Politics of New Zealand

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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.


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[edit]

Queen Elizabeth II is the current Queen of New Zealand and the Realm of New Zealands 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[edit]

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 2011 and the next one not later than early 2015 (but will most likely be November 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 four parties in Opposition; the Labour Party, the Green Party, New Zealand First and the Mana Party. The Leader of the Opposition is David Cunliffe, who replaced David Shearer as leader of the Labour Party.

Main office holders
QueenElizabeth II6 February 1952
Governor GeneralJerry Mateparae31 August 2011
Prime MinisterJohn KeyNational Party19 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[edit]

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[edit]

The first political party 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 two-party system in place. Today, New Zealand has a genuinely multi-party system, with eight parties currently represented in Parliament. Neither of the two largest parties have been able to govern without support from other groups since 1996, meaning that coalition government is required.

The two largest, and oldest, parties are the Labour Party (centre-left progressive) and the National Party (centre-right conservative). Other parties currently represented in Parliament 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)

e • d  Summary of the 26 November 2011 election result for the New Zealand House of Representatives[12]
PartyVotes% of VotesSeats
NZ First147,5446.59+2.53088+8
United Future13,4430.60-0.27101±0
other parties75,4933.37-3.17000-1a
party informal votes19,872 [13]
disallowed special votes21,263 [13]
disallowed ordinary votes390 [13]
total votes cast2,278,989 [13]
turnout74.21% [13]
total electorate3,070,847[13]

a The loss of one MP is due to the Progressive Party not contesting the election.
b The loss of one seat is due to the reduction of the overhang, with the Maori Party only getting one electorate seat surplus to its party vote this election.

Modern political history[edit]

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 new electoral system, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) to elect its Parliament. The system was expected (among numerous other goals) to increase representation of smaller parties in Parliament and appears to have done so in the MMP elections to date. Since 1996, neither National nor Labour has had an absolute majority in Parliament, and for all but two of those years a minority government has ruled. In 1995 Georgina Beyer became the world's first openly transsexual mayor, and in 1999 she became the world's first openly transsexual 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[edit]


  1. ^ Wilson, John (March 2009). "Government and nation - The constitution". Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  2. ^ The Royal Household. "The Queen and the Commonwealth > Queen and New Zealand". Queen's Printer. Retrieved 31 December 2009. 
  3. ^ Elizabeth II (13 December 1986), Constitution Act, 1986, 2.1, Wellington: Queen's Printer for New Zealand, retrieved 30 December 2009 
  4. ^ Cabinet Office 2008, p. 3
  5. ^ "Cabinet Manual 2008: Executive Council". Cabinet Office. Retrieved 8 January 2011. 
  6. ^ "Key announces shape of new National-led government". National Business Review. November 2008. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  7. ^ a b The Economist Intelligence Unit (15 February 2005). "Factsheet – New Zealand – Political Forces". The Economist. Retrieved 4 August 2009. 
  8. ^ a b c "First past the post - the road to MMP". New Zealand History Online. September 2009. Retrieved 9 January 2011. 
  9. ^ a b "From FPP to MMP". Elections New Zealand. Retrieved 9 January 2011. 
  10. ^ New Zealand criminal court system
  11. ^ "APPOINTING JUDGES: A JUDICIAL APPOINTMENTS COMMISSION FOR NEW ZEALAND?". Ministry of Justice. September 2002. Retrieved 12 June 2008. 
  12. ^ "Official Count Results -- Overall Status". Electoral Commission. Retrieved 10 December 2011. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g "Party Votes and Turnout by Electorate -- Statistics -- 2011 General Election". Electoral Commission (New Zealand). Retrieved 29 December 2011. 

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