4. New Zealand today — Aotearoa i tenei rā

While there are many ways of measuring the level of democracy, an overall picture can be drawn by assessing the following seven key factors: a framework of guaranteed citizens’ rights, participation, authorisation, representativeness, accountability, transparency and responsiveness (Beetham, 2002; Gutto, 2002; IDEA, 2002).

Guaranteed citizens’ rights


Over the last twenty years, there has been increasing debate about whether or not New Zealand should have a written constitution, with a single source for guaranteed citizens’ rights, rather than the more informal constitutional system that currently operates.[4] A key issue is the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in both current and future constitutional arrangements. As the constitution is not entrenched, the conventional view is that a parliamentary majority could simply override any of the current tenets of the rule of law and some elements of democratic rights. There is no power for the courts to strike down legislation that is in breach of New Zealand’s constitution, although declarations of inconsistency are possible in some cases.

Despite the fact that there is no single law guaranteeing all democratic rights, New Zealand’s overall guarantee of citizens’ rights rates highly in terms of international standards.

In relation to civil and political rights, the New Zealand State, public officials and society are subject to the law, and the criminal justice and penal system operates in an impartial manner (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002). Although in theory the BoRA is able to be changed at will by Parliament, in practice this is unlikely to happen. New Zealanders enjoy freedom of movement, expression, association and assembly with minimal restrictions. They are free to practise their own religions, languages, and cultures.

A number of Action Plan consultation participants commented positively about their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. Democratic rights and processes were considered important generally. People liked being able to have a say, to be heard and to be involved in the political process. One group saw the right to self-determination, tino rangatiratanga, as a positive aspect of citizens’ rights.

Consultation participants commented favourably on the general freedom of the press in New Zealand, with a diverse media seen as enabling public debate on contentious issues (a key condition for effective democracy). People are ‘pretty much allowed to say what they want, stand up for their beliefs, and obtain information on Government through the Official Information Act’. Participants valued the freedom to express opinions without fear of recrimination.

Successive New Zealand governments have taken the view that economic, social, and cultural rights are not justiciable, and they are therefore not legislatively guaranteed to New Zealand citizens in the same way as civil and political rights are. However, they are addressed through policy and practice.

Many consultation participants expressed concerns about inequality in the enjoyment of basic rights in practice, particularly by minority groups. A review of democracy in New Zealand undertaken in 2001 also noted that, while equality in law is guaranteed, in practice some minority groups have experienced difficulty in exercising these rights (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002).

Disabled people, people with mental health problems, young people, new immigrants, Maori and Pacific groups reported unequal access to a good standard of living, and are also under-represented in political participation.

Participation and empowerment


New Zealanders are free to participate in public decision-making. There are a number of processes to encourage such participation. Voting in elections and easy access to legislative processes by the public – for example, submissions to select committees were seen by consultation participants as opportunities to have input into government. In comparison with similar countries (Table 1) there is a high voter turnout in elections and relatively easy access to elected representatives. However, disabled people considered that they experienced considerable barriers in accessing political and other participatory processes.

“Come down to our level so we can bend your ear”
Workshop participant

Table 1: Voter turnout at Parliamentary elections in New Zealand and selected OECD countries, 1998-2001 (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002) [5]

Country Date of recent election Voter turnout at election (5)
New Zealand 1999 84.77
Australia * 1998* 95.2
Canada 2000 61.2
Finland 1999 65.3
Sweden 1998 81.4
United Kingdom 2001 59.4

* Voting is compulsory in Australia

Another key indicator of democratic participation is the activity of a robust and independent civil society. Civil society includes all elements of the broader community, such as business and employer groups, charitable organisations, workers’ organisations, religious groups, and many non-governmental and voluntary organisations.

New Zealand has an active and varied civil society. All New Zealanders have the legal right to join and to be active in voluntary associations and non-governmental organisations (BoRA, ss. 16 and 17), and there are active community groups across a wide spectrum of interests and issues.

The Time Use Survey in 1999 collected information on participation in community activities (Statistics New Zealand, 2002). Non-religious forms of community participation identified by the survey occupied little time on average. Attending meetings of political, citizen, fraternal, union, professional, special interest and identity groups, etc., took up an average of 3.4 hours a year. Participation in other civic responsibilities (for example, voting, jury duty or attending court) was too low to provide reliable estimates, although the available data suggest a figure of around one hour per year on average.

A key tool for participation is consultation by government (whether central or local). In addition to the specific statutory requirements for consultation across a wide range of laws, the New Zealand courts have also established fundamental principles or elements of consultation, which include:

Consultation participants highlighted the need for the capacity and resources to participate in a meaningful way. Concerns included a lack of understanding of the system and lack of time because of other commitments. ‘We spend so much time on earning a basic living most people don’t notice when the Government overrides basic needs’ (Hamerton & Fowler, 2004a, p.16).

Community organisations are increasingly seeking collaboration with government rather than a subsidiary role in participatory processes. Effective partnerships involve greater equality between each partner than is generally the practice in government consultation processes (Community-Government Relationship Project Steering Group (Steering Group), 2001). One of the problems identified in current practice is that community organisations feel strongly that:

The Community-Government Relationship Project (including a steering group) was established in 2001 to improve relationships between the community sector and government. The Steering Group found that there is a growing understanding in central government of the importance and effectiveness of good, thorough, participatory processes (Steering Group, 2001).

The Ministry of Social Development, in its 2003 Statement of Intent (MSD, 2003b), notes that:

social development requires all New Zealanders to be able to actively exercise their rights and responsibilities in ways that make them feel like they make a contribution to and are included in our society. This means a society in which:

The Steering Group identified a range of ways in which participatory processes might be strengthened and is continuing work in this area, including reinforcing the importance of political leadership, focused training and education for public servants in participatory processes, providing information for public servants on participatory processes, and working in collaboration with local government. Some examples of Government initiatives to implement the objective identified by the Steering Group include the Statement of Government Intentions for an Improved Community Government Relationship in December 2001, the development of a Volunteering Policy in 2002, and the establishment within MSD of the Office of Community and Voluntary Sector in 2003.[7]

Many consultation participants spoke about the need for government to consult before instituting policies, and the need for final policy to accurately reflect the needs and voices of those consulted. Participants said that the consultation should be based on Treaty principles, be widespread, adequately funded, decentralised and extensively community based. In general, the power of the community was seen as a major source of solutions for social problems.

It was also noted that a common strategy of putting community problems back into the hands of communities was not working, as the community lacked the strength and resources to deal with some issues.

The Treaty of Waitangi has assumed considerable constitutional significance (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002). The Quality of Life in New Zealand’s Eight Largest Cities report for 2003 notes that councils in all eight cities recognise the Treaty of Waitangi as a key document, and actively work with tangata whenua to incorporate Maori perspectives into policy and consultation processes (Councils of NZ’s Eight Largest Cities, 2003).

Groups that called for greater consultation included Maori, Pacific peoples, youth, migrants and disabled people.



New Zealand elections are both free and fair. They are supervised by an independent Electoral Commission, which ensures against any malpractice in registration or election procedures. While it is mandatory for all New Zealand citizens and permanent residents to be on the electoral roll once they are 18 years old, it is not mandatory to vote.

Voter participation in general elections declined sharply from 89 percent in 1984 to 78 percent in 1990, increased slightly to 81 percent in 1996 and 84.77 percent in 1999, then declined again to a new low in 2002 of 72.5 percent. Results from several New Zealand election surveys over a number of years show that non-voters are more likely to be people on lower incomes, younger people, and members of Maori or Pacific ethnic groups. There are few differences in voting turnout rates between men and women (Vowles, Aimer, Banduccie & Karp, 1998, Vowles Aimer et al., 2004).

The Quality of Life survey (Councils, 2003) notes that, due to changes in the boundaries of some general electorate seats between 1999 and 2002, comparisons in voter turnout are difficult. However, of five electorates with the lowest level of voter turnout, four were in the Auckland region (Mangere, Manukau East, Manurewa, and Maungakiekie). The highest levels of voter turnout (at over 80 percent) were in the Waikato, Wellington, Christchurch and Rodney electorates.

Overall voter turnout in regional council elections declined between 1992 and 2001 from 53 percent to 49 percent, but there are considerable variations between the main centres (Councils of NZ’s Eight Largest Cities, 2003). For example, voter turnout in Otago is consistently higher than any of the other regional councils surveyed, and was 61 percent in 2001 compared to the overall average of 49 percent.

Reasons for this overall decline are difficult to pinpoint, but lack of information and a lack of interest were key reasons given for declining voter turnouts at the 2001 local government elections (Councils of NZ’s Eight Largest Cities, 2003).