NZ Constitution Act comes into force

17 January 1853

The New Zealand Constitution Act (UK) of 1852, which established a system of representative government for the colony, was declared operative by Governor Sir George Grey.

The legislation created six provinces with elected superintendents and provincial councils. At the national level, a General Assembly was established. This consisted of a Legislative Council appointed by the Crown and a House of Representatives elected every five years by males aged over 21 who owned, leased or rented property of a certain value. By British standards the property qualification was modest; most male settlers could vote.

New Zealand settlers had been demanding a say in government since the 1840s. The British Parliament had passed the first New Zealand Constitution Act in 1846. This provided a complicated three-tiered system of government for the colony. There would be elected municipal corporations and provincial assemblies, and a General Assembly comprising a nominated Legislative Council and a House of Representatives chosen by and from the members of the provincial bodies. Governor George Grey suspended the Act’s introduction, claiming that the settler population of 13,000 could not be trusted to pass measures that would protect the interests of the 100,000-plus Māori. This, he feared, would lead to conflict. In 1848 legislation was passed to delay for five years the implementation of the provisions of the Constitution Act relating to provincial and general assemblies.

Grey was a driving force behind the 1852 Constitution Act. This legislation gave the governor considerable power to determine the details of electoral administration – the timing of elections, the drawing of electoral boundaries, the process for registering voters, and rules for ‘the orderly, effective, and impartial conduct’ of voting. On 5 March 1853 Grey issued a lengthy proclamation outlining the boundaries of the 24 electoral districts, which were to return 37 general and 87 provincial members, and setting out regulations for registration and voting.

The first general election was held between July and October 1853. But Grey was criticised for calling the provincial councils to meet before the General Assembly, giving them a five-month head-start on the central government. Some believed that this entrenched provincialism in New Zealand politics. When Grey left the colony for South Africa on 31 December he had still not called the General Assembly. It did not meet until 24 May 1854, more than 16 months after the Constitution Act had come into force.