Story: Employer and business organisations
Page 1 – Chambers of commerce, 1850s–2000s
Chambers of commerce and industry are the oldest commercial organisations in New Zealand. The first local chambers were set up in the 1850s and the umbrella group, the Association of New Zealand Chambers of Commerce, in 1915. The national body became an affiliate of the Commonwealth Chamber of Commerce Association and the International Chamber of Commerce.
List of requests
When the Auckland and Wellington chambers of commerce were founded in 1856, their members wanted amendments to the Bankruptcy Act to deal with insolvent debtors, daily mail deliveries, improvements in roads, transport and harbour management, and relief from ‘cumbrous, complicated and vexatious’ customs tariffs.1 These matters would be central concerns for decades to come.
Chambers of commerce had a dual purpose. They provided services and a meeting place for businesses of all kinds within a particular area. They also lobbied local and central government for services and business-related legislation. In the mid-19th century, when local and central government were limited, the chambers sometimes organised services themselves. The Wellington chamber set up a post-box service, and was a driving force in the construction of Queens Wharf.
The chambers strongly favoured development, including population growth, industrial and commercial development, and from the 1880s, government support for business. Chambers were actively involved in the marketing of New Zealand goods and, from the 1930s, the promotion of New Zealand as a tourist destination.
The chambers’ desire for government involvement in business development was equalled by their dislike of government restriction. They often expressed objections to increasing government regulation of labour and working conditions, particularly in the 1890s, when the newly formed Department of Labour was very actively protective of workers, and after the 1936 introduction of the 40-hour working week and compulsory trade unionism.
Influence on government
The influence of the chambers of commerce on local and central government was strong in the 19th and early 20th century. In the mid-20th century this influence waned.
It has been suggested that this was a result of the chamber’s inclusiveness – its ‘multi-purpose, catch-all quality’ made it difficult to reach a unanimous viewpoint.2 It was also displaced in some areas by other groups such as the Employers’ Federation.
Membership of chambers rose and fell considerably in the 19th century. A chamber might cease to hold meetings for years at a time, regrouping when energised by some shared need. Membership also rose and fell in the 20th century, with a particular chamber occasionally becoming dormant.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a boom in membership. Many of the newcomers were objecting to, or seeking help with, increasing government regulation. Many of those joining owned small businesses, and by the mid-1980s they were 80% of the membership of some chambers. From the 1990s women also began joining in significant numbers.
In 2007 there were 30 chambers, representing 24,000 businesses. Small and medium enterprises made up 75% of the members, but most of New Zealand’s largest corporations also belonged. Many trade associations, such as the Master Plumbers and Gasfitters, were affiliated to the Chamber of Commerce.
Chambers of commerce in the 2000s
In the early 2000s, though the chambers had not regained their earlier influence with the government, they remained a vital part of the New Zealand business world. They offered a wide range of services, including:
- business education, advice and mentoring
- assistance with staffing, including recruitment, training and cadetships
- networking and promotional opportunities
- international trade assistance, including certificates of origin and manufacture, letters of introduction, and advice on international trade practices.
Chambers of commerce also worked with international commerce councils, such as the Japan–New Zealand Business Council. Through the national chamber, local branches were affiliated to the International Chamber of Commerce.