In 1853 New Zealand was divided into semi-autonomous provinces. Because the West Coast was virtually uninhabited, it was split between Nelson and Canterbury provinces, with the boundary along the Grey River/Māwheranui.
Although most of the miners who arrived in 1865–67 had little interest in politics, they protested against the unwillingness of the Canterbury provincial government to spend money on goldfields infrastructure. In late 1867 the central government created the County of Westland, which became Westland province in 1873. The northern part of the West Coast (Buller) remained part of Nelson until provincial governments were abolished in 1876.
Initially voting was restricted to property-owning men, but the Westland Representation Act 1867 extended the vote to holders of a miner’s right (a permit to mine).
Until 1902 the West Coast had five members of Parliament, but the number declined over the 20th century as the population of the rest of the country increased relative to that of the West Coast. In the 2020s the single electorate, West Coast–Tasman, extended northwards into the Nelson region. Those on the Māori roll voted in Te Tai Tonga electorate.
After arriving in Hokitika in 1866 from England, via the Victorian goldfields, Richard Seddon worked as a gold miner, storekeeper, miner’s advocate and publican at Kumara. Elected as member of Parliament for Hokitika in 1879, he was to represent parts of Westland for the next 27 years.
Always a strong advocate for local issues, he endlessly raised in Parliament matters such as the rights of miners and the management of the Waimea sludge channel. When the Liberal Party took power in 1891, he was the obvious choice as minister of mines.
Seddon was known to look after his constituents. According to an often-told but unauthenticated story, a West Coaster appeared in his office one day, and asked for a job. He was given a note to a departmental head requesting that a job be found for him. Some time later Seddon received a memo explaining that the man could neither read nor write. It was immediately returned with a scribbled note from Seddon, ‘Then learn him.’ 1
With the death of John Ballance in 1893, Seddon became premier. An unashamed populist, King Dick (as he was known) toured the country tirelessly. His speeches always contained references to his adopted home on the West Coast, and he ensured that public works there were pushed ahead with vigour. Commemorated with statues in Hokitika and Wellington, he is remembered with great affection on the West Coast.
The cradle of socialism
Underground coal mining was dangerous, with many accidents and fatalities. The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894, introduced by the Seddon government, made it difficult for unions to take direct industrial action to improve conditions.
In February 1908, Blackball miners went on strike for a 30-minute lunch break rather than the 15 minutes they were allowed under their award. This so-called ‘crib-time’ strike escalated, catching the public imagination when Judge William Sim, in the Greymouth court, took a 90-minute lunch adjournment before fining the miners for their illegal strike. It was the symbolic start of a campaign to discredit the arbitration system. Leaders included unionists Paddy Webb, Pat Hickey and Bob Semple, all later prominent in the labour movement.
There were bitter battles within the labour movement on the West Coast. Paddy Webb had been a leader in the 1908 Blackball strike and was imprisoned during the First World War for his opposition to conscription. But when he stood as a Labour candidate in the Buller by-election in 1933 following the death of party leader Harry Holland he was opposed by unionist Angus McLagan, who argued that Webb was a capitalist in disguise because he had worked as a coal merchant. Both men later served in the cabinet of the first Labour government.
For many years the West Coast was a centre of radical union activity, based around coal miners. Paddy Webb, Harry Holland and James O’Brien were later elected as Labour MPs, representing West Coast electorates, and Bob Semple and Angus McLagan were Labour MPs in other areas.
Although the West Coast has a reputation as a stronghold of the labour movement, this is sometimes overstated. Miners were often reluctant to go on strike, and cooperative mining groups, farmers and small businessmen opposed the large unions. More than once, strong independent candidates threatened the hold of local Labour MPs. In 1990 Margaret Moir was elected as the first National MP in the region, although she lasted only one term. Chris Auchinvole also won the seat for National in 2008, but Labour’s Damien O'Connor won it back in 2011 and still held it in 2023.