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.
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).
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.
General elections have normally taken place in October or November in the third year of the parliamentary term – although since 2014 they have been in September. Elections have not always occurred on a single day – the first election of 1853 took place in different electorates between July and October. Since 1881 a single election day has been used for all the general (non-Māori) electorates. Initially this was a weekday, but since 1951 elections for both Māori and general seats have been held on the same day: a Saturday.
On election day polling places are open for voting throughout the country, in places such as community and school halls, from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. In 2014 there were 2,568 polling places. Votes are also cast at overseas polling booths and by post. By the 2010s many New Zealanders were casting advance votes prior to polling day. In 2017, 47% of votes were cast in advance.
In the mid-19th century there were few polling places and no postal voting. Bribery of voters, drunken rowdiness, arguments and double voting were all part of the day.
Initially, progress results were released before the polls closed. A desperate candidate who drummed up sufficient support could swing the election if his voters arrived in time. Although the release of progress results was outlawed in 1858, the practice did not stop for some time after that.
Certain rules regulate conduct on election day. Scrutineers representing the candidates are allowed to observe the process from within the polling place. But all campaigning – and media coverage of it – must cease. Generally, election days have become very orderly affairs and complaints of serious electoral violations have been rare.
The secret ballot has been a central feature of elections since 1871. Those who favoured it believed it would prevent intimidation or treating (candidates bribing electors with food and drink). Those who opposed it argued that voting was not an individual right but a trust exercised on behalf of the community – open voting meant that those who voted were accountable to the disenfranchised.
Until 1990 voters took a printed ballot paper into a private booth and crossed out the names of candidates other than the one for whom they were voting. Since then, voters have put a tick beside their electoral choice. Voters put their own paper into a closed ballot box.
At early elections a show of hands, followed by verbal voting if an unsuccessful candidate demanded it, was commonly used. The voter would tell voting officials their choice and it was recorded for everyone to see. In 1860 one newspaper even published the details of how every elector had voted. The secret ballot was made compulsory in 1890 for general electorates, but not until 1938 for the Māori electorates.
Most votes are counted on the day of the election, with some special votes counted later. During the evening preliminary results are announced, and the winners of electorates are usually unofficially declared. Especially, since the introduction of the mixed-member proportional voting system in 1996, it has not always been clear on the night which party or parties would form the new government.
Election night has always been a significant event, with much of the population following the results as they are publicly announced in the media. Until television became dominant, newspaper offices were often the centres of election night interest. Crowds gathered to watch the results posted up on outdoor hoardings.
Traditionally, New Zealand’s election campaign has had a formal length of about one month. This is in part a result of laws and conventions relating to the time between the dissolution of Parliament and the election of the next one, which must be less than 40 days. A campaign’s beginning is generally signalled by the public campaign launches of each political party and the broadcast of opening television addresses by party leaders. From this point onwards candidates engage in an intense schedule of electioneering.
Since the 1970s, with widespread television ownership, campaigns have been more ongoing, with the parties campaigning throughout the electoral cycle. This ‘permanent campaign’ has politicians using photo opportunities to gain media attention, while party strategists keep a close watch on public opinion polls (which are conducted by the parties themselves as well as the media).
Campaign techniques have changed dramatically since New Zealand’s first election in 1853. In very early elections the main campaigning technique was for candidates to give speeches. They stood on top of soapboxes or other temporary wooden stages erected in public – otherwise known as the ‘hustings’. Electioneering has also involved political banquets, posters, bribery, public meetings in local halls and door-to-door canvassing.
The early 1870s saw the first attempt at a national campaign. Government minister Donald McLean organised a campaign on behalf of the incumbent government, and Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel toured the country. Although the governing group won the election, McLean’s method took years to catch on. It was not until the 1890s that a nationally organised political party – the Liberals – fought and won an election.
Face-to-face contact with voters was slowly superseded – or at least supplemented – by the use of evolving media technologies. First, newspapers became the main medium for getting the message out in 19th-century New Zealand. Then, in the 1940s, radio surpassed newspapers as the main method of political communication.
The 1960s saw the arrival of television, and by 1969 the medium was beginning to dominate election campaigns. Television election advertisements became increasingly sophisticated, and news coverage brought images of the campaign into people’s homes.
From this point the whole configuration of electoral politics began to change to a more professional – some say Americanised – form. A telegenic image and highly adept communications skills became paramount. Politicians and their campaigns were tailored using commercial market-research principles. Commercial agencies, communications consultants and new technologies communicated with and listened to voters. Parties sought votes by focusing on their leaders and using soundbites and emotional appeals, rather than mainly through party manifestos which listed policies reflecting their political ideologies.
In the 2000s the internet became a vehicle for further changes in electioneering. Parties and candidates used websites, blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to get their appeals out.
New Zealand had a high degree of electoral political participation in the 20th century, but there has been a steady decline since the 1960s.
One of the key ways in which citizens have been involved in electoral politics has been through membership of political parties. In the period after the Second World War New Zealand was said to have one of the highest rates of membership in the Western world. About a quarter of all voters were members of a party in the 1960s. The level has declined significantly, and by the 2010s only about one voter in 50 was a member of a political party.
Similarly, in the 2000s fewer people were directly involved in campaign activities such as door-to-door canvassing and election rallies.
Voting is not compulsory in New Zealand, but in the period after the Second World War levels exceeded 90%. This declined by the 2000s to a turnout of about 75% (a rate last seen in 1893–1902). The turnout at the 2017 election was 79.8%, the highest since 2005.
Voter turnout is measured as a proportion of the ‘voting-age population’. This allows for the fact that although it is compulsory to register to vote, not everyone does – in 2017 about 92% of the estimated voting-age population was enrolled.
Edward Jollie was elected unopposed to represent the Cheviot electorate in 1859. ‘Elections in those days’, he wrote, ‘were not considered of much consequence. Settlers had so much to occupy them … and were so widely scattered about … that only those in the immediate vicinity of the place of nomination cared to attend. In the towns there was often considerable excitement but often more personal than political.’1
Participation in local government elections is much lower, despite the introduction of postal voting, partly to encourage voter participation. In the 2016 local government elections, 42% of eligible voters participated.
Although there were mid-19th-century settlers who wanted the vote, and some elections were fiercely contested, many people were not very interested. Often those entitled to vote did not get their names onto the electoral roll, and until the 1880s many elections were decided by less than half of those registered.
Political activity, including voting, campaigning and standing for election, was dominated by middle-class and well-to-do men until the later 19th century, when women and working-class men became active.
Campaigning costs money, and issues relating to political finance and its regulation have been of increasing concern in New Zealand. Arguments are made about the unfairness of electoral participants having unequal amounts of money to spend on their campaigns, and the possibility of corruption resulting from donations made to campaigns. For these reasons there are a number of regulations about the use of money in elections.
Bribery has been illegal in elections since 1858. Further restrictions have involved various limits on campaign advertising expenditure. In 1895 a limit on candidate expenditure of £200 was introduced. This was the equivalent of $36,960 in 2014, when the amount allowed per candidate was $25,700.
William Brown, whose fight to be superintendent of Auckland Province in 1853 failed, is said to have spent £3,000 (more than $320,000 in 2010 values) on his campaign. Len Brown, who won the contest to be first mayor of the Auckland ‘super city’ in 2010, spent $390,761. The totals are comparable, but the two Browns spent a very different amount per voter. Len Brown spent 86 cents for each of 455,650 Aucklanders who turned out on the day. William Brown spent more than $184 (in 2010 values) on each of the 1,742 voters who went to the polls in Auckland province.
At the first election using the MMP (mixed-member proportional) system in 1996, spending limits were extended to political parties. In 2008, for example, the two largest parties, Labour and National, had limits of about $2.4 million each. The rules were later changed. In 2011 a political party seeking party and electorate votes was allowed to spend up to $1,065,000, plus $25,000 for each electorate it contested. The major parties had an allocation of $2,815,000 for the three months leading up to the election. Parties that did not contest the party vote were permitted to spend $25,000 per contested electorate.
Resources are also made available by the state for political parties to broadcast their message during the campaign. The Electoral Commission allocates time and money to be spent on television and radio advertisements, and on campaign opening and closing speeches. In 2008, $3.2 million and 102 minutes of television time was allocated to 14 parties – with 60% of the money going to Labour and National. Political parties are not permitted to use their own money to buy additional broadcast advertising.
Two major controversies made political finance an issue following the 2005 general election. Members of the Exclusive Brethren church spent a considerable amount of money publishing leaflets that assisted the National Party’s campaign, thus circumventing the limits on expenditure by political parties.
The second issue arose after the election. An investigation by the auditor-general, an independent official, found that all of the parliamentary parties except the Maori Party had unlawfully spent parliamentary funds on their election campaigns. The biggest offender was the governing Labour Party, which, along with the other offending parties, was pressured to pay back the money spent on election advertisements.
The Labour-led government moved after the election to tighten up the regulation of political finance, with Parliament passing the Electoral Finance Act 2007 (EFA). The government’s stated intention was to prevent the undue influence of money on electoral outcomes, while providing greater transparency and accountability on party and candidate election activity. However, many saw the legislation as stifling freedom of expression and political debate in election years. The EFA was repealed in 2009 with the support of both National and Labour.
In 2010 the National-led government introduced the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment bill, which passed with the support of both major parties. This legislation was the result of a more thorough and consultative policy-making process than the EFA, and proved much less controversial. In addition to changes relating to electoral expenditure, the act gave New Zealanders the option of voting before election day, which many did in 2011 and 2014. In 2017, 47% of all votes were cast before election day, suggesting that the ritual of voting alongside one’s neighbours as a collective expression of citizenship may be becoming redundant.
Atkinson, Neill. Adventures in democracy: a history of the vote in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press in association with the Electoral Commission, 2003.