Story: Political values

Page 3. Enduring political values

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While New Zealanders recognised their place in a larger empire, from the outset they felt entitled to self-government. They believed that this was the only appropriate way for British people to be governed. This, too, reflected a belief in equality – a view that colonials had rights at least equal to those of British residents back ‘home’. The Wellington Settlers’ Constitutional Association was set up in 1848 to press for self-government.

The rule of law

Settlers also believed in ‘the rule of law’ – the idea that all are to be equal before the law, and that society, as a whole, is to be governed by law (rather than by rulers acting arbitrarily). Early settlers also believed that traditional British legal principles (including individual title to land) would be upheld in New Zealand’s new surroundings.


While states everywhere are expected to provide security for their people, settlers in new societies – living on a frontier close to indigenous inhabitants with their own outlooks and expectations – have a more urgent sense of the need for protection. From colonial times, New Zealanders have identified their government as a source of protection – from harsh economic times as well as from other forms of danger – rather than as an oppressive entity. Pākehā New Zealanders have no history of rebellion, either against British rule or against their own government.

A popular rabbi

Although there was some religious prejudice against Catholics, the idea that New Zealand’s development required contributions from all European settlers limited religious prejudice. For example, Christians subscribed to projects of importance to the Jewish community and vice versa. In Wellington the local rabbi, Herman van Staveren, was elected to the Wellington Hospital Board from 1913, serving until his death in 1930. He topped the poll in the voting for the local liquor-licensing committee.

Religious tolerance

New Zealanders distinguished themselves from their British origins by rejecting the idea of an ‘established’ (official) church. A fourth article was added to the Māori version of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 which said: 'The Governor says the several faiths, of England, of the Wesleyans, of Rome, and also the Maori custom, shall be alike protected.' Later attempts to set up an established church were unsuccessful and the Education Act 1877 specified a nationwide system of secular schools.

While most European settlers were Christian, from the outset it was accepted that non-Christians would have equal rights and would be eligible to hold political or judicial office. While there are significant exceptions – for example, each parliamentary sitting day commences with a Christian prayer, and ‘God’ appears in the country’s two national anthems – in general, the country’s politics are unsympathetic to overt expressions of religiosity. Even under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system that New Zealand has had since 1996, Christian political parties have had a noticeable lack of electoral success. Census data and opinion polls show New Zealand as one of the world’s most secular societies.

How to cite this page:

Stephen Levine, 'Political values - Enduring political values', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 October 2021)

Story by Stephen Levine, published 20 Jun 2012