New Zealand's first parliamentary election was in 1853. At the time it followed British tradition, with voting rights limited to males aged 21 or over and in possession of property of a certain value, although even those first limited voting rights were substantially more liberal than Britain's of the time, as the property qualification was quite low.
The 1860s saw reforms, first in providing special parliamentary representation for the thousands of goldminers then in the country. In 1867 came a more significant change: the property qualification had excluded most Maori, whose land was (and is) usually held communally, rather than in individual titles. To remove this injustice, a Bill was passed giving all Maori men aged 21 or over the right to vote and to stand for election, with no property rights required. The number of seats set aside for Maori was lower than it should have been on a population basis, but even with that caveat this recognition of indigenous rights can justly be seen as a real advance, especially by 19th century standards.
Twelve years later, in 1879, non-Maori males caught up with their Maori contemporaries, and gained the vote without property requirements.
And then came the reform that's best-known within New Zealand: votes for women.
The late 19th century saw a growing call for women's suffrage in many countries around the world. Compared with the later upheavals in England, which brought protest marches, arson, imprisonment, and even death, New Zealand's two-decade campaign for women's suffrage was all terribly civilised. Members of such groups as the Women's Christian Temperance Union felt that if women were able to vote, this would encourage government policies that protected the family. Women were often thought of as the guardians of morals, so giving them the vote would increase the morality of politics. They put their case to the public, and from the beginning there was support from some high-placed men. No doubt there was also the support of many "ordinary" men who knew that their wives and sisters were capable of rational thought.
From 1887, various Bills to allow women's suffrage were put before Parliament. Each came close to being passed, but until 1893 none quite made it. Support was gradually increasing, but there were still naysayers.
"Only a small section of the women of the colony are asking for the franchise," Mr Fish, a particularly vocal opponent of the movement, said during an 1891 parliamentary debate. That was fighting talk. The suffrage movement, led by our best-known suffragist Kate Sheppard, began organising petitions to show that large numbers of women did indeed want the right to vote on equal terms with men. The third of these petitions, in 1893, had over 30,000 signatures. MP John Hall, a staunch supporter of women's suffrage, carried it into the House and unrolled it down the aisle of the debating chamber until it hit the end wall with a thud.
The 1893 Electoral Bill passed through the Lower House with a comfortable majority. The Legislative Council (the Upper House) was narrowly divided on the issue. Premier Richard Seddon was not a supporter, and he made a move that backfired. The Premier ordered a councillor from his Liberal Party to change his vote. This caused such offence to two other councillors that they changed sides and voted for the Bill, enabling it to pass by twenty votes to eighteen. New Zealand had become the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the right to vote in national elections.
The suffragists now mounted a campaign to encourage women to enrol in time for that year's election. Once again, their campaign was a success: 80% of women enrolled, and 85% of those on the roll voted in the November election.
Women voting, November 1893:
|Women vote at their first election, Tahakopa. Ref: PA1-o-550-34-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. natlib.govt.nz/records/22311886|