New Zealand | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

New Zealand

New Zealand

Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The government introduced controversial changes to New Zealand’s immigration laws in 2012, giving preference to higher-income applicants, allowing the detention of mass arrivals of refugees for up to six months during processing, and restricting the rights of detainees to judicial review. Although the reforms were criticized as being discriminatory, the government insisted they were necessary to attract more skilled immigrants, reduce taxpayer expenditures, and deter human traffickers.

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 gained full independence from Britain in 1947, though the British monarch remained head of state.

Prime Minister Helen Clark dissolved Parliament in October 2008 and called snap elections in November. John Key’s center-right National Party, which took 58 seats, also garnered support from the Maori Party (5 seats), the ACT New Zealand Party (5 seats), and the United Future Party (1 seat). The Labour Party—which had been in office since 1999—captured 43 seats. Key became prime minister.

The rights and welfare of the Maori population are major issues in New Zealand politics. In the first official designation of intellectual property protection for the Maori, the government in 2009 officially acknowledged that the war dance (haka) performed by the national rugby team belonged to the Ngati Toa tribe. Although the tribe will not be awarded royalty claims, it can address grievances over inappropriate use of the haka. In addition, the government agreed to pay $111 million in compensation—including both rent payments from state-owned forests and greenhouse gas emission credits—to eight tribes as a comprehensive settlement for grievances over land seizures and other breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. In 2010, the government signed a new agreement with the Maori over contentious foreshore and seabed rights, replacing a 2006 deal that had ended Maori rights to claim customary title in courts of law. Tribes can now claim customary title to areas proven to have been under continuous indigenous occupation since 1840.

In 2010, New Zealand restored full bilateral defense ties with the United States, which marked a significant change in the country’s defense and security policies. The United States had ended its previous treaty obligations with New Zealand in 1986 after New Zealand banned nuclear weapons from its ports, a restriction that still stands.

Two disasters struck New Zealand in 2011. In February, a major earthquake hit Christchurch, killing more than 180 people and leaving thousands injured and homeless. Rescue and recovery costs prompted the government to impose major spending cuts to limit an expected budget deficit. In October, a cargo ship ran aground on a coral reef near the North Island port of Tauranga, spilling at least 70 containers of oil and hazardous materials into the water.

In the November 2011 legislative elections, the National Party took 59 seats, and the Labour Party captured 34 seats. Key secured a second term as prime minister by forming a coalition government with the ACT New Zealand Party and the United Future Party.

In 2012, the government introduced controversial revisions to its immigration laws. The changes would allow the government to detain mass arrivals under a group warrant for a period of up to six months for processing. Detainees would have limited rights to judicial review, and family reunifications would be limited for those granted refugee status. While the government maintains that the changes are necessary to deter mass arrivals of asylum seekers and make New Zealand a less attractive destination for human smugglers and traffickers, critics charge that the proposals are xenophobic and unnecessary and run counter to the country’s obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention; New Zealand annually accepts 750 refugees for resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and also considers claims from asylum seekers when they arrive in New Zealand. In addition, processing under the new rules would favor those with higher incomes, which the government insists will save taxpayers money and attract more skilled talent to settle in New Zealand. The proposed changes had not been enacted by year’s end.

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. As a member of the Commonwealth, a governor-general represents Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as the ceremonial head of state. The prime minister, the head of government, is the leader of the majority party or coalition and is appointed by the governor-general. In 2011, Jerry Mateparae, a former military chief and head of the intelligence agency, was named governor-general, becoming the second Maori to hold this ceremonial post. The unicameral Parliament, or House of Representatives, has 121 members who are elected to three-year terms.

The two main political parties are the center-left Labour Party and the center-right National Party. Smaller parties include the Maori Party, the ACT New Zealand Party, and the United Future Party. Seven of Parliament’s constituency seats are reserved for the native Maori population. The Maori Party, the country’s first ethnic party, was formed in 2004 to advance Maori rights and interests.

New Zealand is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. It was tied with Finland and Denmark for first place out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media are free and competitive. Newspapers are published nationally and locally in English and in other languages for the growing immigrant population. Television outlets include the state-run Television New Zealand, three private channels, and a Maori-language public network. There is also a Maori-language radio station. The New Zealand Press Association (NZPA), which once dominated the distribution of domestic and world news to New Zealand media outlets, closed in 2011 as a result of competition from internet-based news sources and the dominance of Australian newspaper chains, which did not use the NZPA’s services. 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 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 grants exemptions to several categories of stores in response to demands from non-Christian populations. Academic freedom is enjoyed at all levels of instruction.

The government respects freedoms of assembly and association. Nongovernmental organizations are active throughout the country, and many receive considerable financial support from the government. In 2011, protesters disrupted oil and gas exploration conducted by Brazil’s state-owned energy company Petrobas off the North Island, claiming that development would threaten marine wildlife and coastal environments. 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. Under the 2001 Employment Relations Act, workers can organize, strike, and bargain collectively, with the exception of uniformed personnel.

The judiciary is independent, and defendants can appeal to the Privy Council in London. Prison conditions generally meet international standards, though there have been allegations of discrimination against the Maori, who make up more than half of the prison population. Over the past decade, the police have introduced training to better deal with an increasingly racially and culturally diverse population.

Approximately 15 percent of the country’s 4.4 million people identify themselves as Maori. 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 permanent commission hears Maori tribal claims tied to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Violence against women and children remains a significant 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 2007 law banning the spanking of children remains controversial because it gives police the authority to determine whether a parent should be charged with abuse. A majority of voters rejected the law in a non-binding referendum in 2009, but the government has kept it in place. The 2005 Civil Union Bill grants same-sex partnerships recognition and legal rights similar to those of married couples.