The House of Representatives

Page 2 – Quick history

Parliament has two parts. One is the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, who is represented in Parliament by the Governor-General.

The other part is the House of Representatives. This comprises Members of Parliament (MPs) who are elected by people aged 18 and over. Elections are held every three years, and New Zealand has a mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system.

A political party or parties with the support of the majority of votes in the House form a government that administers the country. The government answers to Parliament for its policies and actions, which are debated in the House and examined in select committees.

Origins

The settlers who came to New Zealand after 1840 brought with them the British parliamentary tradition, known as the Westminster system. This included regular elections, politicians representing local constituencies, a Speaker, rules of procedure and a prime minister wielding power through a Cabinet (the executive). Political parties competed for power, attained by a simple majority in the House.

Setting up Parliament

Between 1840 and 1854, a governor (representing the Queen) ruled New Zealand, but settlers wanted an elected or representative government. The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 provided this, with a General Assembly that comprised the governor, an elected House of Representatives and a Legislative Council whose members were nominated by the governor. Six provincial legislatures were subordinate to the General Assembly. Elections were held in 1853, and the first General Assembly met in Auckland in 1854. Only men, Pakeha and Maori, aged 21 and over who owned property or occupied a house of a certain value were entitled to vote (from 1879, the property qualification was dropped). Maori men could vote for their own four Maori MPs from 1868. Adult women, Maori and Pakeha, could vote from 1893. Granting the vote to women was a landmark, and New Zealand was the first country in the world to do this, making it the world's first true democracy.

Settlers also wanted responsible government – a government formed from a majority in the House. This came about in 1856, and Edward Stafford led the first stable, responsible ministry. Parliament moved to Wellington in 1865, where it has remained. The provinces continued to exist until 1876, while the governor and Legislative Council increasingly lost power through the 19th century.

Parties

MPs initially formed factions based on regional or personal interests. Political parties appeared in the 1890s, with the Liberals. By 1916 two other parties had emerged – Reform (1909) and Labour (1916); from the mid-1930s, there were just two – Labour and National.

Formal parties altered things. Sessions became longer, and government dominated the business of the House. Changes to the way the House worked meant that government legislation was virtually guaranteed to pass, and the executive dominated Parliament.

Parliamentary reform

Today's Parliament is still based on the Westminster system, but there have been key changes, especially since the 1950s. The Legislative Council was abolished in 1951, and rules about the way Parliament worked were amended. The Speaker became more powerful from the 1980s, and there were changes to the servicing of Parliament. Sessions began early in the year, and select committees were reorganised.

From the 1980s New Zealanders demanded changes to the electoral system, and this came in the 1996 election that was run on the MMP system. This brought 120 MPs and more parties into the House, and the style of politics and Parliament itself changed again.

How to cite this page

'Quick history', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/history-of-parliament/quick-history, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2014