New Zealand Parliament Pāremata Aotearoa

Quick history

Published date: 19 Jul 2006

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Politics and parliamentary history over 150 years — read about vital changes that have affected us all.

Colonial government, 1840–1854

Between 1840 and 1854, a Governor (representing Queen Victoria) ruled New Zealand. But settlers wanted to elect their representatives, as they had done in Britain.

In 1852, Britain passed the New Zealand Constitution Act, which made representative government possible here.

Parliament’s early years, 1854–1890s

Wellington’s first Parliament Buildings, watercolour by L.B. Temple, 1867. Enlarge image

Wellington’s first Parliament Buildings, watercolour by L.B. Temple, 1867

Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, B-079-008.

New Zealand’s first elections were in 1853. Most Pākehā (European) men could vote because they rented or owned property, which was a voting requirement, but very few Māori could.

The first meeting of members of Parliament was in 1854 in Auckland. Difficulties immediately arose because the Governor would not hand over power without authorisation from Britain. In 1856, this dilemma was resolved and the first Government was formed from a majority in Parliament.

In 1865, Parliament moved to centrally located Wellington. In 1867, Māori men gained the vote, for four separate Māori seats. In 1879, all men could vote because there was no longer a property requirement. In 1893, New Zealand gave women the vote — the first country in the world to do so.

Party politics, 1890s–1980s

Parliament originally had no political parties. It operated with loose groups based on local interests and personal opinions. There was no simple Government–Opposition split, and individual members had considerable influence.

The first political party appeared in the 1890s, and others soon emerged. Party government began to take control of Parliament.

From the mid-1930s, the two-party system involving Labour and National appeared. Party discipline guaranteed voting ‘along party lines’ on almost all issues, so Government bills (draft laws) were bound to pass. Government business, as opposed to members’ business, increasingly dominated the House.

Recent reforms, 1980s–today

In the 1980s, Parliament became more independent in practice from the Government. Mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), the electoral system introduced in 1996, has ended the two-party system. Our larger Parliament (usually 120 members) now includes more parties, and Governments are formed by coalitions and agreements between parties