Poll tax apology marks a new beginning 6/8

George Hawkins Ethnic Affairs


12 February 2001

Of all the legislation and policy enacted against the
Chinese in New Zealand the most notorious is undoubtedly the poll-tax.

Introduced in 1881 as part of the 1881 Chinese immigrants act, it was the
main plank in New Zealand's policy of excluding Chinese from New Zealand. As the
first enactment restricting the entry of a specific class of people into New
Zealand, it set a precedent for immigration restriction in this country. A
precedent not only for increasingly severe restrictions against Chinese
immigration, but also for restrictions on other immigrants. As such the Chinese
immigration policy the poll-tax ushered in set the tone for all subsequent
immigration policy in this country.

For the New Zealand government the poll-tax was a compromise solution to an
apparently unsolvable problem. The problem was how to both exclude the Chinese
from New Zealand and satisfy the Imperial Government in Britain.

In the nineteenth century, New Zealand, as a British colony, was unable to
legislate freely on areas of policy that affected Imperial interests. These
included "constitutional amendments, foreign relations, external trade and the
disposal of public funds." In the case of Acts that involved these areas of
Imperial interest, the approval of the Crown had to be given. As the issue of
Chinese immigration impinged on Britain's foreign affairs dealings with China,
New Zealand was unable to legislate on this issue as it saw fit. An Act passed
by the New Zealand government that totally excluded the Chinese would have
compromised Britain's dealings with China, and would therefore not receive the
Royal Assent. The only solution was to attempt to erect some barrier that would
make it as difficult as possible for the Chinese to come to New Zealand.

The solution was found in a poll-tax, or entry tax, to be paid by every
Chinese immigrant coming to New Zealand.
The idea of a poll-tax to restrict
immigration was not a New Zealand innovation. It was initially devised in
California, which in 1852 passed the California act requiring all alien
immigrants to pay an entry fee of five dollars. The first use of this model of
immigration restriction against the Chinese was in the Australian state of
Victoria. In 1855, in response to the arrival of thousands of Chinese on the
Victorian goldfields, the Victorian legislature passed the Act to make provision
for certain immigrants. This imposed a ten pound poll-tax on all Chinese
immigrants to Victoria. Although somewhat ineffective, the importance of the Act
lay in its setting a precedent for using an entry-tax to restrict Chinese
immigration to the Australasian colonies. The fact that the Act received the
Royal Assent gave the green light to other colonies to also use this particular
method in the future.

Other Australian colonies, following the precedent set by Victoria, soon
imposed their own poll-taxes. In 1861 New South Wales imposed a ten pound
poll-tax, and in 1877, Queensland did likewise. By 1887 all the Australian
colonies had imposed a poll-tax.

Following the Australian example, New Zealand also introduced an entry tax to
restrict Chinese immigration. The early advocates for a poll-tax came from Otago
where the majority of Chinese had migrated. Francis Dillon Bell, member for
Wallace, raised the possibility of restriction as early as 1861. In 1870 T L
Shepherd, MP for Dunstan, suggested that a fifty pound poll-tax be imposed on
Chinese immigrants and in 1871, during the Select Committee on Chinese
immigration, a twenty pound poll-tax was mooted.(1) All these
attempts failed. It was not until 1881 that New Zealand finally passed the
Chinese immigrants restriction act 1881 placing a ten pound entry-tax on all
Chinese immigrants, regardless of place of origin.

Several factors combined to bring about the passing of the New Zealand
poll-tax. In the late 1870s a new anti-Chinese movement, led by recently-arrived
Australian goldminers, began on the West Coast. Unlike earlier anti-Chinese
activists in Otago, the West Coast anti-Chinese movement was better organised
and had the support of radical anti-Chinese MPs in Parliament. These included
the West Coast MPs, and the Prime Minister himself, George Grey.

Another factor was the onset of a severe economic depression in 1878 that was
to profoundly affect New Zealand for the next ten years. By 1880 effects of the
depression were keenly felt throughout New Zealand, especially by the working
classes. A recurring pattern throughout the history of the British colonial
nations was the coinciding of economic downturn with an upsurge of anti-Chinese
agitation. At these times it was the Chinese who were blamed for the economic
misery being suffered.

The final factor in this mix was the eruption of violent anti-Chinese
agitation in Australia. A mass movement following the anti-Chinese seamen's
strike of 1878 (which New Zealand also joined) led to the 1881 Inter-Colonial
Conference in which the colonies of Australia and New Zealand agreed to
legislate uniformly on Chinese immigration. One of the recommendations proposed
at the conference was that a ten pound entry-tax should be imposed on all
Chinese immigrants. An agreement which directly led to New Zealand's 1881
imposition of the ten pound poll-tax.

As with the Victorian Act of 1855, a precedent was thus set for restricting
the immigration of a specific set of people. With the precedent set, the
restrictions became increasingly severe.

Tax raised
In 1893 Richard John Seddon, the most radical
anti-Chinese activist in Parliament, was elected Prime Minister and immediately
began pushing for more drastic restrictions on Chinese immigration. Aided and
encouraged by a new anti-Chinese movement which began in the mid-1890s, he
introduced a comprehensive anti-Asiatic Bill which included raising the poll-tax
to one hundred pounds. Rejected in 1895, it was eventually passed in 1896 but
did not receive the Royal Assent, mainly because the definition of "Asiatic"
included British Indians. Seddon compromised and introduced another Bill that
omitted the offending clauses, but retained the increase in the poll-tax. In its
new form it was passed as the Chinese immigrants act amendment act 1896. The Act
had the overwhelming popular support of the working class and a large majority
of the New Zealand population.

To all intents and purposes the 1896 Act marked the end of the legislative
process concerning the poll-tax. The 1908 consolidation of all previous
immigration legislation retained the one hundred pound poll-tax, as did the 1920
Immigration restriction amendment act, which in other respects constituted a
major rethink of immigration policy in New Zealand.

Although at the time of the passing of the Immigration restriction amendment
act 1920 many people questioned the necessity for retaining the poll-tax, noting
that the new Act enabled the government "to prevent a single Chinese from
landing in New Zealand, and therefore rendered the continuance of the poll-tax
unnecessary" (2), the government decided to retain it. In
justifying its retention, the Prime Minister, William Massey, said "it is an
additional safeguard. I have considered the point, but I came to the conclusion
that it would not be well to repeal the poll-tax clause."(3) In
1926 the government once again came under pressure to further restrict the
immigration of Chinese. It responded by deciding to suspend granting permanent
residence permits to Chinese. Because of this the issue of the poll-tax was
raised once again. It was decided that, "seeing no further Chinese were to be
admitted, the repeal of the poll-tax could be safely left until consolidating
legislation was introduced into Parliament." (4)

In 1934 the question of the poll-tax was again raised in Cabinet. Since the
desirability of abolishing the tax was, "tacitly admitted in the Cabinet
decision of 1926"(5), the Minister of Customs
decided to waive payment of the tax, "in the case of any Chinese entering with a
permit for permanent residence." (6) As no permits for
permanent residence had been issued to Chinese since 1926 the concession meant
little in practical terms. The poll-tax clause itself remained on the statute
books until 1944.

Two factors were decisive in the eventual abolition of
the poll-tax. One was the election of the first Labour Government in 1935. The
Labour Government proved to be a true friend of the Chinese in this country,
abolishing much of the discriminatory legislation against Chinese in New

The other factor was the Second World War. As New Zealand became increasingly
involved in the Pacific war after 1939, it became clear to New Zealanders that
China had been bravely fighting the Japanese since 1937. Her fight against
Japanese invasion changed public perceptions. Chinese New Zealanders had gone
from being the "Yellow Peril" to "our brave allies".
These two important
factors combined in 1944 when the Labour Government introduced the Finance Act
1944, Part II of which abolished both the poll-tax and the tonnage restrictions
on Chinese. The Minister of Finance, Walter Nash, summed up the government's
attitude to the tax and the reasons for abolishing it: "While the law provides
that a poll-tax shall be levied on Chinese coming into the country, the tax has
not been collected for some years. We now propose to abolish the poll-tax,
together with a number of other restrictions. We have no more right to ask the
Chinese to pay a poll-tax than we have to ask the Japanese, the Germans, the
Spaniards, or the Norwegians."(7) In conclusion the finance
minister acknowledged the injustice that had been done to Chinese New Zealanders
for the 62 years that the poll-tax had been in force saying, "I do not know of
anything more pleasing from the Government's point of view, and from the point
of view of any one who understands international and racial affairs and knows a
little of the history of the Far East and the Chinese people, than the removing
of the blot on our legislation. We are merely saying that the Chinese are as
good as any other race, and that we will not in future countenance any
discrimination against them."(8) Unlucky Last New Zealand was
the last of the poll-tax imposing countries to abolish the tax. Australia had
repealed her final remaining poll-tax in 1903 and Canada, which had imposed a
poll-tax on Chinese in 1885, in 1923. New Zealand retained the tax until 1944.
While the reasons behind the eventual abolition of the tax were laudatory, no
credit devolves to New Zealand because of this. The best that can be said is
that at last the "blot on our legislation" was erased. During the period the
poll-tax was levied, the New Zealand government earned approximately 308,080
pounds from its attempts to exclude the Chinese from New Zealand.


In its attempts to exclude Chinese from New Zealand,
the government was forced by diplomatic expediency, as well as common decency
and fairness, to exempt certain groups of Chinese from the provisions of the

When the poll-tax was first introduced in 1881 it was decided that the
following Chinese should be exempt from payment of the tax: Chinese crews of
ships (providing they did not land) and Chinese already resident in New Zealand.
These were entitled to a certificate of exemption from payment of the tax if
they applied within two months of the passing of the Act. In addition a
certificate of exemption was available to Chinese resident in New Zealand
wishing to undertake a temporary absence from the country. This was based on the
theory that, "a Chinese who has once paid the tax is not again liable to do so."
(9) The 1888 Chinese immigrants act amendment act added several
further exemptions from payment of the tax. These included Chinese naturalised
in New Zealand, Chinese accredited by the government of China, or under the
authority of the British government, and officers and crew of Chinese warships.
In 1910 the Chinese government objected to several of the provisions of the 1908
Immigration restriction act and proposed that Chinese merchants, tourists and
students be allowed to visit New Zealand for a set period without having to pay
the tax.(10) The New Zealand government agreed to this
proposal and in 1911 set the time period for the three classes of Chinese
visitors. These were six months in the case of merchants and tourists, and six
years for Chinese students.(11) Chinese who overstayed these
limits were presumably to pay the tax or be deported.

This principle of Chinese visitors being exempt from payment of the poll-tax
was again applied to Chinese coming to New Zealand on temporary permits under
the 1920 Immigration restriction amendment act. This provision does not,
however, appear to have been set out in any official publications. If Chinese on
temporary permits were subsequently granted permanent residence, the poll-tax
was to be paid.

Tax evasion
One difficulty for the New Zealand government was that
these exemptions opened a loophole for new Chinese immigrants to evade payment
of the tax. The two main exemptions, the certificate of exemption available to
Chinese resident in New Zealand undertaking a temporary absence from the
country, and the exemption from payment of the tax for naturalised Chinese, were
assiduously used by new immigrants to evade the tax. This was done by buying an
exemption certificate or naturalisation papers from a Chinese returning
permanently to China. The traffic in these papers was considerable. An Internal
Affairs memo of 18 March 1923 summed up the situation,

"The Customs Department here has experienced . . . difficulty from time to
time and there are in this Department a number of Chinese Naturalisation papers
which have been confiscated . . . The motive is of course obvious, viz, to evade
payment of the poll-tax etc as provided by the legislation which has been
repeated in the Immigration Restriction Act 1908, Part III."(12)

The government and the Customs Department devised various methods to attempt
to prevent this evasion.

As early as 1883 Customs officials were told to issue certificates of
exemption only to Chinese who could prove they had been resident in New Zealand
prior to the passing of the 1881 Act, and to deliver the certificate to the
applicant only as they were leaving the country.(13) This was to prevent them
being used, "for purposes other than for which they are issued."(14)

In 1886 it was decided that Customs officials should retain possession of
certificates of exemption from returning Chinese to prevent them being sent back
to China to be used again by Chinese not entitled to them.(15)
In 1887 a physical description of the holder of the certificate was to be noted
on the certificate as an aid to identification.(16) It was
also decided that the tax was to be collected from any Chinese who overstayed
the time period specified on the certificate. (17) In 1900 a
further tightening of the system was instituted. Chinese returning from an
overseas visit were to deposit the amount of the poll-tax until identification
of the certificate-holder and proof-of-payment of tax on first arrival in New
Zealand was established.(18) One method of establishing proof
of identity was to take the thumb-prints of the person in question, a system
that came to be universally and fiercely resented by all Chinese in New Zealand.

In 1902, in an attempt to streamline the whole process, it was decided to
establish proof of original payment of the poll-tax at the time of issuing the
certificate of exemption, not on the return as previously.(19)
Due to difficulties in establishing proof of original payment of the poll-tax,
and threats of legal action from Chinese exasperated at delays in the return of
their deposits, it was decided in 1903 to drop the requirement of proof of
original payment altogether.(20)

These ad hoc systems devised by the Customs Department were formalised in
1908 under the regulations attached to the Immigration restriction act 1908. Any
Chinese returning after the four-year period set out on the re-entry permit was
to pay the tax again, and all returning Chinese had to deposit the tax until
identification was established.(21) These requirements
remained in force until 1934 when Cabinet decided to waive payment of the

The traffic in naturalisation certificates required a different solution, as
it was probably felt that demanding proof of identity from a person who had
taken the trouble to become a naturalised citizen of New Zealand was somewhat
impolitic. Especially as this included the humiliating process of having ones
thumb-prints taken. It was therefore decided that the solution would be to cease
granting letters of naturalisation to Chinese. This was done on 4 February 1908
by Cabinet decision following a recommendation by the Minister of Internal
Affairs. It was felt at the time that the policy of attempting to restrict
Chinese immigration to New Zealand warranted such a move. The decision was
probably taken at this time and not earlier due to a general review of all
government legislation that was going on at that time and resulted in a
consolidation in August 1908 of 860 prior enactments. All the legislation
concerning immigration, and the restriction of Chinese immigration, was
consolidated in the Immigration restriction act 1908. An entire group of New
Zealanders was therefore disenfranchised in an attempt to prevent a few of them
from entering the country without paying an already unjust entry tax.
Naturalisation of Chinese was only reintroduced in 1952, 18 years after payment
of the poll-tax was waived, and eight years after the tax itself was abolished.


  1. AJHR 1871 H-5, p.16
  2. Round table 1920, p.222
  3. NZPD 1920 vol.187, p.908
  4. Cabinet decision 29 June 1926, in Ponton, p.69
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. NZPD 1944 vol.267 p.724
  8. ibid p.725
  9. Customs Dept memo 15 May 1900
  10. AJHR 1910 A-2 pp.44-45
  11. New Zealand gazette 1911 no.22, p.1047
  12. National Archives. Internal Affairs Department IA 1 116/7 Part 1. Chinese -
    general question of naturalisation.
  13. Customs Dept memo 5 June, 23 July 1883
  14. ibid
  15. Customs Dept memo 21 July 1887
  16. ibid 20 Oct 1887
  17. ibid 5 Dec 1887
  18. ibid 15 May 1900
  19. ibid 9 Dec 1902
  20. ibid 6 Oct 1903
  21. New Zealand gazette 1908 no.93, p.2996

Murphy, Nigel, The Poll-tax in New Zealand: A Research
, Commissioned by the New Zealand Chinese Association (Inc), 1994