New Zealand | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

New Zealand

New Zealand

Freedom in the World 2009

2009 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


John Key of the center-right National Party became prime minister in snap general elections held in November 2008, ending nine-years of domination by the Labour Party. Two senior public officials resigned from their posts during the year following allegations of misconduct. Meanwhile, the government and Maori groups in June signed a historic land deal that will transfer large areas of forest land to seven Maori tribes.  

British sovereignty in New Zealand was established in 1840 under the Treaty of Waitangi, a pact between the British government and Maori chiefs that also guaranteed Maori land rights. New Zealand became a self-governing parliamentary democracy in 1907 and gained full independence from Britain in 1947, though the British monarch remained head of state.

General elections in 2005 gave the center-left Labour Party—which had been in office since 1999—a plurality of 50 parliamentary seats, compared with the center-right National Party’s 48. Labour reached agreements with a number of smaller parties to secure a governing majority in the 121-seat Parliament. In February 2007, the government’s hold on Parliament was threatened when former associate cabinet minister Taito Phillip Field left the Labour Party amid allegations that he attempted to improperly influence immigration applications. Field remained in Parliament as an independent, and his continued support in key votes helped to preserve the government’s 61-seat working majority.

Concerns about how immigration is changing the country’s demographics have led the government to tighten immigration requirements in recent years. Residents must live in New Zealand for five years before they can apply for citizenship, and automatic citizenship is restricted to those born in Samoa between 1924 and 1948, when Samoa was under New Zealand’s rule. The Maori Party has accused the Labour-led government of deliberately discriminating against Pacific Islanders in its immigration policy.

There is also increasing concern about immigrants as national security threats. In 2006, the government expelled a Saudi national who had entered on a student visa and was suspected of ties to the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. He was deported under a rarely invoked section of the Immigration Act that requires consent from the governor-general and provides no avenue for appeal. Separately, in retaliation for the expulsion of the New Zealand high commissioner from Fiji in June 2007, New Zealand decided in July to bar all Fijians involved in that country’s December 2006 coup, all senior officials in the Fijian interim government and their families, and Fijian national sports-team members from entering or transiting through New Zealand.

In May 2007, Parliament passed a controversial bill banning the spanking of children, which would grant police the authority to determine whether a parent should be charged with abuse. Also controversial were country-wide raids in October on groups suspected of plotting attacks on the white population;police seized guns and ammunition during the raids and arrested 17 Maori activists. The arrests, which were the first under the country’s 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA), were met with harsh criticism from Maori activists and labor union officials. The solicitor general in November dropped pending charges under the TSA and alternatively charged the defendants with the illegal possession and use of arms and ammunition under the Arms Act.

Prime Minister Helen Clark called for a snapgeneral election in November 2008 in the midst of declining popularity, political scandals— including the resignation of two senior public officials following allegations of misconduct—and growing public anxiety about the domestic economic recession, exacerbated by the global financial crisis. The National Party, led by John Key, captured 58 seats, while Labour took 43 seats. With support from the Maori Party (5 seats), the United Future Party (1 seat) and the ACT New Zealand Party (5 seats), the coalition under Key’s National Party took control of 69 of the 122 seats in Parliament, and Key was elected the new prime minister. 

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

New Zealand is an electoral democracy. A mixed-member electoral system combines voting in geographic districts with proportional-representation balloting. New Zealand is a member of the Commonwealth, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, represented by a governor-general. The prime minister, the head of government, is the leader of the majority party or coalition and is appointed by the governor-general. John Key of the moderate conservative National Party became prime minister in November 2008, ending the Labour Party’s nine-year control of government. The 2008 elections were considered to be free and fair. The unicameral Parliament, or House of Representatives, currently has 121 members, all elected for three-year terms. 

The two main political parties are the center-left Labour Party and the center-right National Party. Five smaller parties (the Maori, United Future, ACT New Zealand, Green, and Progressive parties) also won representation in the 2008 parliamentary elections.

Seven of the Parliament’s constituency seats are reserved for the native Maori population. Maori constitute 11 percent of the voting population and around 10 percent of the country’s four million people.The 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, a possible infringement on Maori land rights. The appointment of Major General Jerry Mateparae as defense minister in 2006 was another milestone in Maori history; he was the first Maori to hold the post. Tuheitia Paki, a former university manager and cultural adviser, was chosen by the tribes to succeed his mother as the Maori monarch after she died in 2006.

New Zealand is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. It was ranked first out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. Nevertheless, two senior public officials resigned from their posts following allegations of misconduct during the year. In May, Mary Thompson, the Immigration Service chief, stepped down following allegations that she assisted family members from Kiribati in obtaining New Zealand residence permits. In August, Winston Peters, the foreign minister and head of the New Zealand First Party, resigned following allegations that he had misused party funds and failed to declare political donations in 2007.

The media are free and competitive. Newspapers are published nationally and locally in English, and in several non-English languages for the growing immigrant population. Television outlets include state-run Television New Zealand, three private channels, and a Maori-language public network. A Maori-language 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 New Zealand is a secular state, the government has fined businesses for operating on the official holidays of Christmas Day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. A 2001 law granted exemptions to several categories of stores in response to demands from non-Christian populations.

Academic freedom is enjoyed at all levels of instruction. The Education Act of 1964 bans religious education and observations during normal hours in primary schools. Some parents have complained about prayers and religious blessings at a number of primary and intermediate schools, but bishops, opposition members of Parliament, and school principals argue that strict enforcement would be difficult and unworkable.

The government respects freedoms of assembly andassociation. Nongovernmental and civil society groups are active throughout the country in promoting community health, minority rights, education, children’s welfare, and other causes. Many receive considerable financial support from the government.

The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions is the main labor federation. Fewer than 20 percent of the country’s wage earners are union members. Membership has been declining since the 1991 adoption 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 ERA promotes collective bargaining and allows unions to charge bargaining fees to nonunion workers who enjoy union-negotiated wages and conditions; amendments in 2004 gave additional protections to workers during company ownership changes. In April 2008, junior doctors across the country went on a two-day strike to demand higher wages; amid public criticism, the union terminated its action without securing its demands.

The judiciary is independent, and defendants can appeal to the Privy Council in London. Police discrimination against the Maori, 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 generally improved, most Maori and Pacific Islanders continue to lag behind the European-descended majority in social and economic status. 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 Treaty of Waitangi. Recent Maori claims for rights to gas and oil fields in the Marlborough Sounds off the South Island became a major issue in national politics and caused tensions with the non-Maori population. The assertions of ancestral rights were prompted by the government’s plans to nationalize all beaches and territorial seabed. In June 2008, the government and Maori groups signed a historic land deal that will transfer 435,000 acres of plantation forest and associated rents from the central government to seven North Island tribes of more than 100,000 people.

Violence against women and children is a major problem, particularly among the Maori and Pacific Islander populations. Many governmental and nongovernmental programs work to prevent domestic violence and support victims, with special programs for the Maori community. A 2005 Civil Union Bill grants same-sex partnerships recognition and legal rights similar to those of married couples.