New Zealand Elections: A Brief History of New Zealand Politics

The Beehive New Zealand Parliament - Silver Fern Holidays

With New Zealanders about to go to the polls for their National Election – postponed from September to October 17th – we thought it appropriate to give you our own “rough guide” to New Zealand elections and who’s who in Kiwi politics.

Armed with such knowledge, we’re certain you’ll be able to hold your own in any Queenstown bar or roadside coffee shop conversation during the course of your New Zealand holiday.

A Brief History of New Zealand Politics

In the years after New Zealand became a British colony, New Zealand was ruled by a governor. However, the early settlers wanted to choose their government through voting, and by 1853 after considerable agitation from British settlers,the first national elections in New Zealand took place.

As in the UK, suffrage was only extended to males over the age of 21 who were British subjects and owned a certain amount of land. This qualification effectively excluded all Māori.

1867 saw the establishment of four Māori seats, enabling Māori to vote without needing to meet the property requirements.  While the seats did increase Māori participation in politics, the relative size of the Māori population of the time compared to Pākehā would have warranted approximately 15 seats, not four. As Māori could vote only in Māori seats, and the number of Māori seats remained fixed for over a century, they were effectively under-represented for decades. In 2002 the four seats were upgraded to seven.

Here are a few more interesting facts about New Zealand Politics:

  • In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to extend voting rights for women following a forceful campaign led by the prominent suffragette, Kate Shepherd.
  • New Zealand’s party system did not really start until the late 1800’s. Prior to this, every member of parliament was an independent candidate.
  • The Liberal Party was formed in 1891 and was the country’s sole political party until the formation of the more conservative Reform Party in 1909.
  • The Labour Party was formed in 1916 and by 1919 these three parties: Liberal, Labour and Reform, dominated New Zealand politics.

After Labour won office in 1935, the Liberal and Reform Party came together to form the National Party. From this point onward, it was pretty much a two horse race between Labour and National. There were a number of third parties but they did not wield power until a reform of the voting system in 1993 – from a first past the post contest to one of proportional representation.

The new system has resulted in most New Zealand governments usually being made up of a coalition of various parties. The last time one party ruled with a full majority was the National Party under the leadership of Jim Bolger in 1990. According to the polls, there is a fair chance Jacinda Ardern will repeat this feat in the 2020 election with Labour currently on course to win an absolute majority.

For further information about New Zealand’s Past elections, you can find out more on the New Zealand Government website.

The New Zealand Political System

The government of New Zealand consists of a democratically elected House of Representatives made up of 120 Members. Unlike the UK, it is a single chamber with no Upper House.

The Cabinet is the decision-making body, led by the Prime Minister who is appointed by the Governor General. The Queen is the constitutional head of government and the Governor General is the Queen’s representative in her absence and has all her powers.

New Zealand Politics on the World Stage

It’s probably fair to say that New Zealand’s impact on world affairs was minimal until the New Zealand government agreed to support Great Britain in the battle for Gallipoli during the First World War. The heavy loss of life in this battle was recognised by the Allies is commemorated in the memorial event of ANZAC day. ANZAC Day is held each year on the 25th April to honour the war dead from Australia and New Zealand in both the First and Second World Wars.

The 1970’s saw New Zealand take the lead in opposition to the South African Rugby tour in protest to the apartheid regime in South Africa at that time. Images of protests at New Zealand sporting venues were in stark contrast to a weaker reaction in the UK to sporting tours from South African teams and helped to galvanise a boycott of South African attendance at world sporting events.

My own introduction to New Zealand Politics came in 1984 at a time of heady change. With the Labour Party under leadership of the charismatic David Lange bringing to an end 9 years of National government under Robert Muldoon. The new government was intent on radical change – sweeping away decades of subsidies for farmers and privatising many public sector bodies and industries.

It was on the international stage, however, that this government made waves. With its anti-nuclear stance, I remember wel the famous debate at the Oxford Union in March 1985 when David Lange made clear his government’s intent to deny American nuclear warships entry into New Zealand waters. This, of course caused a furore in the Western Alliance with both the Thatcher and Reagan governments condemning the action.

No sooner had this controversy opened up before New Zealand was involved in an incident that sent shock waves through political establishments. This was the blowing up of the Greenpeace boat “The Rainbow Warrior”, by an agent of the French Intelligence service.

Some of  Lange’s Cabinet members followed him into the premiership in later years –  Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore – but none were quite able to fill his large shoes. However, Helen Clark did perform the greater feat by winning three elections for Labour and was Prime Minister from 1999-2008.

The 1993 vote for proportional representation did gain international attention. Not least amongst those political parties around the world who felt they always lost out unfairly in first past the post elections. This included the Liberal Democrats in Britain,  who kicked up a fuss because the vote did not accurately reflect the proportion of voters who had voted for the party in the country, it only counted the number of seats gained by a party in an election.

Thus in the 2000’s, all New Zealand parties pretty much governed by coalition. Although, it’s commonly agreed that the National Government of John Key in the years 2008-16 did so without having to compromise it’s agenda through support from the ACT and Maori Party partners.

And now in 2020, New Zealand is very much back in the international limelight with Jacinda Ardern at the head of a labour government supported by New Zealand First. Her empathy and actions in the wake of the terrorist attack in Christchurch on the Muslim community – an horrendous slaughter of 49 people at the hands of a lone gunman- was applauded by many international observers and her decisive actions to control the Coronavirus has earned plaudits from most commentators.

The 2020 Election will take place on October 17th and will be contested by 15 Parties.

All the polls presently point to an overwhelming victory for labour with the National Party, led by Judith Collins, coming a poor second and some of the smaller parties such as the Greens, in danger of losing their seats.

As you travel around New Zealand on one of our holidays you’ll find Kiwis very open to discussing the “state of the world” and they’re always keen to get your views on the current scene, so I hope this short summary will provide you with some useful background for those conversations.

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