New Zealand’s very own brand of democratic emancipation

Wellington was chosen as the first major planned settlement for British immigrants coming to New Zealand in the 19th century. Today it is New Zealand's capital and apparently the world's windiest city

New Zealand is rated as one of the best, when it comes to modern democracy. It was the first nation in the world to give women voting rights and has developed a state-of-the-art election process. But how come the Kiwis lack in local autonomy and popular sovereignty. The #ddworldtour Notebook sheds some light on this riddle.

This content was published on November 28, 2017 - 15:19
Bruno Kaufmann, Global Democracy Correspondent (text and photos),

Our guide shines like a diamond. It is the last tour of the day as she welcomes a diverse group of citizens from New Zealand and elsewhere to the BeehiveExternal link, the executive wing of the national parliament.

“These are the great rooms of our proud democracy,” she says before taking us on a fascinating walk across the building complex containing ceremonial halls from the early colonial times all the way to the special basement areas built to withstand major earthquakes.

The friendly guide does a great job explaining the twists in the history of the former British colony. New Zealand’s path to independence and democracy is not always straightforward.

Both have ambivalent roots; there is neither an independence declaration (with the exemption of the 1835 Maori declaration on independence, which was not accepted by Britain at that time) nor a constitution. The parliament has only been in place since the late 1980s; before it was just the General Assembly, a name it got under British rule.

Peaceful and gradual

In contrast to most other countries, New Zealand (with its this almost five million people sharing 268’000 km2) has experienced a peaceful and gradual process to people power over almost 200 years.

Early highlights include the 1835 declaration by the Maori people on New Zealand independence from Britain (which led to the Treaty of Waitangi five years later repealing this independence) and the introduction of universal suffrage (including women) in 1894. During our tour of the parliament, our guide is keen to emphasise these and other achievements.

But on two occasions, she put her manuscript to the side. When asked why the former upper chamber assembly room is empty, she quickly answers:

“Because we did not come all the way from Britain to the other side of the world to do everything like the British are doing,” she says.

It is an answer that expresses a will for emancipation from a system full of remnants of the British Empire, includes wig-wearing officials.

To me, it also illustrates the ambivalence of being privileged from but also forgotten by the rest of the world. The country hesitates again and again—when it comes to questions of whether to stand still or go forward, whether to follow big powers like the United States or China, or to chart a path independently.

“The youngest female world leader”

This autumn, a national election surprisingly sent the conservative government into opposition. For the past month, New Zealand has been represented on the world stage by a young and fresh face, 37-year-old Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“We are very proud to have the world’s youngest female head of government,” said a community worker at the Ellen Melville Center, when I started my New Zealand leg of the #ddworldtour in Auckland on the North Island last week.

He co-hosted a family day downtown at a recently refurbished Democracy CenterExternal link, whose name recalls one of New Zealand’s most important feminist politicians, Ellen Melville (1882-1946).

As one of the first female lawyers of New Zealand, Melville was instrumental in introducing the right for women to be elected into national parliament (in 1919), after being elected to Auckland city council in 1913 (where she served until her death in 1946).

Together with the country’s natural blessings (there is simply no shortage of life essentials here), the early inclusion of all kinds of people into New Zealand society, including women and Maori, has certainly contributed to today’s high quality of life here.

Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city with more than 1.3 million inhabitants, is among the top ten places to live in the world according to a ranking by the Economist magazine.

The country is also doing well when it comes to democracy. V-DemExternal link, the Gothenburg-based global network of political scientists, ranks New Zealand as the 4th most direct democratic country on earth (after Switzerland, Uruguay and Lithuania).

Homeless and public transport

So far, so good. Most tourists from around the world love New Zealand and the Kiwis dearly. In the last ten years, the number of international guests has more than doubled. My ten-day tour from the north of the North Island to the southern tip of the South Island, gave me a fair idea about the manifold efforts made to keep the country attractive for tourists.

But it also struck me, what problems New Zealand is facing.

According to the OECD, the country has the highest number of homeless people (about 1% of the populationExternal link) in relation to its per capita income.

Also, public transport is really poor and underdeveloped.

New Zealand once had a fine-meshed railway and light-rail system across most of the country

But the train network was neglected in the 1980s, and today, with the exception of a few suburban lines, passenger railExternal link is limited to just two tourist lines (the Northern Explorer linking Auckland with Wellington and the Tranzalpine from Christchurch to Greymouth).

People power

A third surprising weakness is the systemic lack of local political power.

I learned this when visiting the beautiful harbour town of Whanganui about 150 km north of Wellington. Nestling at the mouth of New Zealand’s third longest river, this city of 42,000 people is struggling just like many of the country’s nearly 80 remaining local bodies.

“We have very little to say and decide about many important things here,” says Whanganui’s youngest city councillor, Josh Chandulal-Mackay (22) standing next to Bruno Kaufmann (right)

Indeed, local government spending is very limited in New Zealand — just 10% of the total tax income. For comparison: the local spending rate in comparable countries like Canada, Sweden, Switzerland or the US is more than 50% on average. Power is centralised in the bureaucratic and remote central government, which runs even sectors like education and health.

For all its democratic features, sovereignty does not rest with the people of this country, but, as an official matter, with the state. That is, an elderly lady who lives at Buckingham Palace in England, more than 18’000 kilometres away.

Towards more direct democracy?

“We have real problem with our democracy,” says Steve Baron, (left), another resident of Whanganui

The marketing specialist has been involved in a series of campaigns to make democracy work better in New Zealand, as he explained in an interview in the lush garden of his houseExternal link

At the next council election in Whanganui, citizens of the district will have to decide in a popular vote if the current first-past-the-post election system should be replaced by the so-called single transferable vote system.

Baron proposed this vote, following up on far-reaching electoral reforms at the national level. Back in 1993 New Zealand’s citizens approved a plan to change from the British-style unproportional voting system to a German-style MMP systemExternal link. This reform was re-confirmed in a referendum in 2012External link.

Briefing tours to Switzerland

Today, Baron’s grassroots campaign “Better Democracy”External link is gathering information about experiences abroad. As are well-established think tanks like The New Zealand Initiative bringing together CEOs of many leading companies.

We should learn from Switzerland when it comes to direct democracy, local political power and educationExternal link,” says Oliver Hartwich, whom I met at his downtown office with a great view of Wellington Harbour.

A group of 40 New Zealand business leaders recently took a study trip to Switzerland. And next year the Association of Local Governments in New Zealand plans to bring mayors from across the country to Europe to study the options and limits of modern direct democracy.

At the national level, where the right for citizen-initiated referendumsExternal link was introduced more than 20 years ago, there is still some room for improvement.

While popular votes initiated by the citizens themselves (supporters need to gather the signatures of 10% of the electorateExternal link are non-binding under the current law, knowledge about this track of participating in politics remains very limited—even among the primary democracy educators like our tour guide at the parliament compound in Wellington.

After telling us how open and responsive the elected bodies are (via the submission tools available for everybody across the worldExternal link, the tour guide stumbles over the question about the citizens’ initiative right.

First, she does not understand the question. Then she says: “There is no such right for citizens to gather signatures for a public referendum.”

My takeaway: it takes time, a lot of effort and many practical steps to emancipate yourself as a country – in a truly sovereign way.


Swiss-Swedish author and journalist Bruno Kaufmann is on a world tour to explore the state of democracy visiting more than 20 countries on four continents until May 2018. publishes a weekly Notebook and multimedia reports by Kaufmann over the next few months as part of its coverage of direct democracy issues.

Kaufmann's democracy world tour is mainly sponsored by the Swiss Democracy FoundationExternal link, where he is the director of international cooperation. The Swiss Democracy Foundation hosts various projects and platforms linked to participatory and direct democracy across the globe, including Democracy InternationalExternal link, the Direct Democracy NavigatorExternal link and the Initiative and Referendum Institute EuropeExternal link

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#ddworldtour Notebook. Follow the tour on #ddworldtour @kaufmannbruno @democracyreporter and /

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