1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.0
Civil Liberties: 1
Political Rights: 1

Overview

In the November 27, 1999 elections, the Nationalist Party government of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley was defeated. The Labor Party and Alliance Party, which took 52 and 11 seats, respectively, in the 120-seat parliament, entered into a formal coalition on December 6. Helen Clark of the Labor Party became the new prime minister.

Shipley was first seen as a fresh face in New Zealand politics when she took office in 1998, but her popularity rapidly declined as a result of her government's controversies with the fire service, electricity reform, and public sector accountability. In January 1999, her cabinet was shuffled for the third time, and new heads were appointed for finance, education, and health. In February, Shipley was questioned on her relations with the advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. Her government narrowly survived a no-confidence motion only by winning a simple majority in parliament and the support of three small parties and two independent parliament members. Her minority government was once again threatened with collapse in March when a Maori backbencher parliamentarian threatened to withdraw his support and bring on an early general election.

New Zealand was active in international diplomacy. The country sent troops to East Timor, Indonesia, after severe violence broke out following the October 1999 election on the future of the disputed territory. The country hosted a meeting of the leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group. Mike Moore, a New Zealander, was selected as the new chief of the World Trade Organization, after a lengthy battle for the position. Finally, the country is promoting itself for the post of secretary general of the Commonwealth.

New Zealand achieved full self-government prior to World War II and gained full independence from Great Britain in 1947. Since 1935, political power in this parliamentary democracy has alternated between the mildly conservative National Party and the center-left Labor Party, both of which helped to develop one of the world's most progressive welfare states. In response to an increasingly competitive global trade regime, the Labor government began restructuring the economy in 1984 by cutting farm subsidies, trimming tariffs, and privatizing many industries.

The harsh effects of the economic reforms and a deep recession contributed to a National Party landslide at the 1990 parliamentary elections. However, the new government of Jim Bolger, pushed the reforms even further by slashing welfare payments, reworking the labor law to discourage collective bargaining, and ending universal free hospital care.

With the economy showing signs of an upswing, the National Party narrowly won the 1993 elections with 50 seats. In a concurrent referendum, voters chose to replace the current "first-past-the-post" electoral system with a mixed member proportional (MMP) system. The MMP system is designed to increase the representation of smaller parties by combining geographic constituencies with proportional representation balloting.

In the October 12, 1996 elections for an expanded 120-seat parliament, the New Zealand First (NZF) Party entered into a coalition with the National Party. In 1997, the strains of merging the National Party's fiscal conservatism with NZF's populism led to policy drift. In October 1997, Transport Minister Jenny Shipley led an intraparty coup that forced Bolger to resign. As prime minister, Shipley announced a cabinet dominated by conservatives favoring further economic deregulation.

A dispute broke out in August 1998 between members of the NZF and the National Party, ostensibly over plans to sell government-owned shares of Wellington International Airport. On August 13, NZF leader Winston Peters organized an NZF walkout from a cabinet meeting. Shipley, in turn, removed him from his posts as deputy prime minister and treasurer, and the coalition collapsed. Shipley held on to power and won a narrow vote of confidence in September.

In 1998, the Asian economic crisis sent New Zealand into a recession. Asia is the first destination for 40 percent of New Zealand's exports and the source of 30 percent of its tourists. New Zealand's current account deficit soared to eight percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) by September amid falling exports. The economy also suffered from a serious drought that had hit agricultural production in the 1997-98 summer season (December to March). There were signs of recovery at the end of 1999, but analysts predicted it would be several years before the country would fully recover.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

New Zealanders can change their government democratically. New Zealand has no written constitution, but fundamental freedoms are respected in practice. The judiciary is independent. The private press is varied and vigorous. The broadcast media are both privately and publicly held and express pluralistic views. Civil society is advanced and nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, and religious groups are outspoken. Religious freedom is respected. The authorities are responsive to complaints of rape and domestic violence, and a Domestic Violence Act came into effect in July 1997.

Trade Unions are independent and engage in collective bargaining. The 1991 Employment Contracts Act (ECA) has weakened unions by banning compulsory membership and other practices that made trade unions the sole, mandatory negotiators on behalf of employees. Contracts are now generally drawn up at the factory or even individual level, and wages and union membership rolls have fallen. In 1994, the International Labor Organization criticized a provision of the ECA prohibiting strikes designed to force an employer to sign on to a multicompany contract.

The Maori minority and the tiny Pacific islander population face unofficial discrimination in employment and education. The 1983 Equal Employment Opportunities Policy, designed to bring more minorities into the public sector, has been only marginally successful. The Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement reached in the nineteenth century and codified in 1955, leases Maori land in perpetuity to the "settlers." Today, the rents received by the Maori on some 2,500 leases average far less than those received by commercial landowners. Four parliamentary seats are reserved for Maori representatives. In the 1996 elections, 15 Maori politicians won seats, proportionate to the 13 percent Maori population. Maori activists say that the Maori-language program of the state-run TVNZ television network is insufficient.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.