Representation and non-discrimination

Political representation at the national level

The continued existence of reserved seats for Maori has ensured a more representative parliament (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002). The MMP system has also produced a Parliament that is more representative of the social and political composition of the electorate, with more Maori, Pacific and Asian MPs, more women (see Table 2), and openly gay and transsexual MPs.

Under the first-past-the-post electoral system, women’s representation in Parliament increased from 13 percent in 1984 to 21 percent in 1993. In the first MMP election held in 1996, this rose sharply to 29 percent and in 1999 to 31 percent. In 2003, New Zealand ranked 15th equal (with Spain) in the world for women’s representation in parliament, and ninth among the 30 OECD countries.

Table 2: Number of MPs of Maori, Pacific Island and Asian Descent, 1990-2002 (immediately following General Election)

  1990 (97 MPs) 1996 (65 electorate. MPs & 55 list MPs) 2002 (69 electorate. MPs & 51 list MPs)
  no. MPs % of all MPs no. electorate MPs no. list MPs total MPs % of all MPs no. electorate MPs no. list MPs total MPs % of all MPs
Maori 5 5.1 7 9 16 13.3 10 9 19 15.8
Pacific Islands 0 0.0 1 2 3 2.5 3 0 3 2.5
Asian 0 0.0 0 1 1 0.8 0 2 2 1.7

Source: Electoral Commission (2002)

Public service representation

In relation to the New Zealand’s public service, the State Services Commission reports that at the year ended June 2003 around 290,000 people worked for public sector organisations in New Zealand; about 15 percent of the employed labour force. More than half work in the health and education sectors. About 11 percent work in local government, and a similar number are employed in state-owned enterprises. Only 13 percent of people working in the public sector are employed in one of the 36 public service departments (State Services Commission, 2003a).

The State Services Commission acknowledges that ‘there is still some way to go’ for the senior management group of the public service to fully reflect the diversity of the public service workforce. While there have been some improvements in recent years, with an increasing proportion of women moving into senior management positions, only just over a third (36 percent) of senior managers are women.

Relatively few public servants are under 25 years of age, partly because many public service occupations now require tertiary level qualifications or work experience. There are also relatively low numbers of public servants aged over 60, a smaller proportion than in the labour force as a whole.

“We wanted a skateboard park in our local community but we were not listened to by the council. [We need] a child advocate on the local council to fight for our rights and what we deserve”
13-17 year old survey respondent

Maori and Pacific peoples are more highly represented in the public service than in the employed labour force. They are not similarly represented at senior management level (State Services Commission, 2003b).

Local government representation

There were marginal increases in the number of women elected in local government elections in 2001. Women’s representation was highest on district health boards (44 percent), followed by city councils (39 percent) and community boards (31 percent). Female representation was lowest on district councils (25 percent) and regional councils (26 percent) (MSD, 2003a).

The community commitment to participation in local governance bodies and the positive impact of such participation on communities and individuals was highlighted in a recent survey of members of school boards of trustees in New Zealand. The survey showed that just over half the existing 13,000 trustees intend to stand again in the elections to be held in 2004. The school trustee elections are, in terms of numbers of candidates, New Zealand’s largest democratic event (School Trustees Association, 2003).

The Ministry of Social Development’s Social Report and the Quality of Life report published by eight of New Zealand’s city councils reveal that women, Maori, Pacific peoples and other minorities are under-represented on governance bodies such as school and district health boards and councils, as well as central government bodies (MSD, 2003a; Councils of New Zealand’s Eight Largest Cities, 2003). Concern about these inequalities has led to the inclusion of political participation, and democratic rights generally, in a range of focused projects, including:

A key theme in the feedback on democratic rights from consultation participants was inequality of representation. It was felt that people in some minority groups, and people in lower socio-economic groups generally, have less opportunity to voice or to find support for their opinions.



Parliament plays the key role in holding the Executive and the Government of the day to account. To remain in power between elections, a government must maintain the support of a majority of MPs voting on a confidence issue.

Select committees provide a means by which Parliament can scrutinise the actions and policies of government. The degree of public participation through submissions on proposed legislation forwarded by individuals and pressure groups to select committees is one of the distinctive features of the New Zealand Parliament. Henderson and Bellamy conclude that the overall structure of accountability in New Zealand compares favorably with other parliamentary systems (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002).

However, there are public concerns over government accountability. The 1998 Values survey showed that 85.4 percent of respondents believed that the public had little control over what politicians did in office (Perry & Webster, 1999).

“We’ve got our right every three years to vote for the government but what can we do? Half the time they don’t listen to the people”
Female focus group participant

Consultation participants identified accountability of those in power generally as an important issue. The Government was called upon to pay attention to the local citizen. Many groups saw the Human Rights Act and the Human Rights Commission as central to the process of ensuring that policies, systems and government comply with human rights standards.

Accountability was the key issue for those groups that focused on the Treaty of Waitangi. For Maori groups, that means the accountability of the Crown in affirming the Treaty. Concerns included the need for or lack of accountability of the Crown, a perceived gap between policy and practice in agencies that have incorporated Treaty policy, and a lack of accountability and consequences for those that do not act in accordance with its principles.



The Official Information Act 1982 ensures citizens can access information about government activities and is a primary tool for public scrutiny of the Executive.

Generally, the diversity of the New Zealand media operates in a way that helps sustain democratic values and ensure transparency. The state-owned television and radio channels are run at arm’s length from Government through state-owned enterprises, and both Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand have specific charters to ensure they observe public broadcasting principles. Other media are privately or community owned. However, while these media maintain considerable independence from Government and party interests, the commercial imperative of ratings tends to dictate the content of their broadcasts (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002).



The Government in New Zealand is generally accessible to citizens. Members of Parliament, including Cabinet Ministers, are accessible to the public. Paradoxically, however, many members of the public do not believe that they have much influence over elected politicians (Henderson & Bellamy, 2002).

As with central government, local authorities have a wide range of mechanisms through which they can consult the general public. Around half of those people surveyed for the Quality of Life report said that they knew how local government made decisions, and that they would like more say.

However, there were regional differences. About 59 percent of Dunedin residents compared to 37 percent of Auckland residents indicated they understood how councils made decisions. There were also differences among those from different ethnic groups about the degree of responsiveness of local government. Pakeha respondents were more likely to say that councils had their own agenda and did not listen to the public. The report concludes that residents of those cities that appear to better understand how their councils make decisions are likely to have a stronger belief that they can influence those decisions.

“From time to time we go to Parliament with different groups. There was a lady who took a huge petition, got her quarter of a million signatures about how many people were in Parliament and she’s just been ignored. You can protest and it doesn’t matter, you’ll still get overridden.”
Māori female focus group participant

Many consultation participants commented on the importance of responsiveness from Government. While many other aspects of democratic rights received positive as well as negative comments, the issue of responsiveness tended to produce largely negative feedback.

For example, some participants noted that even when people do participate in democratic processes such as referenda, the Government does not necessarily listen to or act on their opinions. Several people thought that Government ‘should listen to the people more’. Reflecting the timing of the consultation process, examples of Government non-responsiveness that were frequently given were the lifting of the moratorium on genetic engineering, the aerial spraying of poisons in some urban areas, and the failure of decision-makers to listen to the high percentage of Hamiltonians who petitioned against the casino.

These examples highlight the frequent tensions for decision-makers that arise in consultation and participatory processes. Balancing competing and conflicting views is difficult and complex. It is also the responsibility of Government to make principled decisions and to respect and protect internationally agreed human rights even when the majority of public opinion on a particular issue may appear not to agree with those standards. There is a tension between this responsibility and changing public expectations about the extent to which Government should be bound by the views of its citizens, whatever those views might be.

Some government agencies have also expressed concern that at times it is difficult to engage with communities in a sustained way on important issues.

In describing the ideal situation, some consultation participants called for Government to listen to the views that are expressed, and to respond to complaints. One comment was that the Government needed to ‘make people believe it will listen’, and that people would be more likely to participate ‘if they think it is worth it and their voices will be taken notice of’.

An underlying theme in the material about responsiveness is the tensions faced by Governments between the need to appear responsive to general public opinion and meet the needs and expectations of their constituencies. Governments must maintain this balance in order both to stay in power and to retain their moral authority to act.