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The New Zealand Labour Party won a narrow victory in the September 2005 general elections and formed a new coalition government in October. A new law legalizing same-sex partnerships took effect in April.
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 has been in office sine 1999.
General elections held on September 18, 2005, gave Labour a slim majority (40.7 percent of the vote and 50 parliamentary seats) over the National Party (39.6 percent of the vote and 49 parliamentary seats). A 66-seat majority is necessary for a party to form its own government in the 121-seat parliament. The Green Party, part of the existing Labour-led coalition, secured 5.1 percent of the vote. The Maori Party- the country's first ethnic party, formed in 2004-won almost 2 percent of the vote, ahead of many other small parties. Both the Greens and the Maori Party pledged to support a Labour-led coalition government.
One of the main electoral issues was the country's 20-year-old ban on nuclear-powered vessels from visiting New Zealand's ports-a major sore point in the country's ties with the United States. While the Labour-led government vowed to continue the ban, the opposition National Party wanted to lift it. The National Party also proposed a cut in personal income tax, abolishing special parliamentary seats for Maori, and strictly curbing the application of the Treaty of Waitangi-the country's founding document-which recognizes special rights for the native Maori people. Although the National Party lost, its campaign platform appeared to be increasingly popular among voters; its 49 seats in parliament represented a significant improvement over the 27 seats it captured in the 2002 general election.
In recent years, the government has tightened immigration requirements. A new law requires residents to live for five years in New Zealand before they can 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; New Zealand took Samoa from Germany in 1914 and ruled until 1962. British immigrants represent about one-third of all new residents in New Zealand, followed by Chinese, South Africans, and Indians.
The Civil Union Bill, which grants recognition to same-sex partnerships, was passed by a 65-55 vote in December 2004 and came into effect in April 2005. Although the new law gives same-sex couples similar legal rights as married people, the Marriage Act still applies only to male-female couples.
Citizens of New Zealand can change their government demo-cratically. 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 prime minister- the head of government-is the leader of the majority party or leader of a majority coalition, and is appointed by the governor-general. The unicameral parliament, or House of Representatives, has 120 seats, of which 69 members are elected by popular vote in single-member constituencies and 51 members are chosen from party lists. All parliament members serve three-year terms.
The two main political parties are the center-left New Zealand Labour Party and the mildly conservative National Party. Prime Minister Helen Clark of the Labour Party took office in 1999 and has been in power since. For more than 130 years, the native Maori population has held seven reserved seats in the 120-member parliament. Maori constitute 11 percent of the voting population and around 10 percent of the country's four million people. The new Maori Party, the country's first ethnic party, was formed in 2004 in reaction to a government bill declaring all foreshore and seabed areas as state property held in perpetuity for all peoples of New Zealand. The Maori Party won a by-election in 2004, winning more than 90 percent of the votes in the North Island seat of Te Tai Hauauru.
New Zealand is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. The country was ranked second out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are free and competitive. Several newspapers are published nationally and locally in English, as well as in Filipino, Hindi, and Chinese for these growing minority populations. The broadcasting sector was deregulated in 1988. The first Maori-language television station was launched in March 2004; a Maori-lan-guage radio station has been broadcasting since 1996. A stronger movement among the Maori population to celebrate their language, arts, and history has increased demand for Maori-language media products. The government does not control or censor internet access, and competitive pricing promotes large-scale diffusion.
Freedom of religion is provided by law and respected in practice. Only religious organizations that intend to collect donations need to register with the government. Although a secular state, the government has fined businesses that operate on the official holidays of Christmas Day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. A 2001 law grants exemptions to several categories of stores in response to demands from the non-Christian population. Academic freedom is enjoyed at all levels of instruction.
The government respects freedom of assembly and association. 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 has been in decline since the adoption in 1991 of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA), which ended compulsory union membership and prohibited certain types of strikes. The Labour-led government replaced the ECA with the Employment Relations Act (ERA) in 2001. The new law promotes collective bargaining; amendments passed in 2004 provide additional protections to workers when company ownership changes. The ERA also allows unions to charge bargaining fees to non-union workers who enjoy union-negotiated wages and conditions.
The judiciary is independent, and defendants can appeal to the Privy Council in London. Police discrimination against the indigenous Maori people, who comprise more than half of the prison population, has been reported.
Although no laws explicitly discriminate against the Maori, and their living standards have improved in general, most Maori (and Pacific Islanders) continue to lag behind the rest of the population in their social and economic status. In recent years, the Maori population has become more assertive in its claims for land, resources, and compensation from the government. A special tribunal hears Maori tribal claims tied to the 1850 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori and British; the treaty leased Maori land in perpetuity to the white "settlers." Recent Maori claims for rights to gas and oil fields in the Marlborough Sounds on the South Island have caused tensions with the non-Maori population and become a major issue in national politics.
Violence against women remains a major issue, and the problem is particularly severe among the Maori population and Pacific Islanders. Many governmental and nongovernmental programs work 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. Recently, public pressure pushed the government to consider removal of language in the Crimes Act that allows parents to use "reasonable force" against children.