The first General Assembly met in 1854. The Colonial Office expected members of the executive council to be drawn from the assembly and have its support. After two parliamentary sessions in which attempts were made to establish this system, it was finally introduced at the beginning of the 1856 session, with Henry Sewell becoming New Zealand’s first premier.
The ‘heads of department’, who had previously been officials on the executive council, were replaced by members of the House of Representatives (Parliament), who became ‘ministers’.
Like the 1846 constitution, that of 1852 established provinces, but six rather than two: Auckland, New Plymouth (later renamed Taranaki), Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago.
Provinces had elected councils and an elected chief official, called a superintendent. These officials were elected in 1853, before the colony-wide General Assembly had met.
Vogel on the provinces, 1870
Julius Vogel, who was colonial treasurer and premier, said, ‘Provincialism, as it is called, is consequent upon, and not the cause of, the manner in which the country was settled. It was an ambitious effort to attempt to settle the colony from so many points.’1
Provinces as states
Provinces resembled federal states in their relative autonomy and independence.
- The six provincial centres were dispersed along the length of a country that was larger than the island of Great Britain, and there were no roads, railways or timetabled shipping or mail services linking them.
- The superintendents were the principal government officials in their district and the councils followed parliamentary procedure.
- The ‘compact of 1856’ on the financial arrangements between the provinces and the colonial government saw all the revenue from the sale of Crown land allocated to the provinces, as well as three-eighths of the customs revenue.
- With proceeds from land sales and other revenue, provinces had the resources to promote colonisation – the primary colonial activity, which involved organising immigration and public works, notably roads (and later railways) and land settlement.
Provinces as local government
Provinces were also like local governments because their independence was limited.
- Superintendents were elected in the same fashion as mayors in English towns.
- Town governments could be established, but none were at first; it was expected that provincial government would fulfil that role for some time.
- The General Assembly (the Parliament for the whole colony) could change the status of the provinces.
- The 1856 compact rested on an agreement that the General Assembly would allocate ordinary (not land) revenue amongst the provinces after its own requirements had been met.
Section 71 of the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 provided for the establishment of native districts within which Māori law, customs and usages should be observed. This provision was never acted on.
The Native Districts Act 1857 was to apply to areas where native title had not been ‘extinguished’. It had a ‘civilising’ element – it included such subjects as cattle trespass, fencing, control of weeds, liquor and health. Provincial laws would not apply, but the districts would lapse once there was no land under Māori title left in them. No districts were set up under this act either.
European settlers in outlying areas felt disadvantaged, believing their districts did not get a fair share of provincial spending. In some instances there were also political differences, for example over land tenure. The New Provinces Act 1858 allowed a new province to be established provided it had:
- an area of more than 500,000 acres (about 200,000 hectares) but less than three million acres (1.2 million hectares)
- a port
- a settler population of at least 1,000
- a petition signed by at least 150 electors
- with some exceptions, to be at no place closer than 60 miles (100 kilometres) to the existing provincial capital.
Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Southland provinces were set up between 1858 and 1861.
Provinces that had land to sell, buyers for it, and a buoyant import trade (which generated customs revenue) did well. Enterprising superintendents, such as Isaac Featherston in Wellington, William Moorhouse in Canterbury, James Menzies in Southland and James Macandrew in Otago, built on such strengths or sought to create them. In the early 1860s a number of provinces took out large loans for immigration and public works – up to £500,000 (equivalent to more than $70 million in 2023) in the cases of Canterbury and Otago – even though they were uncertain of their ability to service them.
New institutions for Māori
In the aftermath of the first Taranaki war (1860–61) between the Crown and Māori, Governor Grey formulated ‘new institutions’, including districts, in an effort to reconcile Māori to the colonial state. Districts were to be divided into ‘hundreds’ (in England a ‘hundred’ was a subdivision of a county). Civil commissioners would work with chiefs, and magistrates with wardens and karere (messengers). The outbreak of the Waikato war in 1863 put an end to these plans.