New Zealand became a colony of Britain in 1840, and was initially ruled by governors, who took the advice of local appointed councils but answered to the Colonial Office in Britain.
The Constitution Act 1852, passed by the British Parliament, granted the New Zealand colony representative and responsible self-government. It created a bicameral Parliament: a lower House (the House of Representatives) consisting of elected members, and an upper chamber (the Legislative Council) of members appointed for life. The General Assembly, as it was then called – the House of Representatives and the Legislative Council – first met in 1854.
Numbers of MPs
There were just 37 MPs in the House of Representatives in 1854. This grew to 95 by 1881. Following the economic depression of the 1880s the number of MPs was reduced to 74 in 1890. The Legislative Council began with 11 members, and fluctuated between 35 and 50 members after limits on its size were removed in the 1860s.
The seat of Parliament
New Zealand’s first Parliament met in 1854 in Auckland, which was then the capital. The first Parliament Building was on ‘Constitution Hill’, between Official Bay and Mechanics Bay. It was so plain and lacking in amenities that it was known as the ‘Shedifice’. When the seat of government shifted to Wellington in 1865, so did Parliament. The original Parliament buildings on the present site in Thorndon were added to until most were destroyed by fire in 1907. The present-day Parliament House was then built.
The Constitution Act also allowed for provincial councils, which exercised some of the powers of government. They made laws for the provinces until 1876, when the provinces were abolished by Parliament.
The Legislative Council was expected to provide an independent check on the legislation of the House of Representatives. It also initiated legislation. Over time, as members were appointed by governments, the council lost its independence, and the House of Representatives gained supremacy.
Unlike other countries, New Zealand had representatives of indigenous people in Parliament from an early date. From 1867 Māori men aged 21 and over, whether or not they owned property, could vote to elect four Māori MPs.
Parliament assisted the Māori MPs by translating relevant proceedings, and establishing a select committee for Māori issues. Interpreters were employed until the early 20th century, when it was ruled that Māori should speak in English if they could do so.
At times of uncertain majorities and the formation of new governments, Māori MPs could temporarily play a significant role. Most of the time, however, they were marginalised.
New Zealand was the first country to introduce votes for women. The possibility was discussed in Parliament from the 1870s but was not taken seriously until the Women’s Christian Temperance Union organised in the late 1880s and petitioned Parliament. In the early 1890s many MPs opposed legislation allowing women to vote, including Premier Richard John Seddon. In 1893 a bill went through Parliament after two Legislative Council members unexpectedly gave their support. Women flocked to the polls at the end of the year and at subsequent elections.