In 1853 a provincial government system was introduced, and Nelson became one of six (eventually 10) provinces with its own small parliament, responsible for land, education, immigration and public works. Until 1876 it administered an area much larger than the current Nelson region – initially all the land north of a line from the mouth of the Hurunui River on the east coast to the mouth of the Grey River on the West Coast.
Thieves and supper
Early local politics was dominated by the Original Land Purchasers’ Association, formed in the 1840s to protect the interests of landholders against the New Zealand Company. It was dubbed ‘the Nelson Supper Party’, as members took turns holding evening gatherings. A less kind name for the group was ‘the Forty Thieves’.
Marlborough was gazetted as a separate province on 4 October 1859. In 1876 the provincial system of government was wound up and county councils were created. Roads boards, which had been set up to build and maintain rural roads, amalgamated with county councils from the 1890s. By 1920 there were four counties, two boroughs and one city in the region.
Tasman District Council, based in Richmond, was formed in 1989. In 1992 it became a unitary authority, responsible for environmental management as well as municipal affairs. In 2020 the council administered the entire region except for Nelson city (covered by Nelson City Council, also a unitary authority).
While the Richmond Range separates Nelson and Marlborough, the two are often linked. Many organisations, government and non-government, have the hyphenated title Nelson–Marlborough. Examples include the district health board and Fish & Game.
In the 2010s the region had two general electorates. Nelson covered Nelson city and its surrounds. The rest of the region was part of the West Coast–Tasman electorate. Nelson was part of Te Tai Tonga Māori electorate.
Early Nelson politician Alfred Domett published a 14,000-line epic poem, Ranolf and Amohia, in 1883. The tale of a Pākehā sailor and a Māori princess, it was praised by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, but verged on doggerel. James Cowan, writing in 1934 in the New Zealand Railways Magazine, was being kind when he noted that ‘the poem greatly needs pruning.’1 Domett is commemorated by the Domett Range and Mt Domett – and by Mt Ranolf and Amohia Peak in Kahurangi National Park.
William Stafford became Nelson's first superintendent when was elected in 1853. His system of free, secular and compulsory education became the model for New Zealand, with the ‘Nelson system’ introduced to all state primary schools in 1877. Alfred Domett arrived in Nelson in 1842. An important provincial politician, he was premier of New Zealand in 1862–63.
An eccentric politician from Nelson was the anti-Semitic and right-wing Arthur Field. Better known are prime ministers Keith Holyoake and Bill Rowling. Orchardist Holyoake was prime minister for two months in 1957 (when Sidney Holland stepped down) and again from 1960 to 1972. Rowling was prime minister in 1974–75 following Norman Kirk’s death in office. Geoffrey Palmer from Waimea West was prime minister in 1989–90. In 2020, Nick Smith had been in Parliament for 30 years, initially representing Tasman, and from 1996 Nelson.
Wakatū Incorporation, a Māori incorporation, had its origins in 1977 when surviving native reserve titles to land worth around $11 million in Nelson city, Motueka and Golden Bay were transferred to the body. The organisation had over 3,000 shareholders in the 2010s, representing four tribes – Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa. The incorporation had interests in aquaculture, property development, tourism and viticulture.