After the first general elections in 1853, the 1852 constitution was inaugurated, though in a different order than expected. The provincial councils were constituted well ahead of the (national) General Assembly, and in Canterbury and Wellington there were immediate attempts at responsible government. Executive councils were also created and in Canterbury the first superintendent, James Edward FitzGerald, said he would carry on the provincial government in consultation with the leading councillors. These would not be appointed heads of departments or equivalents of responsible ministers, but, if his advisors could not get council majority support, he would seek advisors who could. Wellington’s superintendent, Isaac Featherston, went further. He said that no representative legislature can ever work satisfactorily with an irresponsible executive – one not chosen from the legislature. He announced that in accordance with British constitutional practice he would choose his chief executive officers from among the Wellington provincial councillors, and to hold office they would have to have approval from the provincial council.
One nation or many?
In opening the first Parliament in 1854 Colonel Robert Wynyard proclaimed ‘it will rest with the General Assembly of these Islands, whether New Zealand shall become one great nation, exercising a commanding influence in the Southern Seas, or a collection of insignificant, divided and powerless petty States.’1
First General Assembly
When the first General Assembly convened in Auckland in 1854, its first substantial resolution was to call for the establishment of responsible government. The acting governor, Colonel Robert Wynyard, felt bound to refer this request to London, but in the meantime he sought to bring executive and legislature into harmony by adding three members of the House of Representatives to the Executive Council. These ‘unofficial’ members, led by FitzGerald, the only provincial superintendent in the house, joined the council in the mistaken expectation that the officials would be pensioned off and a fully responsible ‘cabinet’ (executive council) would take control. When the acting governor told them he awaited London’s decision, the ‘ministry’ (executive council) resigned. After trying to use Edward Gibbon Wakefield as a sole adviser and then attempting another ‘mixed ministry’ led by an Auckland member, Wynyard reverted to the Crown colony system, where all power was vested in the governor.
However, self-government was not long delayed. The British secretary of state for the colonies indicated that there was no objection to the creation of responsible government in New Zealand, and no new legislation was needed. The only condition was that a fair pension be provided for the retiring officials. This approval was announced in the 1855 General Assembly, but the need for fresh elections delayed its implementation.
The inferior status of the General Assembly in many voters’ minds was mirrored in New Zealand’s first parliament building. Hastily erected on a steep slope below the governor’s residence in Auckland, the utilitarian two-storey structure became known as the ‘Shedifice’. Wind whistled through its walls and the roof leaked. Many provincial government buildings were palatial in comparison – particularly in Canterbury and Nelson – reflecting local pride and a concern with regional over national issues.
In April 1856 Governor Thomas Gore Browne laid out the procedure for the operation of responsible government. In matters assigned by the Constitution Act 1852 to the General Assembly he would accept the advice of the responsible ministers whether he agreed or not. On ‘imperial matters’ he would receive advice, but if he disagreed he would refer the matter to the secretary of state. Among imperial interests he included Māori affairs (especially relating to land, an area that could endanger the peace of the colony) and relations with foreign countries. This involved a system of ‘double government’, or dyarchy.
The first ministry
The first responsible ministry was formed in May 1856 and, after two false starts with premiers who could not keep a majority for more than a few weeks, a stable ministry was formed by Edward Stafford, who held power for five years. During this time a workable arrangement between provincial and colonial governments was developed to deal with assets, liabilities and revenue. A loan was raised to pay off the colony’s debts, with interest payments shared equitably between the North Island and South Island.