New Zealand


Key Challenges

Struggle to balance economy, environment
New Zealand has continued to struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic with respect to balancing economic performance with social and ecological imperatives. From an institutional perspective, this is not surprising. Generally speaking, majoritarian democracies – compared to consensual democracies – tend to be associated with greater economic inequality and worse performance in terms of environmental sustainability (although New Zealand does have an electoral system comparable to consensual democracies).
Rapid rollout of
measures; lack of
attention to outside
On the one hand, New Zealand’s centralized system of democracy facilitated the swift and decisive implementation of public health measures to constrain the spread of COVID-19. Low infection rates have meant that lockdowns have been short and sharp, allowing economic activity to continue and growth to rebound. On the other hand, this centralization of political power and the lack of institutional access points for societal demands may help explain why many structural policy issues remain unaddressed (although both the Epidemic Response Committee and the Waitangi Tribunal provided entry points for experts to present critical evidence and hold the government to account for its decisions). Criticism from these two venues has been supplemented by active media organizations that have highlighted the fact that the Ardern administration ignored important voices from outside the government when designing and implementing its COVID-19 recovery strategy. Prior to the 2020 election, the Labour-led coalition had also been criticized for not following recommendations made by the Tax Working Group, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group and environmental organizations. The government was also criticized for not listening to Māori public health experts when shifting from the COVID-19 alert system to the more permissive “traffic light” system, and for the way that it designed its vaccine rollout in 2021.
Reforms focus on
electoral process
In October 2021, the Ardern administration announced that it planned to conduct a major review of New Zealand’s democratic system prior to the 2026 election. An independent panel comprising experts recommended by political parties, universities, youth and Māori organizations, and the legal society will be appointed to conduct the review. However, the “target changes” identified by the government mainly relate to the electoral process – for example, lowering the voting age to 16, extending parliament’s term from three to four years, making political donations more transparent, and allowing Māori to switch between the Māori and general electoral rolls.
Need for vertical accountability;
enhancing media,
civil society influence
The proposed reforms thus fail to address other weaknesses in New Zealand’s political system. Rather than focusing on the electoral process (which is already among the most democratic in the world), reforms should aim to strengthen vertical accountability through other means. There is room to create more institutionalized mechanisms that would allow citizens and social groups to participate in political decision-making procedures in between elections, for instance in the context of regulatory impact statements (RIS), gender-responsive budgeting and other more systematic processes for public consultation. Moreover, reform efforts should be targeted at strengthening diagonal accountability – that is, the ability of civil society organizations and the media to hold the government accountable. New Zealand’s Official Information Act (OIA) is a prime candidate for reform in this regard. The media continue to demand changes to the OIA, criticizing in particular the slow pace with which government agencies respond to information requests. The Labour government announced that it was committed to rewriting the OIA; however, the promised review has yet to begin.
Perpetuating bad incentives
Without stronger institutional access points for citizens and societal actors to engage in policymaking processes, New Zealand’s political system will continue to provide incentives for governments to neglect questions of economic redistribution and ecological sustainability. Labour’s announcement that the government would review democratic processes is a step in the right direction, but the scope of this review must include institutions beyond elections.

Party Polarization

Electoral system produces mixed cabinets
The mixed-member electoral system, which was introduced in 1996 and combines first-past-the-post with a party list proportional representation system, has not only created a need to form multiparty cabinets but has also required the two major parties to appeal to the average voter as well as those citizens who tend to vote for the smaller parties to the left or right.
Polarization on
the decline
New Zealand election expert Jack Vowles’ research shows that this electoral system change has not led to an increase in entrenched polarization. For example, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, governments moved to the right, well away from the median voter and it was the shift to proportional representation that pulled them back to the center (Vowles, 2021). Drawing on New Zealand Election Survey data, he argues that under the mixed member proportional (MMP) system, New Zealand has become less polarized, with both major parties moving closer to the center.
Cross-party agreements now routine
That said, international indicators show that New Zealand’s current party system is moderately polarized, similar to that observed in Germany and Finland (Lauka et al. 2018; Matakos et al. 2016). While the party system still revolves around Labour (which currently has 65 parliamentary seats) and the National Party (33 seats), there are now also a number of smaller relevant parties, including ACT (10 seats), the Green Party (10 seats), and the Māori Party (two seats). However, the increase in party system fragmentation has not posed a significant obstacle to finding cross-party agreements in policymaking. Coalition governments are the new norm. In fact, despite winning an absolute majority in the 2020 general election, Labour entered into a coalition with the Green Party, based on a formal “cooperation” agreement that sets out policy priorities for the next three years (Roy 2020). (Score: 7)
Lauka et al. (2018) “Mass partisan polarization: Measuring a relational concept.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): 107-126.
Matakos et al. (2016) “Electoral rule disproportionality and platform polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 60(4): 1026-1043.
Roy (2020) “New Zealand’s Labour and Greens formally sign ‘cooperation’ deal.” The Guardian.
Vowles, J. (2021).
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