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; 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. 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”
1: Voter turnout at Parliamentary elections in New Zealand and
selected OECD countries, 1998-2001 (Henderson & Bellamy,
||Date of recent election
||Voter turnout at election (5)
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
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 is not to be equated with negotiation; consultation may occur
without those consulted agreeing with the outcome
- consultation includes listening to what others have to say and considering
- the consultation process must be genuine and not a sham
- sufficient time must be allowed for consultation
- the party obliged to consult must provide enough information to enable the
person consulted to be adequately informed so as to be able to make intelligent
and useful responses
- the party obliged to consult must keep an open mind and be ready to
change and even start afresh, although it is entitled to have a work plan
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,
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 sector’s views and expertise are often ignored
- the iwi and Maori partnership with the Crown is not fulfilled
- consultation and decision-making processes are ineffective
- while a number of government ministries and departments have made efforts to
involve community in policy advice and service planning, results have not been
as good as they might have been. Urgency and tokenism were cited as reasons
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,
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
people are able to participate in the social and political context in which
particular rights (civil, political, social and cultural) are formally recognised;
citizens can get access to the state and to decision-making; and
people feel they ‘belong’ to the country (their national identity)
and to the groups within the country that give value to their lives (their
ethnic or cultural identity) (p.19).
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.
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