Proclamation bringing Constitution Act into force in New Zealand. Archives reference: IA9/17. Click on the image to enlarge or download.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the New Zealand Constitution Act (15 & 16 Vict. c. 72) in 1852. The long title of the Act was "An Act to Grant a Representative Constitution to the Colony of New Zealand". It received Royal Assent on 30 June 1852.
The Constitution Act established a system of settler self-government in New Zealand. Before then, laws for New Zealand were made by the British Parliament, with a Governor in New Zealand ruling on the Queen’s behalf. A similar act was passed in 1846, but only aspects of it were put in place.
The 1852 Act created six provinces with elected superintendents and provincial councils. It also established a New Zealand based General Assembly, made up of an appointed Legislative Council and a House of Representatives. The appointees were elected every five years by males aged over 21 who owned, leased or rented property of a certain value.
By British standards, the property qualification was modest, allowing most male settlers to vote. However, because most Māori land was owned communally, very few Māori were qualified to vote. There was no Māori representation in Parliament until 1868.
Despite this, Section 71 of the Act allowed for self-governing Māori districts where Māori law and custom were to be preserved. Yet while Section 71 remained on the law books until 1986, it was never implemented by the Crown. Māori attempts to realise this autonomy, such as the Kīngitanga (Māori King) and Kotahitanga (Māori Parliament) movements, were not recognised by the Government.
The 1852 Constitution Act came into operation with a Proclamation by Governor George Grey on 17 January 1853. The Proclamation is on parchment and contains the signatures of Governor Grey and Civil Secretary Alfred Domett, and the Public Seal of New Zealand. The text of the Act can be found on Victoria University of Wellington Library's New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.