New Zealand’s civil service began as an arm of the New South Wales government at the time of the colony’s founding in January 1840. On 6 February, missionary son Henry Kemp joined the service at Waitangi. As a 22-year-old cadet on Lieutenant-Governor Hobson’s staff, Kemp helped translate and transcribe the first complete copy of the Treaty of Waitangi. 1 He is likely to have been the first New Zealand-born civil servant.
In the founding decades of European settlement, mission-born children like Kemp were well represented in the 15 tiny departments of state administering areas like customs and the post office. Fluency in Māori was a near essential skill for employees conducting the Crown’s core business: land purchase. In 1848, as Native Secretary, Kemp would famously buy up much of the South Island from Ngāi Tahu.
After 1856, responsibility for the civil service shifted from the governor to a ministry– a government accountable to Parliament. A job on the public payroll promised a level of security coveted - often envied - in the raw colonial landscape. Departmental jobs, pay and conditions all came under the direct control of ministers.
Staff numbers remained tiny. In 1862, the entire civil service, the premier and his cabinet, all at that time based in Auckland, with all the official papers could fit into a single ship. 2 The Fox government sailed south that year to hold a session of Parliament at Wellington. On 29 June, the steamer White Swan wrecked off the Wairarapa coast, with the loss of all official papers, delaying Parliament’s opening.
Following the permanent shift to Wellington in 1865, an 1866 Civil Service Act set in place an exam system for cadets. By 1867, the service comprised 1600 staff, working to nine ministers. 3
In 1876, the abolition of the provincial (regional) government system meant an expansion of officialdom in Wellington. The growing service was housed in the wooden building known as the ‘Big Matchbox’ on newly reclaimed land on Lambton Quay.
Successive ministries in which Julius Vogel was either premier or colonial treasurer embarked on major public works activity, mainly railways. By the late 1870s, numbers on the public payroll reached 11,000. 4 One adult male in thirteen was directly or indirectly, a servant of the state. 5
As economic conditions worsened after 1880, claims of patronage by politicians in the allocation of coveted jobs gained attention. Concerns over such issues as appointment practices led to an 1880 Royal Commission into the Civil Service, which concluded that ‘an aristocracy of government officials’ enjoyed better working conditions than their private sector counterparts.
The election of a reformist Liberal government in 1891 brought additional public services, and staff to provide them. The workforce expanded, some joining a Civil Service Association set up in 1890. Most of the growth occurred within trading enterprises like railways and the post office rather than the core administrative service. The state service under the Liberals, characterised by ‘special’ jobs on a temporary basis, often with a whiff of patronage, became a stalking horse for the parliamentary opposition.
‘King Dick’ Seddon was an infamous example. During his early Ministerial career in charge of the Public Works and Defence portfolios, Seddon gained such a reputation for dismissing civil servants that he became known as ‘The Chief Executioner’. But after becoming Premier in 1893, he unashamedly handed jobs to known supporters as ‘temporary’ clerks, often men without qualifications. During the Liberal years, the wider service expanded to nearly 23,000 employees. 6
Ridding the state services of political patronage and wasteful spending of public money became a populist plank of the Liberals’ conservative opponents, led by Wellington MP Alexander Herdman. A former lawyer, Herdman favoured a ‘scientific’ (technical) rather than political approach to government administration. His party’s adoption of the name ‘Reform’ was explicit recognition of a desire to run the service more efficiently.
In its final months, the Liberal administration set up a Royal Commission on the Civil Service to address the issue of reform. By the time the Hunt Commission, named after a successful businessman, reported back in 1912, New Zealand already had a new government.
1: G.H. Scholefield: ‘Henry Tacy Kemp’. From A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Wellington, 1940, pp 456
3: Richard Shaw. ‘Public Service – Political control’. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Jun-12
5: Michael and Judith Bassett, Roderick Deane: his life and times, Auckland 2006, pp. 144.
6: Richard Shaw. ‘Public Service - Political control’. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Jun-12