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Politics of New Zealand

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Politics of New Zealand

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
New Zealand

The politics of New Zealand take place in a framework of a parliamentary representative democratic monarchy. The basic system is closely patterned on that of the Westminster System, although a number of significant modifications have been made. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who is represented by the Governor-General and the head of government is the Prime Minister who chairs the Cabinet drawn from an elected Parliament.


  • Constitution 1
  • Executive 2
    • Head of State 2.1
    • Head of Government 2.2
  • Legislature 3
  • Judiciary 4
  • Local government and administrative divisions 5
  • Elections and party politics 6
  • 19th century politics 7
  • Modern political history 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


New Zealand has no formal codified constitution; the constitutional framework consists of a mixture of various documents (including certain acts of the United Kingdom and New Zealand Parliaments), the Treaty of Waitangi and constitutional conventions. The Constitution Act in 1852 established the system of government and these were later consolidated in 1986. Constitutional rights are protected under common law and are strengthened by the Bill of Rights Act 1990 and Human Rights Act 1993, although these are not entrenched and can be overturned by Parliament with a simple majority.[1] The Constitution Act describes the three branches of Government in New Zealand: The Executive (the Sovereign and Cabinet), the legislature (Parliament) and the judiciary (Courts).


Head of State

Queen Elizabeth II is the current Queen of New Zealand and the Realm of New Zealand's head of state.[2][3] The New Zealand monarchy has been distinct from the British monarchy since the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1947, and all Elizabeth II's official business in New Zealand is conducted in the name of the Queen of New Zealand, not the Queen of the United Kingdom. While Royal Assent and the royal sign-manual are required to enact laws, letters patent, and Orders in Council, the authority for these acts stems from the New Zealand populace.[4] In practice, the functions of the monarchy are conducted by the Governor-General, appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister. As of 2011, the Governor-General is Sir Jerry Mateparae. The Governor-General's powers are primarily symbolic and formal in nature. The Governor-General formally has the power to appoint and dismiss Prime Ministers and to dissolve Parliament; and also formally signs legislation into law after passage by Parliament. The Governor-General chairs the Executive Council, which is a formal committee consisting of all ministers of the Crown. Members of the Executive Council are required to be Members of Parliament, and most are also in Cabinet.[5]

Head of Government

John Key, MP, Prime Minister of New Zealand and leader of the National Party.

Cabinet is the most senior policy-making body and is led by the Prime Minister, who is also, by convention, the Parliamentary leader of the governing party or coalition, and is known as the head of government. The New Zealand Cabinet is responsible to the Parliament of New Zealand, from which its members are derived. All Cabinet Ministers must be Members of Parliament (MPs) and are collectively responsible to it.

General elections are held every three years, with the last one in September 2014. National won the 2008 election ending nine years of Labour led Government. National leader John Key formed a minority government, negotiating agreements with the ACT party, the United Future party and the Māori Party.[6] The leaders of each of these parties hold ministerial posts but remain outside of Cabinet. There are currently three parties in Opposition; the Labour Party, the Green Party, and New Zealand First. The Leader of the Opposition is Andrew Little, who is Leader of the Labour Party.

Main office holders
Office Name Party Since
Queen Elizabeth II 6 February 1952
Governor General Jerry Mateparae 31 August 2011
Prime Minister John Key National Party 19 November 2008


New Zealand's main legislative body is a unicameral Parliament known as the House of Representatives. Until 1950 there was a second chamber, consisting of an upper house known as the Legislative Council.[7] Suffrage is extended to everyone over the age of 18 years, women having gained the vote in 1893. Parliaments have a maximum term of three years, although an election can be called earlier. The House of Representatives meets in Parliament House.

Several seats are reserved for members elected on a separate Māori roll. However, Māori may choose to vote in and to run for the non-reserved seats and for the party list (since 1996), and as a result many have now entered Parliament outside of the reserved seats.

Almost all parliamentary general elections between 1853 and 1996 were held under the first-past-the-post (FPP) system.[8] Under FPP the candidate in a given electorate that received the most votes was elected to parliament. The only deviation from the FPP system during this time occurred in the 1908 election when a second ballot system was tried.[8] Under this system the elections since 1935 have been dominated by two political parties, National and Labour.[8]

Criticism of the FPP system began in the 1950s and intensified after Labour lost the 1978 and 1981 elections despite having more overall votes than National.[9] An indicative (non-binding) referendum to change the voting system was held in 1992, which lead to a binding referendum during the 1993 election.[9] As a result, New Zealand has used the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system since 1996.[7] Under MMP, each member of Parliament is either elected by voters in a single-member constituency via first-past-the-post or appointed from party lists. Officially, the New Zealand parliament has 120 Seats, however this sometimes differs due to overhangs and underhangs.


New Zealand has four levels of courts:

The Supreme Court was established in 2004, under the Supreme Court Act 2003, and replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as New Zealand's final court of appeal. The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court on points of law. The High Court deals with serious criminal offences and civil matters, and hears appeals from subordinate courts.

The Chief Justice of New Zealand (the head of the New Zealand Judiciary) presides over the Supreme Court, and is appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister. The incumbent is Dame Sian Elias. All other superior court judges are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Attorney-General, the Chief Justice, and the Solicitor-General.[11] Some New Zealand Judges may sit on more than one court.

New Zealand law has three principal sources: English common law, certain statutes of the United Kingdom Parliament enacted before 1947 (notably the Bill of Rights 1689), and statutes of the Parliament of New Zealand. In interpreting common law, the courts have endeavoured to preserve uniformity with common law as interpreted in the United Kingdom and related jurisdictions. The maintenance of the Privy Council in London as the final court of appeal and judges' practice of following British decisions, even though, technically, they are not bound by them, both bolstered this uniformity. However, in October 2003, the House of Representatives passed legislation to end this right of appeal from 2004, and to establish the Supreme Court of New Zealand in Wellington, which began hearings in July 2004.

Local government and administrative divisions

New Zealand is a unitary state rather than a federation—regions are created by the authority of the central government, rather than the central government being created by the authority of the regions. Local government in New Zealand has only the powers conferred upon it by Parliament. These powers have traditionally been distinctly fewer than in some other countries. For example, police and education are run by central government, while the provision of low-cost housing is optional for local councils. Many of them used to control gas and electricity supply, but nearly all of that was privatised or centralised in the 1990s.

Local elections are held every three years to elect the mayors, city and district councillors, community board members, and district health board members.

Elections and party politics

The first political party in New Zealand was founded in 1891, and its main rival was founded in 1909—from that point until a change of electoral system in 1996, New Zealand had a de facto two-party system. As of 2014 New Zealand has a genuinely multi-party system, with eight parties represented in Parliament. No party has been able to govern without support from other groups since 1996, making coalition government standard.

Traditionally the two largest, and oldest, parties are the Labour Party (centre-left progressive, formed in 1916) and the National Party (centre-right conservative, formed in 1936). Other parties represented in Parliament as of 2014 are ACT (free market), the Greens (left-wing, environmentalist), the New Zealand First Party (centrist, nationalist), United Future (family values), Māori Party (ethnic) and the Mana Party (socialist, indigenous rights)

19th century politics

Prior to New Zealand becoming a British colony in 1840, politics in New Zealand was dominated by Maori chiefs as leaders of hapu and iwi, utilising tikanga or Maori Customs as a political system. The dominant chiefs were not only skilled warriors but also skilled in creating alliances to prevail over weaker chiefs and their tribes. From 1805 to shortly after 1840, politics was dominated by the intertribal Musket Wars which raged the length and breadth of New Zealand. The small number of Europeans had little influence on Maori political tikanga.

After the 1840 treaty a governor and his small staff acted on behalf of the British government based on the British political system. Whereas Maori systems had dominated prior to 1840 governors attempting to introduce British systems met with mixed success in Maori communities. More isolated Maori were little influenced by the government. Most influences were felt in and around Russell, the first capital and Auckland, the second capital.

The first voting rights in New Zealand were legislated in 1852 as the New Zealand Constitution Act for the 1853 elections and reflected British practice. This was considered liberal at the time but excluded all women and most men. Initially only large run holders could vote but by the late 1850s 75% of British males over 21 were eligible to vote compared to 20% in England and 12% in Scotland. About 100 Maori chiefs voted in the 1853 election.[12]

During the 1850s provincial based government was the norm. It was abolished in 1876. Politics was initially dominated by conservative capitalist "wool lords" who owned multiple sheep farms, mainly in Canterbury. During the gold rush era starting 1858 suffrage was extended to all British gold miners who owned a 1-pound mining license. The conservatives had been influenced by the militant action of gold miners in Victoria at Eureka. Many gold miners had moved to the New Zealand fields bringing their radical ideas. The extended franchise was modelled on the Victorian system. In 1863 the mining franchise was extended to goldfield business owners. By 1873 of the 41,500 registered voters 47% were gold field miners or owners.

After the brief Land War period ending in 1864, parliament moved to extend the franchise to more Maori. Donald McLean introduced a bill for 4 temporary Maori seats and extended the franchise to all Maori men over 21 in 1867. Maori men got the vote 12 years prior to European men.[13] In the 1870s ex gold miner,newspaper editor and radical freetrader Julius Vogel, the colonial treasurer, embarked on a massive capital loans expansion scheme that hugely improved the nation's infrastructure. Money was mainly spent on roads, bridges, railways, port facilities and lighthouses.[14]

In 1879 a depression hit, resulting in poverty and many people, especially miners, returning to Australia. Between 1879 and 1881 government was concerned at the activities of Maori activists based on confiscated land at Parihaka. Activists destroyed settlers farm fences and ploughed up roads and land[15] which incensed local farmers. Arrests followed but the activities persisted. Fears grew among settlers that the resistance campaign was a prelude to armed conflict.[16] The government itself was puzzled as to why the land had been confiscated and offered a huge 25,000 acre reserve to the activists, provided they stopped the destruction.[17] Commissioners set up to investigate the issue said that the activities "could fairly be called hostile".[18] A power struggle ensued resulting in the arrest of all the prominent leaders by a large government force in 1881. Historian Hazel Riseborogh describes the event as a conflict over who had authority or mana-the government or the Parihaka protestors.[19]

In 1882 the export of meat in the first refrigerated ship started a period of sustained economic export led growth. This period is notable for the influence of new social ideas and movements such as the Fabians and the development of the first political party- the Liberals in 1890. Their leader, ex gold miner Richard (Dick) Seddon from Lancashire, was Premier from 1893 to 1906. The Liberals introduced new taxes to break the influence of the wealthy conservative sheep farm owners. They also purchased more land from Maori.[20] In 1896 Maori made up 2.9% of the population but owned 15% of the land. Far more small farms and a new land owning class were created during this period.

Emerging social trends such as the votes for women campaign led by Kate Sheppard[21] and restrictions on the sale of alcohol were starting to influence political behaviour after a tour from a British temperance speaker in 1886. Sir William Fox led the male dominated NZ Temperance movement.

Modern political history

The right-leaning National Party and the left-leaning Labour Party have dominated New Zealand political as life since a Labour government came to power in 1935. During fourteen years in office (1935–1949), the Labour Party implemented a broad array of social and economic legislation, including comprehensive social security, a large scale public works programme, a forty-hour working week, a minimum basic wage, and compulsory unionism. The National Party won control of the government in 1949 and adopted many welfare measures instituted by the Labour Party. Except for two brief periods of Labour governments in 1957-1960 and 1972–1975, National held power until 1984.

After regaining control in 1984, the Labour government instituted a series of radical market-oriented reforms in response to New Zealand's mounting external debt. It also enacted anti-nuclear legislation that effectively brought about New Zealand's suspension from the ANZUS security alliance with the United States of America and Australia, and instituted a number of other more left-wing reforms, such as allowing the Waitangi Tribunal to hear claims of breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi to be made back to 1840, reinstituting compulsory unionism and creating new government agencies to implement a social and environmental reform agenda (women's affairs, youth affairs, Pacific Island affairs, consumer affairs, Minister for the Environment).

In October 1990, the National Party again formed a government, for the first of three three-year terms. In 1996, New Zealand inaugurated the Member of Parliament.

After nine years in office, the National Party lost the November 1999 election. Labour under Helen Clark out-polled National by 39% to 30% and formed a coalition, minority government with the left-wing Alliance. The government often relied on support from the Green Party to pass legislation.

The Labour Party retained power in the 27 July 2002 election, forming a coalition with Jim Anderton's new party, the Progressive Coalition, and reaching an agreement for support with the United Future party. Helen Clark remained Prime Minister.

Following the 2005 general election on 17 September 2005, negotiations between parties culminated in Helen Clark announcing a third consecutive term of Labour-led government. The Labour Party again formed a coalition with Jim Anderton's Progressive Party, with confidence and supply from Winston Peters' New Zealand First and Peter Dunne's United Future. Jim Anderton retained his Cabinet position; Winston Peters became Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Racing and Associate Minister for Senior Citizens; Peter Dunne became Minister of Revenue and Associate Minister of Health. Neither Peters nor Dunne were in Cabinet.

New Zealand was the first country in the world in which all the highest offices were occupied by women, between March 2005 and August 2006: the Sovereign Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand, Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright, Prime Minister Helen Clark, Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives Margaret Wilson and Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias.

After the General election in November 2008, the National Party moved quickly to form a minority government with the ACT Party, the Maori Party and United Future. This arrangement allowed National to decrease its reliance on the right-leaning ACT party, whose policies are sometimes controversial with the greater New Zealand public. Currently, John Key, who took control of the National Party from Don Brash, is Prime Minister, and Bill English is the deputy. This arrangement conforms to the general tradition of having a north-south split in the major parties' leadership, as John Key's residence is in Auckland and Bill English's electorate is in the South Island.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Cabinet Office 2008, p. 3
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^ a b
  10. ^ New Zealand criminal court system
  11. ^
  12. ^ NZ History on line .The NZ constitution Act comes into force.
  13. ^ Te Ara.Encyclopedia of NZ .Story :Voting rights.
  14. ^ Te Ara.The encyclopedia of NZ.Story: Vogel, Julius. Biography
  15. ^ Cowan J.NZ Wars.Vol 2. p 478.
  16. ^ King,Michael. The Penguin History of New Zealand. Ch 15. Penguin. 2003.
  17. ^ Riseborogh ,H. Days Of Darkness. p 95,98,111.
  18. ^ Riseborogh.H. P 95,98,111
  19. ^ Riseborogh,H.Days of Darkness p 212.
  20. ^ Te Ara.The Encyclopedia of NZ. Story: Seddon,Richard John. Biography.
  21. ^ NZ History On line. New Zealand Women and the Vote.

External links

  • Politics and Government at New Zealand history Online
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