Story: Ideas in New Zealand

Māori developed their own distinctive world view and concepts, and when Pākehā arrived they brought ideas from Europe. New Zealanders have continued to engage with international thinking, developing many ideas in distinctive directions.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: William Pember Reeves arbitration cartoon, 1894

Story summary

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Māori ideas and European arrival

Māori brought concepts and theories from the Pacific, and developed these in isolation for some 500 years. The organising principle of their world view was whakapapa (genealogy).

After Pākehā arrived, Māori engaged with their theories and beliefs and adapted some for their own purposes. Christianity was the basis of distinctive Māori churches, and concepts of royalty and government led to the Māori King movement and Māori parliaments.

Europeans brought their beliefs and philosophies to New Zealand, and stayed engaged with the wider world through the arrival of books, letters and visitors from overseas. There were few totally original ideas in New Zealand, but overseas ideas developed in particular ways.

Enlightenment science

British explorer James Cook came to New Zealand in the spirit of the Enlightenment, which assumed that through observation and reason humans could understand the laws God had used to create the world. Cook and the scientists who came with him set out to document an unknown natural world, and other observers followed them.


Missionaries worked to spread Christianity in New Zealand. They got involved in debates about the nature of Māori. Some saw Māori as uncivilised, while others thought Māori were related to Jews, or were a lost tribe of Israel.

Darwinism and anthropology

There was debate over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Some saw this as challenging the Bible, while others thought that evolution was the method used by God to create species. Some people applied Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest to suggest that Māori would die out and be replaced by stronger races.

Wakefield and the ‘better Britain’

Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his New Zealand Company promoted New Zealand as an improved version of Britain, where people were more equal and wage-earners could own land.

The Liberal governments of the 1890s and 1900s attempted to break up large estates and settle people on the land.


In the 1890s laws were passed about labour, immigration, housing and the protection of women and children. Overseas observers visited to see the ‘social laboratory of the world’. The government’s achievements were described as socialism without doctrines.

From about 1900 more radical socialist ideas, of class struggle and working-class revolution, were promoted by unions and the Federation of Labour.

The new right

In the later 20th century new-right economists who believed in the primacy of market forces became influential. The Labour government elected in 1984 carried out sweeping economic reforms.

Identity politics

From the mid-1960s new world views developed, with protesters opposing the Vietnam War and calling for an independent foreign policy. Māori activism drew on ideas from overseas movements for black power and decolonisation. Feminism, gay activism and environmentalism became important forces. All these movements drew on overseas ideas.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Ideas in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 October 2014