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Freedom in the World

New Zealand

New Zealand

Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The focal issue in New Zealand in 2004 was the Maori claim to the country's foreshores (the land between high-water and low-water marks) and seabed. The opposition National Party capitalized on the dissatisfaction of the non-Maori population over this matter to attack the government. Faced with growing pressure to defend its majority in parliament, the Labour Party - led government passed a bill declaring all foreshores and seabed state property, leading a Maori cabinet member to resign in protest. Meanwhile, a new Maori political party was established during the year.

New Zealand became self-governing before World War II and gained full independence from Britain in 1947, establishing itself as a parliamentary democracy. The Labour Party, in office since 1999, was reelected in the 2002 general election, retaining its 52 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Labour, headed by Prime Minister Helen Clark, formed a minority government with the populist Progressive Coalition Party, which had won 2 parliamentary seats, and received a pledge of support from the centrist United Future Party, which had won 8 seats. The National Party, the conservative opposition, won only 27 seats, its worst finish ever.

The Maori population has been more assertive in its claims for land, resources, and compensation from the government. The Waitangi Tribunal, which hears Maori claims for land and compensation, supported a multimillion dollar claim in a report issued in May 2003. The government said the report's findings were "useful information," but not legally binding. Recent claims for rights to gas and oil fields in the Marlborough Sounds on the South Island, in particular, spawned ill will among the non-Maori population. In June 2003, the court of appeal ruled that Maori tribes could pursue their claim of the Marlborough Sounds, which currently are used for commercial operations, including marine farms and tourism.

The year 2004 saw a watershed in New Zealand politics, as the national consensus on how to deal with Maori matters was shattered, and ethnicity became the defining matter in many political issues. In January, the new National Party leader, Don Brash, made Maori access to the foreshores and seabed the focus of his first major speech in the parliament. He attacked, in particular, the Maori tribes that made claims for land and other compensation and charged that Maori use the Treaty of Waitangi, the country's founding document, to demand special treatment. This exacerbated the race debate and put the government in a difficult situation before its Maori and non-Maori constituents. In February, the Labour government of Prime Minister Clark underscored that all foreshores and seabeds are held in perpetuity by the state for all New Zealand citizens. It also announced a review of assistance for the Maori population, indicating that policies have to be based on need, not privilege. These decisions brought thousands of Maori to the streets to protest and alienated Maori members within her party. In April, the minister for labor, Tariana Turia, a Maori, resigned when the government passed the Foreshore and Seabed Bill, which put the ownership of the foreshore and seabed in Crown hands.

A new Maori political party emerged to push for self-determination. Turia was a co-leader, and 250 of the country's Maori leaders and academics declared support. The Maori Party easily won a by-election in 2004, taking more than 90 percent of the vote in the North Island seat of Te Tai Hauauru. The party aims to take all seven parliamentary seats reserved for Maori in the 2005 general election.

The government is moving to tighten immigration requirements. A new law, expected to be in effect in 2005, will require residents to live for five years in New Zealand before they are eligible to apply for citizenship. Another measure to restrict automatic citizenship for persons born in Samoa from 1924 to 1948 spurred 50,000 people to protest before the New Zealand Embassy in Samoa. In August, the government relaxed immigration for Pacific Islanders after failing to fill half the spaces allocated to them under a special quota.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of New Zealand can change their government democratically. The prime minister and a 20-member cabinet are elected by universal suffrage. A mixed-member electoral system combines voting in geographic districts with proportional representation balloting. As New Zealand is a member of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II is the chief of state and is represented by the governor-general. The two main political parties are the center-left Labour Party and the mildly conservative National Party. Prime Minister Helen Clark of the Labor Party was elected in 1999 and has been in power since. For more than 130 years, the native Maori population has held 7 reserved seats in the 120-member parliament. In the current legislature, 18 members identified themselves as Maori or part-Maori. Maori constitute 11 percent of the voting population and just over 10 percent of the country's four million people.

New Zealand was ranked second out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media are free and competitive. A number of papers are published nationally and locally in English and, as New Zealand's ethnic minority population increases, other languages such as Filipino, Hindi and Chinese. The number and diversity of radio and television stations broadcasting in English and other languages for general and target audiences are equally great. The first Maori-language television station was launched in March 2004. A stronger movement among the Maori population to celebrate their language, arts, and history have increased demand for Maori-language media products. There is no government control of Internet access, and competitive rates are offered by a number of Internet service providers.

Freedom of religion is provided by law and respected in practice. Religious organizations do not need to register with the government unless they intend to collect donations. Christianity is the dominant religion: some 55 percent of the population identify themselves as Christians or affiliated with a Christian church. Although a secular state, the government has fined businesses that operate on the official holidays of Christmas Day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. A new law passed in 2001 granted exemptions to several categories of stores in response to demands from the small but growing non-Christian population. Academic freedom is enjoyed at all levels of instruction in the country.

The government respects freedom of assembly and association. Various nongovernmental and civil society groups are active throughout the country, working to promote community health, minority rights, education, children's welfare, and other issues. Many receive considerable financial support from the government, in addition to private donations.

The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions is the main labor federation. Fewer than 20 percent of the country's wage earners are members of trade unions. Trade union membership began to decline almost 15 years ago with the passage of the Employment Contracts Act of 1991 (ECA), which ended compulsory unionism and prohibited certain strikes. In 2000, the Labour-led government replaced the ECA with the Employment Relations Act (ERA), which promotes collective bargaining and emphasizes good faith bargaining. A 2004 revision of the ERA provides additional protections for workers in the event of company ownership changes. It also allows unions to charge bargaining fees to non-union workers who enjoy union-negotiated wages and conditions, although workers can opt out of paying the fee if they negotiate their own contracts.

The judiciary is independent, and defendants can appeal to the Privy Council in London. Police discrimination against Maoris, who comprise more than half of the prison population, has been an issue.

A special tribunal hears Maori tribal claims to land and other resources stemming from the European settlement of New Zealand. The 1850 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori and the British leased Maori land in perpetuity to the white "settlers." Maoris now seek higher "rents" for their land and compensation from the government, and these claims have become a source of tension with the non-Maori population. Successive governments have introduced programs to boost the social and economic status of Maoris and Pacific Islanders, but most appear to have enjoyed only marginal success.

Violence against women remains a major issue, with reports by the U.S. State Department and civil society groups in New Zealand noting an increase in the number of assaults against women in recent years. The problem had been particularly serious among the Maori population. Although Maori women and children make up less than 10 percent of New Zealand's population, half of them have reported abuse. The number of abuse cases is also disproportionately high among Pacific Islanders, who make up about 5 percent of the population. Many governmental and nongovernmental programs attempt to prevent domestic violence and provide support to victims, and special programs target the Maori community. However, these efforts have not significantly improved the situation. The Domestic Violence Act of 1995 broadened the definition of "violence" to include psychological abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, and allowing children to witness psychological abuse. It also expanded police powers to address these cases and provided legal assistance.