The extension of the right to vote to all adult men – often called universal male suffrage or ‘manhood suffrage’ – has been overshadowed by the Māori seats and women’s suffrage. But this 1879 reform arguably had the greatest impact on the character of New Zealand politics and the make-up of Parliament.
Manhood suffrage had been debated in New Zealand since the 1840s, but there was at first no urgent demand for reform. However, in the 1870s and 1880s the abolition of provincial government, the growing power of central government, large-scale immigration and economic depression began to transform politics.
A right or a privilege?
The adoption of the secret ballot in 1870 (in place of verbal voting) opened the door for further electoral reform. Secret voting reinforced the idea that the vote was an individual right rather than a privilege or public trust. Inspired by the writings of British philosopher John Stuart Mill, New Zealand electoral reformers such as William Reynolds argued that all men (with some exceptions, such as criminals) deserved the right to vote.
In the 1870s Parliament considered a number of bills to extend the franchise. A Lodgers’ Franchise Act, designed to enfranchise young tradesmen and clerks living in city lodging houses, was passed in 1875 but soon proved unworkable. An attempt to simplify registration procedures, which inadvertently appeared to enfranchise all male ratepayers, further confused matters.
By 1876 there were different franchises for freeholders, leaseholders, householders, gold miners, lodgers, ratepayers and Māori. Most politicians favoured a simple manhood suffrage, but the unstable political scene complicated reform efforts.
Changing the law
In 1878 two rival bills appeared in Parliament. One was introduced by Robert Stout, the young attorney-general in George Grey’s government, the other by his predecessor as attorney-general, Frederick Whitaker, who was by then in opposition.
Whitaker’s bill – which radically proposed proportional representation and the allocation of Māori seats according to population – failed to gain support. The government bill fared little better. It stalled in the Legislative Council (the upper house) over the issue of Māori landowners’ voting rights, and was ultimately abandoned.
Grey’s government was soon defeated and in October 1879 John Hall formed a new government. Back in cabinet, Whitaker introduced a simplified version of Stout’s 1878 bill, granting the vote to all adult European males after 12 months’ residence in New Zealand and six months in an electorate. The freeholders’ qualification and plural voting, which Hall defended as ‘a moderate recognition of the rights of property’, would be retained, with the threshold reduced from £50 to £25.1 The bill was passed in December 1879.
A new political scene
The impact was immediate. In 1879 there were 82,271 registered voters, about 71% of the adult male Pākehā population. When the next election was held in 1881, there were 120,972 registered voters, 91% of adult Pākehā men. The character of Parliament also began to change. Since the 1850s most politicians had come from the wealthy colonial elite, but in the 1880s and 1890s more ‘working men’ were elected.
Another key reform followed in 1889, when plural voting by freeholders was abolished, establishing the principle of ‘one man, one vote’. In 1893 New Zealand would achieve worldwide fame by embracing a far more radical political principle: ‘one person, one vote’.