Every three years New Zealanders are asked to make decisions about who should govern the country. Political parties and their candidates put themselves up for election to the House of Representatives and try to convince voters of their suitability for public office. Advertising, public meetings, talking through the media and the internet are all used in their campaigns, after which voters go to a polling place and choose between differing political visions and representatives.
New Zealanders have been doing this since 1853. However, the way that elections are run and the manner in which electioneering occurs has changed significantly since then. Despite these changes, parliamentary elections and campaigns continue to be a central way of debating and contesting issues of economy, society and leadership.
Pushing for a vote
In the first years after New Zealand became a British colony (in 1840) it was ruled by a governor, but settlers wanted elections. In early 1840s Auckland the self-named ‘Radicals’ met at a place they called ‘the Senate’ to challenge the governor’s autocratic rule. In Wellington settlers elected their own municipal corporation (which the governor rejected). In the mid-1840s settlers in Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago formed constitutional associations that pushed for elections and self-government. The first parliamentary elections were held in 1853.
Elections between 1853 and 1876 were held five years apart. Since 1879 elections have usually been held every three years. Times of crisis (world wars or severe economic depressions) have sometimes delayed elections, and governments have occasionally called early, or ‘snap’ elections (for example, in 1951 as a result of industrial unrest).
New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy: the queen of New Zealand (Queen Elizabeth II, also the British queen) is the head of state, but real power resides in executive government. Executive government – the prime minister and cabinet ministers – is accountable to the House of Representatives, which is commonly known as Parliament. Members of Parliament are elected by people 18 and over, who are enrolled to vote in a defined area known as an electorate.
For the first century of New Zealand’s governance there was also an upper house – the Legislative Council – which was abolished in 1950. Members of the Legislative Council were appointed by the government of the day, so elections and voting did not directly control its makeup.
A referendum poses a question on which people have a direct vote. They are an established part of New Zealand’s political system, and have been used, for example, to decide whether military training should be compulsory and whether the term of Parliament should be lengthened to four years. Since 1993 citizens-initiated referendums have been allowed. To qualify, a petition supporting them needs to have been signed by 10% of voters within a 12-month period. A referendum can be either binding, which means a government must follow the opinion of the majority of voters, or indicative, where no further action is required. All citizens-initiated referendums are indicative (non-binding).
Local government elections
In 2020 New Zealand has 67 territorial authorities that were governed by elected representatives, comprising 12 city councils, 54 district and regional councils, and Auckland council (a unitary authority performing both roles). These local government authorities hold elections by postal ballot for the positions of councillors and mayors every three years. At the same time district health boards (20 in 2020) also elect seven members each.
All elections use the electoral rolls maintained by the Electoral Commission for general (that is, parliamentary) elections.
Because the New Zealand system of government is relatively centralised, most electoral and political attention is focused on general elections. In the mid-19th century provincial government was more important, attracting more press attention, more candidates and more voters. New Zealand’s provincial governments were abolished in 1876.