The South Island and the Constitution
After the assumption of sovereignty by Britain, New Zealand was for a time simply administered by a governor responsible to London under the 1840 „Charter for Erecting the Colony of New Zealand“.
This provided that „the principal Islands, heretofore known as, or commonly called, the „Northern Island“, the „Middle Island“ and „Stewart’s Island“, shall henceforth be designated and known respectively as „New Ulster“, „New Munster“ and „New Leinster“. The designations did not stick, and in 1846 a second royal charter for the first time divided the country into provinces, New Ulster and New Munster – with New Munster taking in Stewart Island as well as the South Island and part of the North as far as the Patea River. A complex three-tiered system of representative government was planned, but opposition from Governor Sir George Grey persuaded the British government to wait. The Provincial Council of New Munster had only one legislative session (in 1849) and that of New Ulster had not met at all by the time the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 was passed in London.
Provincial government established
Under the New Zealand Constitution Act a quasi-federal system of government was introduced. There was to be a central government to attend to national matters, and provincial governments to look after local affairs centred on each of the six main areas of settlement – Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago. Within limits each province was entitled to legislate for its own area, subject to repeal by the General Assembly, which could also alter boundaries and create new provinces. Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Southland and Westland came into existence as new provinces between 1858 and 1873 before the entire provincial structure was abolished in 1875.
Though foreseen as having the status of mere municipalities, the provinces fought for real power, in 1856 acquiring the vital right to dispose of Crown land and so reap the land revenue. In this way each became master of its own destiny, controlling development, immigration, public works, education and hospitals. Contributing factors to the growth of power were the diverse interests and backgrounds of the various settlements, their scattered distribution, the „off-centre“ site of Auckland (the country’s capital until 1865) and particularly the lack of easy communication which alone would have hampered any form of centralised administration.
Ultimately it was the steamer services of the 1860s coupled with the introduction of the telegraph in 1862 that undermined the practical need for provincialism. Ease of communication was accompanied by a shift of the capital to Wellington and by opposition to provincialism from settlers in outlying areas. They were vocal in their objection to local land revenue being spent not in the area where it was earned but diverted to the provincial capital for its greater glory. It was this feeling that led Marlborough (1859), Southland (1861) and Westland (1873) to defect from their parent provinces, being the more remote areas of each of the South Island’s three original provinces. Marlborough’s comic-opera politics entertained the nation, blocked administration and saw its own outlying areas contemplate provincial independence for themselves (see Blenheim); Westland came too late to achieve much before abolition (see Hokitika); and Southland, after nine heady years of independence, was accepted back by Otago as a son prodigal to the point of bankruptcy (see Invercargill). As well, parts of Marlborough, North Otago, South Canterbury and the Buller all at one time or another petitioned for separation and the creation of further new provinces.
The story of provincial government is dominated by the resounding success of both Canterbury and Otago, which were financially sound. Nelson always managed its slender resources prudently, and the trio were the only provinces in the country to discharge their duty of providing adequate public schooling. The canny Scots of Otago and the intellectuals of Canterbury alone could manage on land-sale revenue, the others surviving only on grants from the central government. Finally Sir Julius Vogel’s policy of free-spending public works brought the „centralist“ and the „provincialist“ into an open confrontation that spelt death to provincialism.
Independence for the South Island?
As Dunedin boomed through the gold era, blossoming from a village to the country’s foremost centre and dominating the colony, thoughts inevitably turned towards independence for the South Island. The North Island was racked by Land Wars, and a gold-rich Otago was progressively less ready to accept direction from a General Assembly whose impoverished members „looked with ill-concealed envy“ on the resources of the South. It was, noted the Otago Colonist, „the sad but inevitable result of joining by artificial bonds of union countries that Nature [by Cook Strait] designed should be separate“. Otago, argued its editor, Julius Vogel (who, ironically, was ultimately to lead the centralists to the abolition of provincialism), was in terms of shipping days three times as far from the capital of Auckland as it was from Victoria or Tasmania, and he looked forward to „a glorious future – the separation of the two islands“. A well-attended public meeting in 1862 endorsed the principle of separation – though Southland, which had achieved independence from Dunedin only by appealing to central government, and Canterbury, understanding that Dunedin saw itself as the South Island’s capital-to-be, were both unenthusiastic.
The Europeans in the North Island received scant support from the South, Otago in particular being outraged at seeing the fruits of her prosperity wasted on a costly and needless attempt to deprive the Maori of land. A Southern Separation League was formed, but Vogel had by then recognised the signs of decay in the provincial system. Seeing that the weaker provinces were heading for insolvency, he opted in favour of centralism – and promptly changed his electorate to stand for a northern seat.
In an attempt to hold her place as a capital of some description, in 1865 Auckland joined forces with Otago to support a resolution in the General Assembly calling for independence for both islands. They lost by 31 votes to 17.
With the passing of the gold rushes, the population drifted north – not to the new capital of Wellington but to Auckland, as the more northern city succeeded to Dunedin’s role. The Cook Strait power cable (1965), which provides the North Island with 10 percent of its electric power, also served to arouse the „Mainlanders‘ “ latent resentment of the North.