An inconclusive election result, a northern MP refusing to say which major party he would support, weeks for new government to be formed - sounds a bit like 2017.

In fact, this scenario played out 102 years ago.

The general election of December 1914 initially seemed to extinguish the conservative Reform Party Government's majority. It appeared to have 40 seats - the same number as the combined Liberal Party with 32 seats and Labour candidates with eight.

Then the recounts began and, in effect, the poll dragged on until June 1915, when the last of three byelections was completed and it appeared the Prime Minister, William Massey, would have a majority of two seats in Parliament.

Advertisement
Prime Minister William Massey's hold on power was uncertain for six and a half months after the 1914 election
Prime Minister William Massey's hold on power was uncertain for six and a half months after the 1914 election

But there was still uncertainty over the new Northern Maori MP Tau Henare, portrayed as a Massey supporter before the election.

"Both Reform and Liberal parties dispatched ambassadors to Henare, and a group of Whangarei people sent a telegram saying, 'How do you intend to vote'," writes political historian and former Labour MP Michael Bassett in Three Party Politics in New Zealand 1911-1931.

"Enjoying the pakehas' consternation, Henare impishly cabled back, 'I'll give you two guesses."

Only when the Reform caucus met on June 28, 1915 was the matter settled: Henare had attended, the Herald reported the following morning. The paper had described the general election as "probably the most remarkable" in New Zealand's history.


NZ Herald headlines on its report of the election night results in December 1914. Source: National Library

Bassett said he wrote Three Party Politics in the wake of the November 1981 election, another which was uncertain on the night. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon's National Party had won 46 seats, Opposition Leader Bill Rowling's Labour Party 44 and Social Credit two.

"Nobody had a majority. Bill Rowling, who most of us were trying to get rid of as leader of the party, said that this situation was unprecedented and I thought he's a former prime minister who doesn't know New Zealand history."

The stalemate was broken by the final result shifting Taupo from Labour to National's Roger McClay. Five months after the election, McClay's slender hold on the seat - and Muldoon's two-vote hold on Parliament - was confirmed by a High Court petition.

Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward was rumoured to be delaying calling Parliament for six months after an uncertain election result in 1911, until warned this would be unconstitutional.
Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward was rumoured to be delaying calling Parliament for six months after an uncertain election result in 1911, until warned this would be unconstitutional.

The uncertain outcome of the 1911 election was arguably the most unusual, in that it involved the Governor-General, Lord Islington, giving some frank advice to Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward.

Ward's Liberals had been in power since 1891. When faced with the possibility of losing a no-confidence vote in the House after the December 1911 election, there were rumours Ward would delay recalling Parliament until the following June.

The Governor-General told Ward that when no-one knew if he had a majority in the House, "to carry on for six months as an Executive Government with all its responsibilities and privileges ... would be ... improper and gravely unconstitutional".

Ward called the House in February 1912 and survived the no-confidence motion on the casting vote of the Speaker. He quit the premiership the following month.

Some of Ward's supporters deserted his Liberal successor, Prime Minister Thomas McKenzie, who lost a no-confidence vote in the House in July 1912, paving the way for Massey.

Elections slow to produce governments

Time to resolve who won:

1911 - Eight months

1914 - Seven and a half months

1981 - Six months

1996 - Two months