New Zealand’s provincial system of government

Buy a copy here for NZ$45.

New Zealand is a unitary state, distinctive from other British settler societies that comprise states or provinces. Yet New Zealanders today hold firm provincial identities, dating from the time when the young colony was divided into provinces: 1853 to 1876.

I began researching the provinces in my third year of undergraduate studies. An essay formed the basis of my Honours thesis; one chapter of my Honours thesis inspired my PhD research; my PhD thesis transformed into the book Acknowledge No Frontier: The Creation and Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces, 1853–76 (Otago University Press, 2016). You could say all of this was rooted in two experiences from my childhood in the 1990s: reading about the provincial governments that built New Zealand’s first railways in the 1860s and being an eager follower of the rugby union National Provincial Championship.

Acknowledge No Frontier is the first book on the provinces since W.P. Morrell’s groundbreaking publication of 1932. The provinces were overlooked for too long; their demise in 1876 has been taken unfairly to imply that they were of little lasting consequence. I show that their histories are not only lively and entertaining, but also that no understanding of colonial New Zealand or its political evolution is complete without proper consideration of the provinces and provincialism.

When New Zealand obtained representative government in 1853, the provinces were the most accessible and responsive level of government. They could legislate on any topic except 13 reserved for the central parliament (e.g. weights and measures, currency), and although central legislation trumped provincial in the case of any dispute, provincial councils met before parliament did and they hit the ground running. Settlers looked to them for daily administration and large public works alike. Most provinces, however, proved incapable of meeting these expectations; their large ambitions exceeded their abilities and financial means.

The rapid spread of Pākehā settlement rendered the borders of the six original provinces impractical, but the central parliament’s provisions for new provinces weakened the system rather than strengthening it. The effects of impecunious new provinces, warfare in the North Island during the 1860s, rivalry with the central government, the self-interested decisions of centralist politicians, disillusionment among electors, and the sweeping vision of Julius Vogel all combined to undermine provincialism. My book explains how the provinces came unstuck, and my journal articles examine specific aspects of provincial history.

My publications on the provinces

  • ‘Claims, Confusion, and Status: Which City Is New Zealand’s Oldest?’, New Zealand Geographer, 76:1 (2020), 62–70. Read online (open access).
  • ‘Colonial and Provincial Separation Movements in Australia and New Zealand, 1856–1865’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 47:1 (2019), 51–75. Read online (paywalled).
  • ‘A Sudden Fancy for Tree Planting? Forest Conservation and the Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces’, Environment and History, 23:1 (2017), 123–45. Read online (paywalled).
  • Acknowledge No Frontier: The Creation and Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces, 1853–76. Otago University Press, 2016. Buy book here.
  • ‘Wooden Rails and Gold: Southland and the Demise of the Provinces’. In Rushing for Gold: Life and Commerce on the Goldfields of New Zealand and Australia, edited by Lloyd Carpenter and Lyndon Fraser, 253–70. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016. Buy book here.
  • ‘Did War Cause the Abolition of New Zealand’s Provincial System?’, History Australia, 12:2 (2015), 166–88. Read online (open access).
  • ‘Dreaming on a Railway Track: Public Works and the Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces’, Journal of Transport History, 36:1 (2015), 77–96. Read online (paywalled).
  • ‘A Limited Express or Stopping All Stations? Railways and Nineteenth-Century New Zealand’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, 16 (2013), 133–49. Read online (open access).
  • ‘The Great Kiwi (Dis)Connect: The New Provinces Act and its Consequences’. Melbourne Historical Journal, 40 (2012), 129–48. Winner, 2013 Fellows’ Essay Prize. Read online (open access).

Where to now for this research?

My interest in the provinces is enduring. It seems many people finish their PhD glad to put their topic behind them; I reached the end of mine only more curious about the provinces. This research directly inspired my project on territorial separation movements.

I currently have a half-finished draft journal article on the 1875–76 general election and the extent to which it represented a victory for centralists or provincialists. I have presented conference papers on this, most notably at the New Zealand Studies Association conference at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, in June 2018. The article, however, keeps ending up on the backburner. I would love to bring it to completion!

My long-term research ambitions for provincial history are twofold. I intend to write a volume on Southland’s wooden railway, a truly remarkable engineering blunder that is both instructive and amusing—one of the most colourful episodes in New Zealand political and transport history. I also hope to write as much as I can on the individual histories of each province, including the proto-provinces of 1846–52, whose story is little-known and told poorly outside of A.H. McLintock’s Crown Colony Government in New Zealand. I finished Acknowledge No Frontier with a sense of unfinished business; I hope that book rekindles interest in the provinces rather than closing off the topic for another eighty years.

Provincial council chambers

Only one purpose-built provincial council building survives: the Canterbury provincial council chambers in Christchurch. This building suffered serious damage in the 2011 earthquake and plans for repairs have not yet turned into action. This photo from October 2019 shows the damaged building; the stone portions mostly collapsed. Compare my photo with those on Heritage NZ’s website.

One other building that housed a provincial council exists. This building in Invercargill was originally built for a Masonic lodge in 1864; the Southland provincial council acquired it in 1866. Southland Province was shortlived, 1861 to 1870, and the building served other municipal purposes after Southland rejoined Otago in 1870. It is now a fashion shop, as seen here in March 2016.

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