The First Meeting of the Public Service Association

On 31 July 1890, 400 public servants gathered in Wellington to discuss the formation of what would become the Public Service Association of New Zealand (PSA).

Following successive terms of government retrenchment during the late 1880s depression, the meeting was convened in response to the threat of further cuts to public service numbers, wages, and allowances. Buoyed by the turnout, a provisional committee circularised all public servants, seeking unity behind a constitution that would limit their exposure to political interference. Government employees overwhelmingly supported the proposal, lent legitimacy by Governor Onslow’s appointment as patron. A further meeting in November approved the Association’s rules and objectives and established a 34­member council, led by President James Fitzgerald, the Comptroller and Auditor­ General. Recruiting occurred rapidly, by March 1891 the PSA boasted 1048 members—almost half the public service.

The PSA was founded during a period of political upheaval. In August 1890 New Zealand was embroiled in the Maritime Strike, then the largest industrial dispute in the colony’s history, prompting accusations that Fitzgerald held ‘a loaded pistol at the head of government.’

As the strike collapsed in November, campaigning began for the December General Election, contested by a loose ‘Liberal’ coalition and the incumbent Atkinson Ministry. For the first time a semi­-coherent political party emerged, promising to reform taxation, land tenure, and labour legislation—appealing to a diverse base of middle­ class radicals, moderate farmers, and urban workers. By contrast, the Government, led by Premier Atkinson, offered little but warnings against the Liberals’ ‘political and financial fireworks.’ On Election Day the electorate swung toward the Liberals, led by John Ballance, who formed a Government after electing a speaker in January 1892. Political change gave the PSA an opportunity for rapprochement with the Government, and after meeting Fitzgerald, the Premier officially recognised the Association, and later sought its opinion on his government’s public service legislation.

(Sources: David Hamer, The New Zealand Liberals: The Years of Power, 1891­1912 , Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1988; Otago Daily Times, 6 November 1890, p.4; Bert Roth, Remedy for Present Evils: A History of the New Zealand Public Service Association from 1890, Wellington: New Zealand Public Service Association, 1987)

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