2012 Scores

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


Prime Minister John Key was elected to a second term as a result of general elections in November 2011 that saw his National Party maintain its parliamentary majority. A massive earthquake in Christchurch in February 2011 killed more than 180 people and left thousands injured and homeless. In October, a cargo ship ran aground on a reef in Tauranga, spilling oil and other hazardous materials.

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.

In October 2008, Prime Minister Helen Clark dissolved Parliament and called snap elections in November. John Key's 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 of the legislature's 122 seats. Key became prime minister.

The rights and welfare of the Maori population have been major issues in New Zealand. 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 June 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 March 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.

In November 2010, New Zealand signed the Wellington Declaration with the United States, which restored bilateral defense ties and marked a significant change in New Zealand's defense and security policies. The United States had ended its previous treaty obligations with New Zealand in 1986 after nuclear weapons were barred from entering New Zealand's ports.

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. The government committed in May to buy more than 5,000 homes destroyed by the earthquake as a way to compensate victims and facilitate reconstruction. Meanwhile, 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. The ship's captain was arrested and faced criminal charges for his role in the incident.

In general elections held in November 2011, the National Party took 59 parliamentary seats, and Key secured a second term in office. The National Party formed a coalition government with the ACT New Zealand Party and the United Future Party, both of which won one seat each. Economic issues had dominated the election campaigns, with Key pledging to sell more state assets. The election results caused the number of seats in Parliament to decrease from 122 to 121 as a result of New Zealand's proportional representative system; voters decided to retain that system in a referendum also held in November.

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. 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 the Parliament's constituency seats are reserved for the native Maori population. Approximately 15 percent of the country's 4.4 million people identify themselves as Maori. The Maori Party, the country's first ethnic party, was formed in 2004 to advance Maori rights and interests. In June 2011, a Maori lawmaker was ejected from parliament for swearing allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi rather than to Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of state.

New Zealand is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. It was ranked first out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2011 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), a 131-year-old news service that once dominated the distribution of domestic and world news to New Zealand media outlets, closed in August 2011. The NZPA had struggled in recent years due to increased 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 April 2011, protesters disrupted oil and gas exploration conducted by Brazil's state-owned energy company Petrobas off the North Island. The demonstrators argued that the development would threaten marine wildlife and coastal environments. Elvis Teddy, a local fisherman, was charged with breaching an exclusive zone set up around a Petrobas survey ship and resisting arrest; no verdict was reached by year's end. 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 collectively bargain, 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.

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 government-sponsored study released in August 2011 attributes higher infant mortality among Pacific Islanders in part to poverty and high rate of adult obesity. 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 Key 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.

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