches and documents on New Zealand History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 71. Back
How to cite this page:

W. David McIntyre, 'Self-government and independence - New Zealand Constitution Act 1852', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by W. David McIntyre, published 20 Jun 2012