11 August 2016

New Zealand’s first attempt at representative government under the 1852 Constitution ended 160 years ago this month.  The Constitution championed by Governor Grey not only set up six Provincial Governments but provided for the 1853 election of up to 42 members to a House of Representatives and the appointment of 10 Legislative Council members, subordinated to the Governor. Meeting in a notorious leaky building, the “shedifice” at Auckland, the General Assembly called for responsible government. Acting Governor Wynyard referred the resolution to London but attempted a half measure of adding first three elected members, led by James Fitzgerald, to the Executive Council, then followed by two from the Legislative Council.

These members anticipated that the Colonial Secretary, the Attorney General and Treasurer would be pensioned off from the Executive Council, enabling the formation of a responsible Cabinet. Frustrated when told that change would require confirmation from the Secretary of State, Fitzgerald’s administration resigned on 2 August 1854.  The Acting Governor used Edward Gibbon Wakefield as a sole adviser until trying again on 31 August to govern through an Executive Council made up of a balance of appointees and elected members led by Thomas Forsaith. This Administration also fell over after three days and all power reverted to the Governor.

The British Government approval for responsible government was conveyed to the General Assembly, which made arrangements for a general election in 1855 to select members of the proposed Parliament. The franchise was males over 21 with a small property holding. Whereas the Provincial governments attended to land development, immigration, roads and railways, the national government focused on banking, shipping, Crown lands, courts, crime, customs, coinage, weights and measures, marriage and wills. The Governor had control over Maori affairs, native land sales and imperial affairs.  He would disallow legislation that was repugnant to British law. He would accept advice from responsible ministers whether he agreed or not. On ‘imperial matters’ he would receive advice, but may refer those matters to the Secretary of State.

As required by the British Government one of the first actions of the Parliament was to approve pension arrangements for the appointees of the Secretary of State – including Swainson the Attorney General (appointed in 1841) and Sinclair the Colonial Secretary (appointed in 1844).

Edward Stafford established a stable Ministry over the next five years  after very short-lived attempts by Henry Sewell and William Fox, neither lasting more than a fortnight…