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Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; PapersPast; design by Tina Tiller)
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; PapersPast; design by Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJuly 14, 2023

New Zealand’s first election was 170 years ago today – and it was pretty weird

Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; PapersPast; design by Tina Tiller)
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; PapersPast; design by Tina Tiller)

Public ballots, drunken candidates and no political parties – Stewart Sowman-Lund revisits the 1853 general election.

On October 14 this year, nearly every New Zealand citizen or permanent resident aged 18 or over will have the chance to vote in our general election. You know the drill: you’ll read the news, you’ll watch the debates, you might attend a public event or two, and then you’ll scurry behind that little cardboard booth and cast your vote. That’s more or less how it’s been for decades. 

But this wasn’t always how New Zealand decided on the shape of its parliament. On this day 170 years ago, New Zealand held its first election. Well, sort of. In the 1800s, general elections were very different to how they are today. But how different? Let’s take a look.

There was no Labour, National… or anyone else

Not even New Zealand First was around in 1853. That’s because there were no parties whatsoever. Everyone stood for parliament as an independent. The idea of having independent members of parliament isn’t entirely resigned to the 1800s, there are actually two in the current parliament. But neither started off this term as an independent: Meka Whaitiri was in Labour and Elizabeth Kerekere was in the Greens. 

There also wasn’t a prime minister as such elected in 1853. The first parliament didn’t technically have full authority to govern New Zealand as we were still part of the British empire.

There was no election ‘day’

In 1853 there was an even more extreme version of early voting. That’s because the voting period went from July 14 through until the start of October, with no single day designated for the election itself. Instead, each electorate had its own unique voting day with a single, nationwide election not introduced until 1881. Even then, voting in the general and Māori seats were held on different days up until 1951. 

In 1853, the total number of seats across the country was 37, well below the 120 now occupying parliament’s debating chamber. There were also fewer electorates – just 24 – meaning some regions elected multiple MPs. Not all of New Zealand was actually captured by those electorates and as such some parts of the country weren’t given any representation in parliament at all. This mainly disadvantaged Māori who lived outside the main regions. The first Māori electorates were created in 1867.

Wellington city candidate (kendidat?) Francis Bradey’s election handbill, featuring rather creative spelling (Ref: Eph-C-POLITICS-1853-04. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23082252)

A lot of people were elected unopposed

Which just never happens these days. New Zealand’s first member of parliament was Hugh Carleton who was elected unopposed in the Bay of Islands on this day 170 years ago. A pretty low-key start to our existing system of democracy. “Few of the district’s 142 registered electors were present when Carleton was nominated and, in the absence of an opponent, declared duly elected,” says Manatū Taonga’s NZ History website. 

In contrast, the first MPs for bigger areas like Auckland – at the time the capital of New Zealand – did face opposition. 

Not everyone was eligible to vote

In 1853, there were just 5,849 people registered to vote. That doesn’t mean there were only 5,849 people of voting age (which at the time was 21), however. That’s because, surprise surprise, voting was restricted to men – and only men who owned or rented property within an electorate. Women were entirely unable to vote until 1893, when New Zealand famously became the first country in the world to allow it. 

There were other limitations beyond gender. Voters had to be “British subjects” and the property they possessed had to be of a certain value. Once again this severely limited the number of Māori men who could vote, though they weren’t expressly prevented from it because of their race. Instead, it once again came down to land. The possession of communal land didn’t qualify, and voters were required to have individual title in a property. According to Te Ara, around 100 Māori – mostly tribal leaders – did register and vote in the 1853 election.

The term lengths were weird

There’s an ongoing discussion about whether our current three-year term should be extended to four, or even five, years. But the first term of parliament lasted just two years, with New Zealand’s second election held in mid-1855. Then, the third election was held five years later in 1860, when New Zealand’s parliament ballooned to 53 MPs. These were crazy times.

Elections were (even more) boozy

That’s not to say they’re sober nights now, but you’d anticipate most candidates aren’t rocking up to the polling booth under the influence (unless you want to show up in an edition of the Herald’s Guess Who, Don’t Sue). 

These days, a politician being tipsy in public is headline news. But in 1853 it was casually noted as an aside in the newspaper. According to reports from the time, Auckland’s early elections were “particularly notorious”, with allegations of drunkenness and corruption. In the 1855 election, one candidate’s committee room was described as “nothing better than a common drinking booth” where “half-intoxicated men were seen either reeling out of their own accord, or being dragged to record their votes at the poll”. Another candidate had maybe a bit too much fun after he “rolled a hogshead of rum into the street with his own hands, and invited the electors to fall in”, which sounds more like a stag do activity than something you’d indulge in while running for office.

In Lyttelton, the three elected representatives celebrated by wandering around the town “arm in arm, in a most loving and brotherly manner”, which sounds like a great way to enjoy an election victory. One losing candidate also took credit for livening up election day proceedings by “procuring the band and banners” and for the “praiseworthy motive of creating some amusement”. Good on him.

Possibly unrelated to the drinking, there were more claims of election deception than Donald Trump could shake a stick at. The electoral roll was allegedly out of date, meaning people could vote under the identity of deceased people. Some candidates would also bribe voters with, in effect, a free buffet – which is absolutely a technique that should be brought back in 2023.

Your votes probably weren’t even secret

Part of the election day pageantry is hiding away behind that little cardboard booth to tick who you want to vote for. In 1853, there was absolutely none of this secrecy. In the early days, a show of hands was sometimes enough to determine who would be elected. If that wasn’t decisive, they’d treat it a bit like a tie-break on a TV game show and move to a verbal vote. 

Taking things a step further, in 1860 one newspaper even published the details of how every elector had voted – which is crazy when you think about the heavy penalty you now risk for sharing anything online about the election on polling day.

Keep going!