The 1890 election introduced government by party for the first time, when new premier John Ballance established the Liberal Federation. Ballance died in 1893 and was succeeded by Richard Seddon (sometimes known as ‘King Dick’), who effortlessly dominated New Zealand politics for the next 13 years. There was little real parliamentary opposition until 1909, when William Massey welded together the Reform Party. Thereafter political power centred on parties and their leaders. Personality became increasingly important for political success. The charismatic Gordon Coates ensured victory for Reform in 1925, and Labour’s Michael Joseph Savage, with his genial, fatherly image, enjoyed mass adulation in the 1930s.
Religion was politically divisive in the early 1900s when Sir Joseph Ward (a Catholic) and William Massey (Protestant) led the major parties, Liberal and Reform. Generally, though, it seldom raised political ripples in New Zealand. Because the Anglican Church is not an established (that is, official state) church in New Zealand, Frederick Weld, a Catholic, could become premier in 1864. Julius Vogel, who was Jewish, became premier in 1873. By contrast, in 2017 Britain had still not had a Catholic or Jewish prime minister. Non-belief was also not a bar to office in New Zealand; colonial premiers Alfred Domett, Robert Stout and John Ballance were freethinkers.
Governors and premiers
In the early 1890s there were some unexpected challenges to the premiership from Government House. Late in 1890, Governor Onslow unwisely accepted defeated Premier Sir Harry Atkinson’s appointments to the Legislative Council (the upper house of Parliament). The council then proceeded to savage important Liberal bills. Onslow’s successor, Lord Glasgow, refused to allow Premier John Ballance’s request to make enough counter-balancing appointments to safeguard the government’s programme. In 1892 the British government had to remind Glasgow that in self-governing colonies governors were bound to follow ministerial advice on domestic matters.
Although not every 20th-century government would have a big majority, the party system and tight control of party members by whips (MPs who ensure other party members vote in compliance with party policy) helped prime ministers by making confidence votes in the House of Representatives more predictable. Between 1915 and 1919 Reform leader William Massey led an uneasy wartime coalition with the Liberals under Joseph Ward – a first for New Zealand.
One change brought about by the First World War was direct participation in governing the British Empire. Previously, New Zealand prime ministers had attended occasional colonial and imperial conferences, but they otherwise communicated with London through the governor. In 1917, however, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George offered them seats in a new Imperial War Cabinet. In 1919 New Zealand’s new standing was recognised when Massey signed the peace settlement, the Treaty of Versailles. Characteristically, Massey, a devoted imperialist, downplayed the significance of the event.
For a while New Zealand’s prime ministers opposed greater independence from Britain. New Zealand and Australia resisted the structural reforms towards independence pushed by other dominions at the 1926 and 1930 imperial conferences. The 1931 Statute of Westminster confirmed that dominions had exclusive power to make their laws. However, New Zealand did not adopt this statute until 1947, and then only as part of a political manoeuvre to make it constitutionally possible to abolish the Legislative Council. Increasingly, however, New Zealand began to act independently in foreign affairs. During the 1940s the prime minister’s profile rose as the country signed a number of international treaties. Prime Minister Peter Fraser established a New Zealand embassy in the United States and played an important role in setting up the United Nations.