History of the Department

The first government department

When New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, the Colonial Secretary's Office was the first department to be established. Although 15 separate public service agencies were created within a few months, the Colonial Secretary continued to be the Governor's chief aide, and his office was the hub of the colony's administration. Until 1848 it dealt with all correspondence between the Governor and his employees, and between officials and the public.

Among its many duties, the Colonial Secretary's Office ran prisons, supervised government printing, licensed auctioneers, registered births, deaths and marriages, and collected statistics. Its responsibilities for constitutional matters and for the naturalisation of aliens both began in the 1840s.

From 1853, following the establishment of provinces which took over many government functions, the Colonial Secretary's Office became the channel for communication between the central and provincial governments. Because many administrative duties were carried out at provincial level, a unified departmental structure was slow to develop. The Colonial Secretary co-ordinated concerns as diverse as charitable aid, mental hospitals, harbourmasters and cattle inspection.

Expansion of the Colonial Secretary’s Office

With the introduction of responsible government in 1856, the Colonial Secretary became one of several ministers. Although official correspondence was no longer channelled through a single office, ministries were small and until 1869 the Premier was usually the Colonial Secretary as well. His senior official was now known as the Colonial Under-Secretary.

When the provinces were abolished in 1876, many of their functions could not easily be carried out by the smaller local bodies which replaced them. Centralised departments of state developed to fill this gap, and to administer politically significant activities. The oversight of local government itself became an enduring responsibility of the Colonial Secretary's Office.

Many duties were transferred to new agencies: within a decade of its creation in 1872, the Justice Department had acquired the Colonial Secretary's Office's judicial section, lands and deeds, prisons and patents. Mental hospitals and charitable aid became the nucleus of a new department. Other tasks were moved between departments: sheep inspection was swapped between the Colonial Secretary's Office and the Lands Department, for example.

Social and technological change led to new demands on the Colonial Secretary's Office, In 1881 it was given the power to regulate lotteries and the operation of race-course totalisators. From 1902 local bodies could make by-laws to control the use of motor vehicles, subject to the approval of the Colonial Secretary, who in 1906 also became responsible for administering the Fire Brigades Act.

Office renamed as the Department of Internal Affairs

In 1907 the Colonial Secretary's Office was renamed the Department of Internal Affairs when New Zealand became a Dominion. By now it was acknowledged to be the appropriate home for new government functions which were not substantial enough to justify a separate administrative structure and did not fit conveniently into another agency. This role has continued to the present day, as new tasks have been taken on and long-established ones have been transferred elsewhere.

Responsibilities for cultural conservation

In the twentieth century, the Department's core constitutional role was complemented by the gradual development of responsibility for cultural conservation, beginning with Maori antiquities in 1901. The Alexander Turnbull Library was established in 1918 and the Dominion Archives in 1926. The National Art Gallery and the Dominion Museum operated under their own board from 1930 until 1992, when they were incorporated into the Museum of New Zealand.

Cultural conservation in another sense was fostered by the establishment in 1946 of the State Literary Fund, a precursor of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (1964) and a separate Ministry of Cultural Affairs (1991). A parallel development has been the progression from the National Council of Physical Welfare and Recreation (1938) to the Council for Recreation and Sport (1973) and the Hillary Commission (1987).

Civil defence and translations acquired

World wars brought Internal Affairs a variety of new functions, ranging from the introduction of film censorship in 1916 to the creation of the War Funds Office and the National Patriotic Fund Board, and the Rehabilitation Board which was serviced by the Department between 1954 and 1959. The threat of war in the late 1930s led to the establishment of the Emergency Precautions Scheme, which by 1959 had evolved into the Ministry of Civil Defence. In the aftermath of war, it was necessary to set up a Translation Service in 1949.

The New Zealand Wars led to the appointment of an Inspector of Old Soldiers Graves in 1912 - the forerunner of a later responsibility for War Graves - and to the temporary appointment of James Cowan as an historian. His successors have been the Centennial (later Historical Branch (1937) and the War History Branch (1945). Dictionaries of New Zealand Biographies were produced to mark the 1940 and 1990 anniversaries. These three functions transferred to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in October 2000.

Department of Conservation and the Historic Places Trust

The Department of Internal Affairs no longer has a role in the field which brought it the highest public profile, that of wildlife. The Department first became responsible for the protection of game in 1861. It lost its general oversight of freshwater fisheries in 1907, but retained this function in Rotorua, Taupo and (latterly) Southern Lakes districts until 1987. The deer control operations of the 1930s to 1950s, and the struggle to save the black robin and other endangered species in the 1970s and the 1980s, excited enormous media interest. However, the Wildlife Branch itself became extinct in 1987, when its functions were taken over by the new Department of Conservation, which also absorbed the Historic Places Trust, established in 1955. The Historic Places Trust is now responsible to the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.

In recent times

Some functions which the Department lost have since found their way back. In 1931 Births, Deaths and Marriages services were moved to the Department of Justice, but they returned to Internal Affairs in 1995. In 1998 the Ministry of Commerce's Tourism responsibilities were amalgamated with Internal Affairs' Office of Recreation and Sport to form a new Office of Tourism and Sport. This remained with the Department for two years before being returned to the newly titled Ministry of Economic Development in 2000. The Government Computing Centre, which moved to the State Services Commission in 1972, returned to the Department as the Government Technology Service in 2009.

From 1997 to 2001 the Department of Internal Affairs hosted the Millennium Office, which helped distribute funding and co-ordinate official events to celebrate our nation's entry into the third millennium. In 2000 it became the home of the newly created Office of Ethnic Affairs, now the Office of Ethnic Communities

The twenty-first century

In 2000 National Archives left the Department's fold to become Archives New Zealand.

In 2004, changes to gambling legislation gave the Department new powers in licensing and enforcement for all types of gambling, including a prohibition on new casinos, the establishment of an independent Gambling Commission administered by the Department, and increased monitoring of gaming machines in pubs and clubs, with oversight via an electronic monitoring system from 2006.

In 2005 the Department acquired responsibility for the Charities Commission, to monitor and maintain a register of all charitable organisations in New Zealand.

The Department’s censorship enforcement responsibilities came to incorporate Internet and email technologies with an increased focus on Internet safety and the introduction in 2007 of an Anti-Spam Compliance unit.

Internal Affairs became home to Government Technology Services in 2009, and the Government Chief Information Officer in 2010, both inherited from the State Services Commission, to provide operational and strategic oversight for shared information technology services to all of government.

In 2011 Archives New Zealand returned to the Department’s fold, along with the Alexander Turnbull Library, as part of the National Library of New Zealand.

In 2013 the Charities Commission became Charities Services, a business unit within the department.

In 2014 the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management transferred from Internal Affairs to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In 2021 the Office of Ethnic Communities was separated from the Department of Internal Affairs to become the Ministry for Ethnic Communities.

This history was written and compiled by David Green, Ministry for Culture and Heritage (in conjunction with the Department of Internal Affairs)

Further information

View our historical timeline

View a brief history of the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.