Parliament's people

Page 4 – Pay and travel

Pay and conditions

The question of pay arose at the first session of 1854 when the House voted itself an allowance (or honorarium), initially at different rates for Members of Parliament (MPs) who lived in Auckland and those from other areas. One MP argued that it fostered 'the growth of men who lived by politics, hanging on to the skirts of Ministers, and ever ready to snatch the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table'. But others replied that cutting the allowance would mean 'giving over the government of the country into the hands of the monied classes'. In 1871 the House agreed to a flat rate of £105 per session. The rule of deducting money for absent sitting days amused observers who watched 'members wait in the House until the messenger has recorded their presence, and then leave for the rest of the day'.

Did you know?

New Zealand (unlike the British House of Commons) paid its parliamentarians from the very beginning to enable wide representation. Not much, though – between 10 shillings and £1 a sitting day. For most of the next hundred years, MPs earned little more than tradesmen.

An annual salary of £240, sufficient to enable working men to consider standing for Parliament, replaced the honorarium from 1892. A special select committee of 1944 established that MPs' work was full-time, and this led to an increase to £500, supplemented by a tax-free expenses allowance of £250. In 1947 a proper superannuation scheme replaced the antiquated discretionary compassionate allowances. MPs contributed 10% of their salaries and qualified after nine years' service and 50 years of age.

From 1951 Royal Commissions set salaries. Potential public backlash caused commissions to tread gingerly, but by the early 1970s salaries had finally reached parity with comparable professional groups. In 1974 the Higher Salaries Commission got the power to set parliamentary salaries, taking the issue away from Parliament entirely, to MPs' relief.

MPs' travel

One of the biggest difficulties MPs faced before the mid-20th century was getting to Parliament. Right from the very first Parliament in 1854, politicians struck travel problems. It took two months for the first Otago members to get to Auckland by ship, and even then, they arrived just in time. First, there were lengthy stops at Lyttelton, Nelson and Wellington. Then head winds forced the ship back through Cook Strait, and it had to sail up the east coast, around North Cape and down to Onehunga. No wonder MPs such as Henry Sewell vowed they would never return to Auckland 'except under compulsion', and Otago MPs preferred to return home via Sydney rather than risk the government brig again.

By the 1880s ships were larger, faster and more reliable. Railways, roading and harbours had been greatly developed during the 1870s, and from the mid-1890s a scheduled inter-island ferry service connected with rail services in both islands. The Union Steam Ship Company would delay vessels to suit parliamentarians and sometimes even waive fares. Despite these changes, arduous journeys on horseback or by coach were still the only way to service many electorates.

On the road

The first motorcars in New Zealand were demonstrated in Parliament grounds in 1898 before they were allowed on the roads. William McLean, who owned the two Benz vehicles, lobbied for a private member's bill in Parliament to allow him and others to use them. The verdict on these new machines was mixed. Legislative Council member Richard Oliver, who had ridden in one in Britain, said they were 'most unpleasant … The one he rode in was so "smelly" that it almost made him sick, and the vibration of the motion was an additional incentive to sickness … if careering along the streets of a town at the rate of twelve miles an hour [it] would be a source of danger to other travellers.' Other MPs were dazzled by the vehicles.

Touring the winterless north

In January 1917 a cavalcade of cars took a delegation of MPs on the Winterless North Tour to highlight Northland's poor roading. The weather was, appropriately, appalling and made the bad road conditions even worse. Rain turned the clay hills to mud and slush, and the MPs spent their days fording swollen rivers, heaving vehicles out of the mud and dealing with punctures.

Parliament's hours were changed in 1929 to recognise the travel difficulties MPs faced. To let politicians get away for the weekend, the House sat on Friday mornings. Flying grew more popular after the war, but some older MPs who were not keen to take their chances in the air still took the train or ferry. Regular air travel eventually changed sessions by enabling MPs to go home each week or return to Wellington during the recess.

How to cite this page

'Pay and travel', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2014