New Zealand’s first parliamentary election was held in 1853, but back then, not everyone had the right to vote. The voting system has changed over time, from the introduction of the secret ballot in 1870, to the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1974.
“To be able to vote [in 1853] people had to be male, aged 21 or over, and British subjects who either owned or rented property worth a moderate amount of money”, says Te Ara. Even then, New Zealand’s suffrage, or voting rights, was quite generous compared to other similar countries – about three quarters of the adult male population had the right to vote.
“The £5 or £10 'householder' qualification was quite low, especially as labourers in New Zealand could earn £40-60 a year,” says elections.org.nz.
In practice, many Maori men would have been able to vote, but because most land was owned collectively, they couldn’t. Nor could miners, because the property they lived in wasn’t worth enough. In 1860, the right to vote was extended to gold miners – any male British subject over 21 who held a miner’s right (licence):
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. (Elections NZ)
By 1867, Parliament agreed to set up four electorates specifically for Maori – but only after much debate, says NZ History Online:
To avoid difficulties with property ownership, all Maori men over 21 years of age were eligible to vote (and stand for Parliament). The small number of Maori who owned individual freehold land were still allowed to vote in the European electorates. This dual vote would survive until 1893. Four seats were a fairly modest concession: on a per capita basis at that time, Maori deserved 14 to 16 members (Europeans then had 72). The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, lasting only five years.
Even as late as 1951, Maori voted on a different day to Europeans, and while the secret ballot was introduced for pakeha seats in 1870, Maori had to tell the polling official who they wanted to vote for – until the 1938 election.
In the lead-up to the first MMP election in 1996, the number of Maori seats was increased from four to five for the first time in their 129-year history. In 2002, two more were added. Under MMP, separate Maori representation applies only to the electoral seats, the implications of which are possibly not fully appreciated.
After starting out as a method for temporary franchise, the Maori seats continue to be much discussed.
LISTEN to Radio New Zealand Insight’s 2011 documentary, looking at the Maori political landscape.
On September 19 1893, a new electoral act was signed into law, giving women over 21 the right to vote. “As a result of this landmark legislation, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections,” says NZ History Online. The issue had been raised in Parliament in the 1870s, but the movement led by Kate Sheppard and involving the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, made it a matter of national importance.
Bills were introduced into Parliament in 1891 and 1892 but were blocked by the Legislative Council (the Upper House). Premier Richard John Seddon and some of his ministers were happy to have the Legislative Council obstruct the measure. When the Bill was again introduced in 1893 two members of the Legislative Council unexpectedly changed sides and the Electoral Bill was passed. Women turned up to the polling booths for the election later that year and cast their votes alongside men.
Colonial elections were often “rough-and-tumble affairs”, reports Te Ara, “and suffrage opponents had warned of ‘boorish and half-drunken men’ harassing ‘lady voters’ at the booths. But the 1893 election was described as the most orderly ever held.” Maori women also sought the right to vote and to stand as members of the Māori Parliament – Te Kotahitanga.
LISTEN to three women (Mrs. Dickson, Mrs Hills and Mrs Mankelow) recalling their first vote in the general election on November 28, 1893, as part of Radio New Zealand’s collection Women, The Vote, and Equality.
By the 1960s, there was growing pressure to lower the voting age from 21. According to elections.org.nz, “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.”
In referendum in 1993, New Zealanders voted to change the voting system from FPP (First Past the Post) to a new MMP system. The system means that the proportion of votes a party gets will largely reflect the number of seats it has in parliament. NZ History Online calls that the most dramatic change to the country's electoral system since the introduction of women's suffrage. “The origins of electoral reform lay in the gradual breakdown of public trust and confidence in politicians, Parliament and the simple certainties of the old two-party system.”
LISTEN to Radio New Zealand Insight's 2011 MMP debate, featuring the former National Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, the former Labour Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Cullen, the former National Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson, and the former Green Party Co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons.
The Wireless will have more on MMP and the electoral system in the lead-up to this year’s election in September. In the meantime, join us at Q Theatre in Auckland on Monday, June 30 for an evening of discussion on these, and other electoral issues. It's free to attend but you must register for a ticket.