In 1860 New Zealand’s Parliament extended the right to vote for the first time – to gold miners. As they often lived in rough shacks, tents or lodging houses, few miners qualified to vote under the property requirement. They were given voting rights as a precaution, in direct response to protest and violence that erupted on the goldfields of Victoria, Australia, in the 1850s. Giving miners a voice in Parliament was seen as the best way to avoid similar trouble.
The 1860 legislation followed gold discoveries in the Nelson region, and was passed even before the great Otago rush of 1861. Modelled on law from Victoria, it allowed any male British subject over 21 who held a miner’s right (a licence, which cost £1 a year) to vote in his local electorate without having to enrol.
Not all gold miners were enfranchised under the 1860 law. By 1869 there were 2,000 Chinese on New Zealand’s goldfields; in 1881 there were 5,000. As ‘aliens’, most were unable to vote, although a small minority became naturalised British subjects.
Later in the decade, as thousands of miners poured into Otago and Westland, Parliament created special goldfields seats in those districts. In 1863 voting was extended to holders of goldfield business licences, which cost £5 a year. For the next few years gold miners were a significant part of the electorate: in 1870 there were only 41,500 registered electors in all of New Zealand, but 20,000 miners were also eligible to vote.
The Māori seats
Special representation for gold miners provided a model for solving another electoral ‘problem’ – voting rights for Māori. Since 1853 most Māori had been unable to vote because they possessed land communally rather than under individual title.
The wars of the 1860s between Māori and the Crown focused attention on Māori political rights. Pākehā politicians such as Donald McLean argued that giving Māori a voice in Parliament would be ‘a bare act of justice’ and help ensure lasting peace between the races.1 Others wanted to reward the tribes that had fought on the Crown’s side in the New Zealand wars.
In 1867 McLean introduced a private member’s bill to create four Māori seats, superimposed over all other electorates: three in the North Island, and one covering the entire South Island. To avoid difficulties with communal property, all Māori men aged 21 or over would be eligible to vote and stand for Parliament. There was some debate about the details, but the bill was comfortably passed. Several thousand Māori freeholders already enrolled in European electorates were able to vote in both systems until 1893.
The Maori Representation Act 1867 gave Māori men universal suffrage 12 years before their Pākehā counterparts. But four seats was a small concession: on a per-capita basis, Māori were entitled to around 15 seats (Pākehā had 72). The seats were intended to be temporary, but in 1876 they were established on a permanent basis. In the 21st century the Māori seats remain one of the most distinctive – and contentious – features of New Zealand’s electoral system.