New Zealand: Government
Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Head of Government: Prime Minister John Key
New Zealand has a parliamentary system of government closely patterned on that of the United Kingdom and is a fully independent member of the Commonwealth. It has no written constitution. Executive authority is vested in a cabinet led by the prime minister, who is the leader of the political party or coalition of parties holding the majority of seats in parliament. All cabinet ministers must be members of parliament and are collectively responsible to it.
The unicameral parliament (House of Representatives) usually has 120 seats, seven of which currently are reserved for Maori elected on a separate Maori roll. However, Maori also may run for, and have been elected to, non-reserved seats. Parliaments are elected for a maximum term of 3 years, although elections can be called sooner.
The judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Courts, and District Courts. New Zealand law has three principal sources--English common law, certain statutes of the U.K. Parliament enacted before 1947, and statutes of the New Zealand parliament. In interpreting common law, the courts have been concerned with preserving uniformity with common law as interpreted in the United Kingdom.
There are 16 regions of New Zealand, 11 of which are governed by a directly elected regional council. In the next tier there are 67 territorial authorities: 13 city councils, 53 district councils, and the Chatham Islands Council. Six territorial authorities (Auckland Council, Nelson City Council, Gisborne, Tasman, and Marlborough District Councils and the Chatham Islands Council) also perform the functions of a regional council. The Auckland Council is the largest council in Australasia. It began operating on November 1, 2010 and combines the functions of the existing regional council and the region's seven previous city and district councils into one "super council" or "super city" governed by a mayor, 20 members of the governing body, and 148 members of 21 local boards. There also are a number of community boards and special-purpose bodies with partially elected, partially appointed memberships. Local government in New Zealand has only the powers conferred upon it by parliament.
The traditionally conservative National Party and left-leaning Labour Party have dominated New Zealand political life since a Labour government came to power in 1935. During its first 14 years in office, the Labour Party implemented a broad array of social and economic legislation, including comprehensive social security, a large-scale public works program, a 40-hour workweek, a minimum basic wage, and compulsory unionism. The National Party won control of the government in 1949 and adopted many welfare measures instituted by the Labour Party. Except for two brief periods of Labour governments in 1957-60 and 1972-75, National held power until 1984. After regaining control in 1984, the Labour government instituted a series of radical market-oriented reforms in response to New Zealand's mounting external debt. It also enacted anti-nuclear legislation that effectively brought about New Zealand's suspension from the ANZUS security alliance with the United States and Australia.
In October 1990, the National Party again formed the government, for the first of three 3-year terms. In 1996, New Zealand inaugurated a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system to elect its parliament. The system was designed to increase representation of smaller parties in parliament and appears to have done so in the MMP elections to date. Since 1996, neither the National nor the Labour Party has had an absolute majority in parliament, and for all but one of those years, the government has been a minority one. The Labour Party won elections in November 1999 and again in July 2002. In 2002 Labour formed a coalition, minority government with the Progressive Coalition, a left-wing party holding two seats in parliament. The government relied on support from the centrist United Future Party to pass legislation.
Following a narrow victory in the September 2005 general elections, Labour formed a coalition with the one-seat Progressive Party. The government also entered into limited support agreements with the United Future New Zealand and NZ First Parties, whose leaders were respectively given the Revenue and Foreign Affairs ministerial positions outside of the cabinet. This gave Labour an effective one-seat majority with which to pass legislation in parliament. Labour also secured an assurance from the Green Party that it would abstain from a vote of confidence against the government. The 2005 elections saw the new Maori Party win four out of the seven reserved Maori seats. The additional seat in the 121-member parliament was the result of an overhang from 2005 elections. There were two independent members of parliament (MPs): a former Labour Party MP and a former United Future New Zealand MP, both of whom left their respective parties in 2007.
The 2008 general election on November 8 was comfortably won by the John Key-led National Party. National won 45% of the popular vote (58 seats) to Labour's 34% (43 seats). The Green Party won nine seats; ACT won five; the Maori Party picked up an additional Maori seat to bring its total number of seats to five; the Progressives and United Future won one seat each. New Zealand First, the party of former foreign minister Winston Peters, did not win enough votes to return to parliament. On November 16, 2008, Key announced the formation of a new National-led center-right government in coalition with the right-leaning ACT and the centrist United Future party. National also entered into a limited support agreement with the Maori Party.
The government was sworn in on November 19, 2008, with Key becoming New Zealand's 38th prime minister. During her election night concession speech, outgoing Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that she would step down as Labour's leader after 15 years in charge. She was succeeded as party leader by Phil Goff. The Key-led government's main focus has been on economic growth following a period of recession and recovery from the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011. Key presided over a stable governing arrangement with his support parties and his ruling National Party.
The 2011 general election on November 26 resulted in the re-election of Key’s National Party with 48% of the total vote and 60 parliamentary seats. The opposition Labour Party received 27.1% of the vote and won 34 seats. After the election Phil Goff stepped down as Labour leader and was replaced by David Shearer. The Green Party returned to parliament with 14 seats after it recorded its highest-ever vote of 11.1%. New Zealand First returned to parliament with 8 seats and 6.8% of the vote after having been voted out in 2008. The Maori Party won 5 seats, and ACT and United Future and the Mana Party one seat each.
On December 5, 2011, National re-entered into agreements with ACT and United Future and with the Maori Party to form a minority government with a seven-seat majority (64 seats to 57). The government’s priorities for this term are managing the government’s finances, building a more productive and competitive economy, delivering better public services, and rebuilding Christchurch. The 50th New Zealand parliament was sworn in on December 20, 2011 with 121 members (120 seats plus one overhang seat).
New Zealand's foreign policy is oriented chiefly toward developed democratic nations and emerging Pacific economies. The country's major political parties have generally agreed on the broad outlines of foreign policy, and the current coalition government has been active in multilateral fora on issues of recurring interest to New Zealand--trade liberalization, environment, and arms control.
New Zealand participates in the World Trade Organization (WTO); World Bank; International Monetary Fund (IMF); Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); International Energy Agency; Asian Development Bank; Pacific Islands Forum; The Pacific Community; Colombo Plan; Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC); and the International Whaling Commission. New Zealand also is an active member of the Commonwealth. Despite the 1985 rupture in the ANZUS alliance, New Zealand has maintained good working relations with the United States and Australia on a broad array of international issues.
New Zealand values its long-term relationship with the United Nations and values the organization as a mechanism to promote and protect its interests. It is a vocal supporter of the principles of the UN Charter, is very active in UN fora, and regularly contributes to UN peacekeeping missions. New Zealand is a UN Security Council candidate for 2015-2016. Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark became head of the UN Development Program in 2009.
In the past, New Zealand's geographic isolation and its agricultural economy's general prosperity tended to minimize public interest in world affairs. However, growing global trade and other international economic events have made New Zealanders more aware of their country's dependence on stable overseas markets.
New Zealand's economic involvement with Asia has become increasingly important through expanding trade with the growing economies of Asia. New Zealand is a "dialogue partner" with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and an active participant in APEC. On April 7, 2008 New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with China, the first OECD country to do so.
As a charter member of the Colombo Plan, New Zealand has provided Asian countries with technical assistance and capital. It also contributes through the Asian Development Bank and through UN programs and is a member of the UN Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Pacific.
New Zealand has focused its bilateral economic assistance resources on projects in the South Pacific island states, especially on Bougainville. The country's long association with Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa), reflected in a treaty of friendship signed in 1962, and its close association with Tonga have resulted in a flow of immigrants and visitors under work permit schemes from both countries. New Zealand administers the Tokelau Islands and provides foreign policy and economic support when requested for the freely associated self-governing states of the Cook Islands and Niue. Inhabitants of these areas hold New Zealand citizenship.
In 1947, New Zealand joined Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States to form the South Pacific Commission, a regional body to promote the welfare of the Pacific region. New Zealand has been a leader in the organization. In 1971, New Zealand joined the other independent and self-governing states of the South Pacific to establish the South Pacific Forum (now known as the Pacific Islands Forum), which meets annually at the "heads of government" level. In 2011, New Zealand hosted the 42nd Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland and chairs the organization.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (March 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( March 2012)