When Universal Doesn’t Mean Everybody

Where-ever I go, and when the subject comes up, I enjoy boasting that New Zealand was the first self-governing nation in the world to give women the right to vote (in 1893, although they were unable to run for parliament until 1919). I was always under the impression that this meant that NZ was the first country to have universal suffrage. Not so, as I learnt yesterday.

I have just finished reading Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s Diggers, Hatters and Whores: the story of the New Zealand gold rushes. A thoroughly interesting read, which he concludes with a call for more exploration and writing about this very important but rather overlooked part of our history, in particular the stories of Chinese immigrants who came to dig for gold. It is in this conclusion that Eldred-Grigg states that people of Chinese ancestry, “even if they had been born and lived their whole life in New Zealand”, were unable to vote until the middle of the 1900s. I was shocked.

I have searched around a little on the net to try to find out how this was so, but have not found anything that tells me the exact mechanism by which this denial occurred. I suspect it may have something to do with the over-riding desire for a ‘white NZ’ that led politics in the early 1900s, racism towards Chinese, the fact that Chinese were unable to become NZ citizens for quite some time, and only NZ citizens were able to vote until 1975 when permanent residents were granted the right to vote. But if you know, please share.

So I’ll have to modify my boasting now, with a little caveat about how women gaining the right to vote did not make NZ the first nation to have universal suffrage.


4 responses to “When Universal Doesn’t Mean Everybody

  1. Did you also find out that Maori didn’t get the vote till much much later?
    Forget when although I remember that when I found out I was deeply shocked.

  2. ‘Aliens’ (that is, people who were not British subjects, such as Chinese) were specifically excluded. So too was anyone who had been convicted of treason, felony or other serious offence, unless he had received a free pardon or completed his sentence.

    Maori men were theoretically allowed to register and vote, but in reality most of them were excluded because they possessed their lands communally rather than under individual title like Europeans.

    It seems that it is related to the ownership of land — individual ownership that is. So Maori dipped out.

    As for aliens — the Chinese were not the only people to be ‘labelled’ as such. I am a Dutch immegrant. Arrived in NZ in February 1969 and had to carry an Alien passport – show it at the local police station everytime I moved house or changed jobs, and yes when I got married and changed my name. True, really….. I still have it. Will search for it and post it on http://www.keriflower.blogspot.com . This fact was also mentioned the other evening on a TV programme about Dutch immegrants (found the programme rather light) however.

  3. A lot of countries stopped discriminating on the basis of gender before they stopped discriminating on the basis of wealth or property.

    A lot of the conservatives who dominated politics when suffrage questions were being raised were quite comfortable with the idea of women voting – as long as they were wealthy upper class women. In other words, while they may have been sexist, they were even more classist.

    It’s questionable whether New Zealand has universal suffrage now – prisoners, non-residents and people under 18 don’t get to vote.

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