The Right to Vote

New Zealand's first parliamentary elections were held in 1853. At first, not everyone had the right to vote. But over the next half century New Zealand was to become one of the most democratic nations in the world. poster-1851_001_2.jpg

After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and the establishment of British sovereignty in 1840, the colony was ruled by a Governor appointed by the British Crown. The growing ranks of European settlers resented the fact that they had no control over their own affairs and soon demanded self-government. They wanted to be able to elect their own representatives, who could pass laws and govern the colony.

In response, in 1852 the British Parliament passed the New Zealand Constitution Act. This established a General Assembly (Parliament) consisting of a Legislative Council appointed by the Crown, and a House of Representatives, which was to be elected every five years. Each of the six Provinces was also given its own elected Provincial Council and a Superintendent.

Not surprisingly, the main features of New Zealand's political culture and electoral system were inherited from Britain. There, in the mid-nineteenth century voting was generally not thought of as an individual right, but as a 'privilege' or 'trust' that certain people in society (basically those who possessed property) should exercise on behalf of everyone else.

In England in the 1850s only about one in every five adult men was entitled to vote, and in Scotland one in eight. Of course, women - Queen Victoria aside - had no place in politics.

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Who Votes?

As in Britain, in New Zealand the right to vote or 'franchise' was defined according to sexhistoryposterworkingmen_1.jpg, age, nationality and the possession of property. It was not (in theory at least) defined by race.

'Aliens' (that is, people who were not British subjects, such as Chinese) were specifically excluded. So too was anyone who had been convicted of treason, felony or other serious offence, unless he had received a free pardon or completed his sentence.

Maori men were theoretically allowed to register and vote, but in reality most of them were excluded because they possessed their lands communally rather than under individual title like Europeans.

Men who owned or leased property in several different electorates were able to enrol and vote in each of them, a practice known as plural voting. This was made easier by the fact that until 1881 elections in different seats were usually held on different days.


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A Generous Franchise?

By the standards of the time, New Zealand's was a wide, liberal franchise. history-liberal-party_0_0.jpg

The £5 or £10 'householder' qualification was quite low, especially as labourers in New Zealand could earn £40-60 a year. Acquiring property - 'getting on' - was one of the main ambitions of those migrating from Britain to the colonies. Although only about half the adult European men in New Zealand actually enrolled to vote in the 1850s, probably three-quarters of them were eligible.

Apart from a tiny minority of 'aliens' and prison inmates, most of the non-Maori males excluded from the franchise were recent arrivals and transient workers like farm labourers, timber workers and seafarers, who usually lived in boarding houses, tents or shacks, or aboard ship. As they did not possess property, these men were not considered 'bona fide' (genuine) settlers. One station owner said of his hard-drinking farm labourers: 'Their political knowledge is absolutely nil, and, were the colony to give them political power, it might as well give gunpowder to children.'

But even though New Zealand's electoral franchise was generous, most parliamentary elections in the 1850s and 1860s did not arouse much excitement. Voter turnout was quite low and candidates were often elected unopposed.


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Gold Rush

In the second half of the nineteenth century the New Zealand Parliament spent a great deal of time debating electoral matters, including the franchise. In 1860 the right to vote was extended for the first time - to gold miners.history-goldminers_1_0.jpg

Any male British subject over 21 who held a miner's right (that is, a licence, which cost £1 per year) was entitled to vote without having to enrol. Most gold miners would normally have been excluded under the property requirement because they lived in tents, rough shacks or lodging houses.

Parliament decided to enfranchise miners because it was worried about the protest and violence that had occurred on the diggings in Victoria, Australia, in the 1850s. The best way to avoid any possible trouble in New Zealand was to give miners a voice in Parliament.

Later in the 1860s, as thousands of miners arrived in the South Island, special goldfields seats were established in Otago and Westland.

Miners were a very important part of the electorate in these years: in 1869-70 over 20,000 miners were entitled to vote, compared to 41,500 registered electors.



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Towards Universal Suffrage

In 1867 Parliament established four Maori seats, in which all Maori men over 21 could vote for their own representatives. history-miss-twentyone_1.jpg

Then in 1879, after much debate, the franchise was extended to all adult European men, regardless of whether they owned or rented property (this was known as universal manhood suffrage). In 1889 plural voting was abolished, which confirmed the principle of 'one man, one vote'.

In 1893, after a long and dramatic struggle, the right to vote was granted to all adult women. By that time it was widely accepted that the franchise was a right of citizenship, and that therefore all adult citizens should be able to take part in elections (with some exceptions, such as prison inmates and the mentally ill).

Universal suffrage changed New Zealand politics forever. Since the 1850s most members of Parliament had come from the wealthy colonial elite, but after 1879 (and especially after 1890) 'working men' began to be elected.

The Liberal government, which ruled from 1891 to 1912, drew much of its electoral support from the urban working class, as well as from small farmers. The working-class vote would also be crucial to the rise of the Labour Party in the early twentieth century.

Did you know?

People living on the Chatham Islands were not able to vote in elections until 1922, when they were included in the Lyttelton and Western Maori electorates.


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Age of Reason?

Although the big questions relating to the franchise were largely settled by the end of the nineteenth century, there have been some important changes in more recent decades, in particular the lowering of the voting age.

As in most other democracies, the voting age - or 'age of political maturity' - in New Zealand had always been 21. By the 1960s, however, there was mounting pressure throughout the Western world for it to be reduced to 18. This was partly a result of demographic change and the expansion of secondary and university education.

But it was also partly a response to the growing student protest movement against the Vietnam War.

Young people argued that if 18 year olds were mature enough to fight in wars (and especially if they were drafted into the army, as in the United States), then they were old enough to have a say in electing their government. Many politicians agreed that it would be better if young people channelled their energies into mainstream politics rather than protest on the streets.

Between 1969 and 1974 the voting age was lowered to 18 in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. New Zealand reduced the age in two steps, to 20 in 1969 and then to 18 in 1974.

The franchise was altered again in 1975 to allow all permanent residents to vote, whether or not they had New Zealand citizenship (although only New Zealand citizens can serve in Parliament).

One hundred and sixty years after the first election in 1853, New Zealand's electoral system now gives virtually everyone over the age of 18 the opportunity to have a say in electing their parliamentary representatives.

Fight for the Right

Governments in New Zealand and elsewhere had long acknowledged a link between the vote and military service - that is, between the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. During both the First and Second World Wars, special laws were passed to enable all New Zealand military personnel to vote in elections, whether or not they were 21 years old.

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