01.05.02. History | New Zealand

01.05.02. History | New Zealand

14 Sep 2022

In 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, New Zealand became a colony of Britain, ruled by a governor. In 1852 New Zealand was divided into provinces, each with their own government and elected representatives. There was also a national government, with an elected House of Representatives (lower house) and a Legislative Council (upper house) whose members were appointed by the governor. The national government was responsible for things such as courts, crime, currency, and marriage law. However, the governor was still above the national government until 1856. Even after that some issues, such as relations with foreign countries or matters related to Māori, were still the responsibility of the governor and the British government.

Relations with Māori became tense between settlers who wanted more land and Māori who didn’t want to give up their land, leading to war in 1860. Because government troops were provided by the British government, the New Zealand government couldn’t take over responsibility for Māori affairs until it provided its own military. It did this from 1864, leading to more independence from Britain. From 1865 the governor became more of a figurehead, and political power was held by the national and provincial governments. In 1876 provincial governments were abolished.

In the late 1890s New Zealand showed its sense of independence by deciding not to become part of Australia. In 1907 it became the Dominion of New Zealand, a symbolic recognition of the colony’s maturity. While New Zealand fought with Britain in the First World War, it was able to make its own decisions about how to contribute to the war effort. In 1920 New Zealand became a founding member of the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations. In 1948 New Zealanders became New Zealand citizens – before that they had been British citizens. New Zealand gained full legal independence when Parliament passed the Constitution Act 1986. In 2003 a new Supreme Court was created, replacing Britain’s Privy Council as New Zealand’s final court of appeal (McIntyre, 2012).

 Te tiriti o Waitangi (Te Ara – The encyclopedia of New Zealand, n.d.).

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between Māori and the British Crown, is not law, but since 1975 many New Zealand laws have referred to the principles of the treaty. The first law to do so was the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, which established the Waitangi Tribunal. The act says that Māori can bring a claim to the tribunal about a Crown policy or practice (amongst other things) which was or is ‘inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty’.

Since the 1975 act, there have been many other official references to treaty principles, all attempting to define the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi in contemporary New Zealand society. Treaty principles have been referred to in court cases, new laws, Waitangi Tribunal findings, a 1989 government statement.

The treaty text itself is not regarded as a law because the English and Māori versions do not have exactly the same meaning and it focuses on the issues relevant at the time it was signed. Instead, the intentions and goals of the treaty are considered.

Treaty principles include:

  • The treaty set up a partnership, and the partners have a duty to act reasonably and in good faith.
  • The Crown has freedom to govern.
  • The Crown has a duty to actively protect Māori interests.
  • The Crown has a duty to remedy past breaches.
  • Māori retain rangatiratanga over their resources and taonga and have all the rights and privileges of citizenship.
  • The Crown has a duty to consult with Māori.
  • The needs of both Māori and the wider community must be met, which will require compromise.
  • The Crown cannot avoid its obligations under the treaty by conferring authority on some other body.
  • The treaty can be adapted to meet new circumstances.

Pacific people in NZ

Close links with and employment opportunities in New Zealand have led to considerable migration of Pacific peoples to New Zealand. New Zealand citizenship and rights of residence have encouraged the migration of Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans. Samoans, Tongans, and Fijians are not New Zealand citizens, so migration from these countries has been more strongly affected by periodic changes in New Zealand government policy. Smaller numbers of people from other Pacific Islands have also migrated here.

Prior to the Second World War Pacific Island communities in New Zealand were very small, with the largest numbering only a few hundred. Faced with labour shortages in the post-war period, the New Zealand government encouraged Pacific migrants. Programmes brought young men over as agricultural and forestry workers, and young women as domestics. An acute labour shortage in manufacturing in the early 1970s drew many more.

The oil crisis and economic recession of the 1970s led to a reversal of aid and immigration policy. In 1974 the Kirk government clamped down on people overstaying the time allowed by their visas. Pacific Islanders attracted the most attention, with Samoans and Tongans particularly affected, and ‘dawn raids’ by police on the homes of suspected overstayers were introduced. Immigration policy continued to be tightened under the National government that won power in 1975.

Periodic amnesties allowed migrants to more easily acquire citizenship, but a stereotype developed of Pacific Islanders as troublesome, as school drop-outs or as bearers of health problems. Rates of immigration fluctuated in line with the New Zealand’s economy. The government briefly trialled visa-free status for Fijians, Samoans, and Tongans in late 1986 and early 1987, then backtracked when numbers of arrivals were greater than expected. From the later 1980s the shrinking of New Zealand’s manufacturing sector substantially reduced the number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs available. Between 1991 and 1993 more Samoans and Tongans left New Zealand than arrived (Fraenkel, 2012).


Fraenkel, J. (2012). Pacific Islands and New Zealand – Immigration and aid. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/pacific-islands-and-new-zealand/page-2.

McIntyre, W. D. (2012). Self-government and independence. Te Ara – The enclyclopedia of New Zealand. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/self-government-and-independence.

Te Ara – The encyclopedia of New Zealand. (n.d.). Te tiriti, the treaty. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/te-tiriti-the-treaty.