When Wellington province was established in 1853, the Whanganui region was part of it. Separation from Wellington was discussed but rejected at meetings in Whanganui in 1859 and 1860. Unsuccessful petitions for separation were presented to Parliament in 1865, 1868 and 1873. The 1873 petition was signed by 1,108 people throughout the region.
Whanganui became a borough in 1872. When the provinces were abolished in 1876, Wanganui, Rangitīkei and Pātea counties were established. Waitōtara county was established in 1884 and Waimarino in 1902. Other boroughs appeared – briefly in the suburbs of Whanganui, longer-lasting at Marton (1879), Taihape (1906), Ohakune (1911) and Raetihi (1921). In 1989, counties and boroughs were replaced by district councils: Ruapehu, Rangitīkei, Wanganui and South Taranaki.
Fall from grace
Charles Mackay was mayor of Wanganui for 12 years, until 1920, when he was imprisoned for attempted murder. He had argued with and then shot the writer D’Arcy Cresswell, who claimed that Mackay had made sexual advances towards him. Cresswell was homosexual, so he may not have been an entirely innocent party. After Mackay was jailed, the street named after him had its name changed, his portrait was taken from the council chambers and destroyed, and he was not mentioned in local histories for the next 50 years.
Whanganui has had 27 mayors, mostly from commerce or the professions. Prominent mayors have included businessmen Alexander Hatrick and Hopeful Gibbons, and lawyer Charles Mackay. Two long-serving mayors, Bill Rogers (1927–31, 1935–53) and Reg Andrews (1962–74), had backgrounds in the labour movement. Michael Laws (2004–10) was a former member of Parliament, first for the National Party and then for New Zealand First. Annette Main (2010–16) was the first woman to hold the office.
Governors-general Sir Arthur Porritt (1967–72) and Sir Jerry Mateparae (2011–16) were both born and educated in Whanganui.
There was one electorate for the region until 1860, Wanganui–Rangitīkei. Since then the number of electorates has varied between two and four. William Fox and John Ballance, both of whom served as premiers of the colony in the 19th century, represented electorates in the region.
Rangitīkei was held by the Reform Party from 1911 and later by National, with two notable exceptions: it went to Labour from 1935 to 1938, and to Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham from 1978 to 1984. National has held the reconfigured seat since 1996.
Waimarino, with its rail and timber workers, was usually a Labour electorate from the 1920s until the 1950s.
Wanganui was mainly a Liberal stronghold until 1911, when it was won by independent Labour candidate W. A. Veitch, an engine driver, trade unionist and political maverick. From 1935 until 2005 Labour held Wanganui (renamed Whanganui in 1996) for all but two terms. The seat was then held by National until 2020. In 2017 Harete Hipango became the first Māori MP for Whanganui. In 2020 she lost the seat to Labour’s Steph Lewis
The region was in the Western Māori electorate from 1867 to 1996, and has been in Te Tai Hauāuru since 2002. The first member for Western Māori was Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi from Pūtiki. The seat was won in 1935 by H. T. Rātana, eldest son of Rātana Church founder T. W. Rātana.
In 1996 Tariana Turia from Whangaehu entered Parliament as a Labour list MP, and she won Te Tai Hauāuru in 2002. She resigned in 2004 and was re-elected in a by-election as an independent. Turia held the seat in the 2005 election, by which time she was co-leader of the Māori Party (Te Pāti Māori). A minister in John Key's National-led government from 2008, she retired from Parliament in 2014.
Whanganui city has five secondary schools: the fee-paying private school Wanganui Collegiate, by far the oldest; Wanganui Girls’ College; Wanganui High School; Wanganui City College; and Cullinane College, the product of a 2003 merger of St Augustine’s College and Sacred Heart College. Two other private secondary schools – Turakina Maori Girls' College, and Nga Tawa, an Anglican school – are in Marton.
District high schools (primary schools with secondary departments) were set up early in most towns. The secondary departments later split off and became separate co-educational secondary schools: Wanganui Technical College (now Whanganui City College), Ruapehu College, Rangitīkei College, Taihape College and Waverley High School (which closed in 2007). In 2005 Taihape College and Taihape primary school were amalgamated to form Taihape Area School.
Wanganui Regional Community College has been Whanganui UCOL since 2002.
Until the abolition of district health boards in 2022, the Whanganui District Health Board funded and provided health care throughout the region, except in Waitōtara and Waverley. A range of services for Māori is provided by Te Oranganui, an iwi health authority.