New Zealand achieved self-government and independence from Britain through a series of small steps rather than a single large stride. New Zealand was a colony in the British Empire from 1840 to 1907 and a dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations from 1907 to 1945, and became a separate monarchical realm of the Commonwealth in 1953. Ties with the British Parliament were not severed finally until 1986, and connection with British courts continued until 2003.
At the San Francisco conference that set up the United Nations in 1945, New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser said, ‘it is very difficult to distinguish between self-government and independence, for to the self-governing sovereign States of the British Commonwealth, self-government is independence and independence is self-government’.1
Yet, for all but the first six years after 1840, when it was a Crown colony (ruled personally by a governor), the country has had various forms of self-government. These progressively led to independence of action, even if the formal constitutional arrangements suggested otherwise. As historian J. C. Beaglehole noted in 1954, New Zealand ‘managed to act as an independent nation without being independent. It managed to act independently ... while deploring independence’.2 New Zealand has no Independence Day to celebrate, but rather had a subtle process of peaceful adoption, and in some cases pioneering, of institutions of democratic self-rule and sovereignty.
Prominent Wellingtonian Charles Clifford was appointed to the Legislative Council to represent the southern settlements. He and the other non-official members protested the high administrative salaries which colonists had to fund, but were outvoted by the official members. In 1844 he concluded the meetings were an idle and useless formality and resigned.
New Zealand’s early government was derived from British models. The Charter of 1840 vested the power of the British government in a governor. The governor was advised by the Executive Council, which comprised the colony’s leading officials: the colonial secretary, treasurer, attorney general and a senior military officer. There was also a Legislative Council which made laws, in line with British law, for ‘Peace, Order and good government’.3 It consisted of the governor, the executive council, and three justices of the peace. These latter three non-official members were selected by the governor and can be seen as the first representatives of the colonists. The councils met infrequently and the system was short-lived because of growing calls from settlers for self-government.
In Britain an idealistic secretary of state for the colonies, Henry George Grey (Earl Grey), heard the calls. In 1846 he instructed New Zealand’s governor, George Grey (not a relative), to gradually implement a three-tiered – municipal, provincial and national – system of self-government in New Zealand.
The new charter also authorised partition of the country into provincial and aboriginal districts, the latter to be ‘governed by such methods as are in use among native New Zealanders’.4
While Earl Grey commended the advantages of colonial self-government, he warned that it should not be used to suppress indigenous peoples. For his part, Governor George Grey was all too aware of such a possibility from his earlier experiences in Australia. Governing a colonial population of little more than 13,000 living amid some 100,000 Māori, Grey regarded the 1846 constitution as impractical. He had detected growing nationalist sentiment among northern Māori and believed implementing the scheme would exacerbate this feeling. He also believed it would allow Pākehā to exercise undue power over Māori. Grey said of Māori: ‘no people that I am acquainted with are less likely to sit down quietly under what they may regard as an injustice.’ While he did not think Māori were ‘ready to take a share in representative government’, he also thought it would not be long before they were ‘more fitted to do so.’5 He therefore secured a postponement of self-government for five years in 1848.
In the meantime, Grey divided the colony into two provinces: New Ulster and New Munster. These were headed by two lieutenant governors – Robert Wynyard and Edward Eyre respectively – and each province had an appointed executive and a nominated legislative council. However, before either government had made much headway, the British government passed the Constitution Act 1852, providing for a new system of government in New Zealand.
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:
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.
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.
Section 71 of the Constitution Act 1852 allowed for the provision of self-governing Māori districts – as envisaged in the 1846 constitution. Māori saw it 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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
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 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.
In 1856 the first compromise in a series of moves that eventually led to parliamentary control over Māori affairs was made. The official roles of native secretary and chief land purchase commissioner were merged and placed under the general oversight of a ‘native minister’, although the governor retained responsibility.
In 1860, in an effort to avert conflict between land-hungry colonists and Māori who were resisting pressure to sell their land, Governor Thomas Gore Browne proposed a Native Council to oversee a more equitable system of colonisation. For every block of land purchased from Māori, two-tenths would be conveyed to the original occupiers and one-tenth held for them as reserves. Part of the revenue from land sales would be used to create endowment for schools, churches and facilities for the ‘improvement’ of Māori. The council would also have the power to set up self-governing Māori districts to operate under ‘native law’. A bill to this effect was drafted and sent to the British Parliament.
Former Canterbury superintendent James FitzGerald was a leading critic of Browne’s Native Council proposal. ‘The present bill creates two governments in one colony; and I know of nothing which can protect a community so governed from the proverbial fate of a house divided against itself.’ 1 Such opposition helped scuttle the proposal.
But it was too late. A dispute over a seemingly minor piece of land at Waitara, in Taranaki, in 1860 became the spark for the decade-long New Zealand wars. While it was supplying military reinforcements, the British government was reluctant to relinquish control of Māori affairs. A further move came in 1861 after Sir George Grey returned for a second term as governor. A new ministry headed by William Fox deplored the system of double government, and Grey agreed to consult ministers in this as in other matters and to give greater responsibility to the General Assembly. But the big shift came when the British government found backing settler aggression more and more distasteful and expensive, and announced that imperial garrisons would be removed from self-governing colonies. British battalions could only be retained if they were paid for by the colony.
A new policy of self-reliance was attempted in 1864 by a ministry led by Frederick Weld. To end double government the imperial troops were let go and were replaced by a colonial force of military settlers (mainly recruited in Australia), and in return full control of Māori affairs would be handed over. This policy was short-lived and unsuccessful. Edward Stafford returned to power in 1865 and tried to hang on to the British troops by haggling over payments. By the end of the 1860s, British patience had run out and the last battalion was withdrawn in 1870, leaving the colonial government insecure, but in full control of Māori affairs for the first time.
In 1874, at a Tauranga meeting discussing the abolition of the provinces, the politician J. W. Kelly denounced provincial government. All the money was expended in Auckland and outlying districts were neglected, he proclaimed. As far as he was concerned the only people opposing abolition of the provincial governments were provincial government members. He received a unanimous vote of confidence.
There were some bitter recriminations involving wild talk of joining the United States, or going for independence in foreign-treaty relations, or neutrality in foreign wars. But this mood soon passed and was succeeded by one of euphoria induced by lavish borrowing for development involving an ambitious programme of public works, immigration, and imperialism in the Pacific. All this was accompanied by greater centralisation of government. The capital was transferred from Auckland to Wellington in 1865 and 10 years later the provincial governments were abolished.
After only 25 years of responsible government, ministerial rule was well-established. The role of the governor was transformed from being an administrator to simply a constitutional figurehead. Only Sir Arthur Gordon, who took up the role in 1880, openly resented his duties being formal and mechanical. In the closing decades of the 19th century if constitutional disputes were referred to the Colonial Office – over such matters as dissolution of Parliament – the governor was invariably instructed to be guided by ministerial advice.
Until the early 1890s this usually worked well. In 1890 the governor, Lord Onslow, agreed to Premier Harry Atkinson’s request to stack the Legislative Council with conservative appointments. After a seemingly inconclusive election in December 1890, he justified more appointments on the grounds of British precedent. However, after he and his successor, Lord Glasgow, refused to grant the new Liberal Premier John Ballance’s requests for counterbalancing appointments, the Colonial Office had to remind Glasgow in 1892 that governors of self-governing colonies had to accept ministerial advice on purely local matters, since ‘the responsibility rests with the ministers, who are answerable to the Legislature [Legislative Council], and in the last resort, to the country.'1
The Federation Commission toured New Zealand in early 1901 to hear submissions for and against federating with Australia. Manufacturers were particularly opposed, fearing they would not be able to compete with Australian-made goods, with Mr Fostick of the Federated Boot Manufacturers foreseeing the annihilation of his industry if federation proceeded. During the tour the commission heard 185 witnesses, of which 112 were against federation, 50 for, and the remainder indefinite.
By the time of the jubilee of annexation in 1890, the Colony was already politically independent from Britain. This was illustrated in New Zealand’s rejection of federation with the Australian colonies in 1901. The commissioners who reported on the issue recommended ‘New Zealand should not sacrifice her independence as a separate colony.’2
Political independence did not imply separation from the ‘mother country’ (Britain). The colony made voluntary contributions to the defence of the British Empire by paying naval subsidies and providing expeditionary forces. In proposing the despatch of a volunteer force to the South African war in 1899, Premier Richard Seddon said: ‘The British flag is our protection ... It is our bounden duty to support the Empire’.3
Seddon’s successor, Joseph Ward, took this process further. While attending the 1907 Imperial Conference in London, he suggested that the self-governing colonies needed to be distinguished from the Crown colonies. Countries not styled ‘dominion’ like Canada, or ‘commonwealth’ like Australia, should be designated by some such title as ‘state of the empire’. After a lexicological debate, the conference opted for ‘Dominions’. Thus, on his return to Wellington Ward orchestrated a request from Parliament to the king for the colony to be called ‘Dominion of New Zealand’. The new name ‘would place New Zealand in a higher position in the eyes of the world.’4 The first Dominion Day was celebrated on 25 September 1907, when one politician said it would be remembered as New Zealand’s Fourth of July, referring to the date of the US independence day.
To celebrate the first Dominion Day the government had 170,000 commemorative medals made and distributed to every school child in New Zealand.
Dominion status was a public mark of the political independence that had evolved over half a century through responsible government. By 1911 former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour said the empire depended on the cooperation of ‘absolutely independent Parliaments’.5
Some of the ambiguities inherent in dominion status were resolved during the First World War. While the British declaration of war in 1914 brought the dominions into a conflict about which they had no say, their contributions to the war effort were left to their own discretion. But as the war ground on expensively, the dominions were given a say in its conduct and in the planning for peace in the Imperial War Cabinets. New Zealand was separately represented at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 and became a founder member of the League of Nations in 1920.
At the behest of Canada, South Africa and Ireland, the 1926 Balfour definition provided formal, international recognition of independence. It defined the relationship between Britain and the dominions as equal and autonomous communities. This formula paved the way for constitutional independence as embodied in the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which stated that no act of the British Parliament would henceforth extend to a dominion without its specific request and consent. The dominions could become as independent as they wanted to be.
In 1926 the British statesman Arthur Balfour famously defined the relationship of the dominions to Britain: ‘They are autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by their common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’1
Many New Zealanders opposed these developments, believing they would weaken imperial unity. Prime Minister Gordon Coates regarded the Balfour definition as a poisonous document, while others deplored the ‘damned Statute of Westminster propaganda’.2 The government only allowed the Dominion of New Zealand to be cited in the statute provided that the operative sections did not apply unless adopted by the New Zealand Parliament.
In the meantime, the country began to act as if the statute was in force. The first Labour Government elected in 1935 took a very independent line in the League of Nations. In 1938 Deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser told Parliament, ‘this country has to make up its own mind on international problems as a sovereign country – because under the Statute of Westminster ours is a sovereign country’.3 The pioneering diplomat Carl Berendsen later recalled that New Zealand ‘wanted no independence, theoretical or practical’. But he admitted that in his time (from the 1920s to the 1950s) ‘there never was … one single instance when the New Zealand Government was unable to do all, and exactly what it wished’.4
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 the New Zealand government made its own decision to enter the war. At war’s end, it played a notable part in the planning of the United Nations and became one of the 51 founding members under the name ‘New Zealand’, with ‘Dominion of’ omitted – a signal of its desire to show independence.
In 1939 the prominent historian J. C. Beaglehole declared: ‘New Zealand has not yet advanced to full self-government. Apart from certain constitutional conventions, she is still legally in a position of subordination. She should adopt the Statute of Westminster as soon as possible as an indisputable contribution to Dominion self government.’5
The constitutional situation in no way compromised New Zealand’s close affinity with Britain and the other dominions. Peter Fraser was quite aware of ‘the paradox that, the freer we become, the closer we draw together’.6 He realised, however, that constitutional technicalities had eventually to accord with political realities. In 1947 the Statute of Westminster was adopted and full power to amend the Constitution Act 1852 was also gained so that the abolition of the upper house could proceed. This was accomplished in 1951, thus providing a deviation from the British Westminster model.
Following the 1947 adoption of the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand citizenship came into existence under the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948. Some ambiguity remained: holders of New Zealand citizenship remained ‘British subjects’ and in the title of the act ‘British Nationality’ came first and ‘New Zealand Citizenship’ came second. In subsequent years three further steps were taken to confirm New Zealand’s sovereignty.
New Zealand’s unique position in having two national anthems suggests continuing ambivalence about independence from Britain. The first is ‘God save the Queen’ (the same as Britain’s). The second is ‘God defend New Zealand’. The latter was penned by Thomas Bracken and put to music by J. J. Woods in the 1870s. But it was not until 1977 that it became a second national anthem.
The British Royal Titles Act 1953 enabled each Dominion to have their own title for the monarch. In New Zealand, Queen Elizabeth II became queen of ‘the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and her other realms’. In 1974 the reference to Britain was dropped and the title became simply monarch ‘of New Zealand and her other Realms.’ John Marshall, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, when supporting the 1974 bill in Parliament, said Britain’s recent entry into the ‘European Economic Community served to highlight the separate and independent status of New Zealand’.1
Full legal independence was achieved when Parliament legislated to define its own authority in the Constitution Act 1986. This also repealed the Constitution Act 1852, the 1947 amendment act and the Statute of Westminster. The General Assembly, first authorised in 1852, was now titled ‘Parliament’, consisting of the governor-general and House of Representatives – as in the 1852 act, but now authorised by the new statute.
Not all symbolic links with the Privy Council were severed with the creation of the Supreme Court. When the new court building opened in January 2010, it housed a piece of ‘queen’s silver’ – a 17th century inkpot – given by the Privy Council. It was displayed alongside an old waka huia (treasure box) provided by the national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa.
A logical judicial landmark was passed when the Judicial Committee of Britain’s Privy Council ceased to be New Zealand’s final court of appeal. The Supreme Court Act 2003 created a new final appeals court: the Supreme Court. It meant that last appeals would be heard by New Zealand judges in a measure designed, according to Attorney General Margaret Wilson, ‘to recognise that New Zealand is an independent nation with its own history and tradition … At long last New Zealand will be in control of its own legal destiny.’2.The move was not welcomed by all. Some Māori saw the Privy Council as a more direct extension of Crown authority and a guarantor of the Treaty of Waitangi. A few business leaders thought that the council provided a valuable benchmark for New Zealand common law decisions.
In the first decade of the 21st century New Zealand’s executive, legislature and judiciary all stood separate from the UK. Of the imperial legacy only the shared monarch remained as head of state. Even so, New Zealand retained strong symbolic links with Britain: ‘God save the Queen’ remained an official national anthem along with ‘God defend New Zealand, the Union Jack featured in a corner of the national flag, and the queen’s image was on the $20 note and all coins.
In the early 21st century the idea of New Zealand becoming a republic still seemed some way off. Many saw it as a logical next step if the nation was to be completely independent. On 26 September 2007, the centennial of the first Dominion Day, Prime Minister Helen Clark opened a celebratory seminar she had convened in Parliament’s former Legislative Council chamber by suggesting that a century on they might be marking ‘Republic Day’.
Joseph, Philip A. Constitutional and administrative law in New Zealand. Sydney: Law Book Co., 1993.
McIntyre, W. David. Dominion of New Zealand: statesmen and status, 1907–1945. Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 2007.
McKinnon, Malcolm. Independence and foreign policy: New Zealand in the world since 1935. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993.
This section of the NZHistory.net website looks at how New Zealand became a dominion, and what that has meant over time.
A section of the NZHistory.net website that looks at how the position of New Zealand’s governor-general has changed over time.
A timeline of key events that have helped shape the course of New Zealand’s political and constitutional development.