Governor as figurehead
After only 25 years of responsible government, ministerial rule was well-established. The role of the governor was transformed from being an administrator to simply a constitutional figurehead. Only Sir Arthur Gordon, who took up the role in 1880, openly resented his duties being formal and mechanical. In the closing decades of the 19th century if constitutional disputes were referred to the Colonial Office – over such matters as dissolution of Parliament – the governor was invariably instructed to be guided by ministerial advice.
The Onslow and Glasgow crises
Until the early 1890s this usually worked well. In 1890 the governor, Lord Onslow, agreed to Premier Harry Atkinson’s request to stack the Legislative Council with conservative appointments. After a seemingly inconclusive election in December 1890, he justified more appointments on the grounds of British precedent. However, after he and his successor, Lord Glasgow, refused to grant the new Liberal Premier John Ballance’s requests for counterbalancing appointments, the Colonial Office had to remind Glasgow in 1892 that governors of self-governing colonies had to accept ministerial advice on purely local matters, since ‘the responsibility rests with the ministers, who are answerable to the Legislature [Legislative Council], and in the last resort, to the country.'1
The Federation Commission toured New Zealand in early 1901 to hear submissions for and against federating with Australia. Manufacturers were particularly opposed, fearing they would not be able to compete with Australian-made goods, with Mr Fostick of the Federated Boot Manufacturers foreseeing the annihilation of his industry if federation proceeded. During the tour the commission heard 185 witnesses, of which 112 were against federation, 50 for, and the remainder indefinite.
By the time of the jubilee of annexation in 1890, the Colony was already politically independent from Britain. This was illustrated in New Zealand’s rejection of federation with the Australian colonies in 1901. The commissioners who reported on the issue recommended ‘New Zealand should not sacrifice her independence as a separate colony.’2
Political independence did not imply separation from the ‘mother country’ (Britain). The colony made voluntary contributions to the defence of the British Empire by paying naval subsidies and providing expeditionary forces. In proposing the despatch of a volunteer force to the South African war in 1899, Premier Richard Seddon said: ‘The British flag is our protection ... It is our bounden duty to support the Empire’.3
Becoming a Dominion
Seddon’s successor, Joseph Ward, took this process further. While attending the 1907 Imperial Conference in London, he suggested that the self-governing colonies needed to be distinguished from the Crown colonies. Countries not styled ‘dominion’ like Canada, or ‘commonwealth’ like Australia, should be designated by some such title as ‘state of the empire’. After a lexicological debate, the conference opted for ‘Dominions’. Thus, on his return to Wellington Ward orchestrated a request from Parliament to the king for the colony to be called ‘Dominion of New Zealand’. The new name ‘would place New Zealand in a higher position in the eyes of the world.’4 The first Dominion Day was celebrated on 25 September 1907, when one politician said it would be remembered as New Zealand’s Fourth of July, referring to the date of the US independence day.
To celebrate the first Dominion Day the government had 170,000 commemorative medals made and distributed to every school child in New Zealand.
First World War
Dominion status was a public mark of the political independence that had evolved over half a century through responsible government. By 1911 former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour said the empire depended on the cooperation of ‘absolutely independent Parliaments’.5
Some of the ambiguities inherent in dominion status were resolved during the First World War. While the British declaration of war in 1914 brought the dominions into a conflict about which they had no say, their contributions to the war effort were left to their own discretion. But as the war ground on expensively, the dominions were given a say in its conduct and in the planning for peace in the Imperial War Cabinets. New Zealand was separately represented at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 and became a founder member of the League of Nations in 1920.