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Politics of New Zealand

New Zealand is a Constitutional Monarchy with a parliamentary system of government closely patterned on that of the United Kingdom. Under the New Zealand Royal Titles Act of 1953, Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of New Zealand and is represented as head of state by the Governor General, Dame Silvia Cartwright. Although both main parties, when in government, have raised the issue of New Zealand becoming a republic within the Commonwealth, there has been little support for such constitutional change compared to neighbouring Australia.

There is no formal, written constitution; New Zealand's constitution consists of various documents, including certain acts of the UK and New Zealand Parliaments; Most constitutional provisions have been consolidated into the Constitution Act 1986.


Executive authority is exercised by the Cabinet, which is responsible to Parliament. (The Cabinet is the practical expression of a formal body known as the Executive Council.) The Cabinet is led by the Prime Minister, who is the leader of the political party or coalition of parties holding the majority of seats in the House of Representatives. All Cabinet Ministers must be Members of Parliament (MPs) and are collectively responsible to it.


Parliament is unicameral, consisting of the 120-seat House of Representatives. Since 1996, New Zealand has used the mixed member proportional (MMP) system, under which 66 MPs are elected by popular vote in single-member constituencies, with the remainder appointed from party lists. Six seats are currently reserved for Maori elected on a separate Maori roll. However, Maori may alternatively vote and run for the non-reserved seats and several have entered Parliament in this way. Parliaments are elected for a maximum term of three years, although elections can be called sooner. In New Zealand, everyone (male and female) over the age of 18 years can vote, women having gained the vote in 1893.

Elections were last held 27 July 2002 (next must be called by July 2005) Labour Party and the Progessive Coalition formed the government coalition; the United Future undertook to support the government on essential matters. The National Party remained the official Opposition.


The judiciary consists of the Court of Appeals, the High Court, and the District Courts. New Zealand law has three principal sources - English common law, certain statutes of the UK Parliament enacted before 1947, and statutes of the New Zealand Parliament. In interpreting common law, the courts have been concerned with preserving uniformity with common law as interpreted in the United Kingdom. This uniformity has been bolstered by the maintenance of the Privy Council in London as the final court of appeal and by judges' practice of following British decisions, even though, technically, they are not bound by them. However, in October 2003, the House of Representatives passed legislation to end this right of appeal from 2004, and establish the Supreme Court of New Zealand in Wellington, which will begin hearings in July of that year.

Local Government

New Zealand is divided into 12 regions, which have either a regional council or a unitary authority. Regional council areas are divided into territorial authority areas, each of which is administrated by either a city council or a district council. Local government in New Zealand has only the powers conferred upon it by parliament. Regional councils are directly elected, set their own tax (rating) rates, and have a chairman elected by their members. Regional council responsibilities include environmental management, regional aspects of civil defence, and transportation planning. The 74 territorial authorities -- 16 city councils, 57 district councils in rural areas, and one council for the Chatham Islands -- are directly elected, raise local taxes at rates they themselves set, and are headed by popularly elected mayors. The territorial authorities may delegate powers to local community boards. These boards, instituted at the behest either local citizens or territorial authorities, advocate community views but cannot levy taxes, appoint staff, or own property.

Party Politics

For a listing of registered parties, see Political parties in New Zealand

The conservative National Party and the left-leaning Labour Party have dominated New Zealand political life since a Labour government came to power in 1935. During 14 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 40-hour working week, a minimum basic wage, and compulsory unionismism. 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.

In October 1990, the National Party again formed the government, for the first of three, 3-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 one of those years, the government has been a minority one. After 9 years in office, the National Party lost the November 1999 election. Labour outpolled 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 from the United Future party. Helen Clark remained prime minister.

See also