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Ethnic and religious intolerance

by Paul Spoonley

The expression of intolerance of other ethnic groups and religions can range from extreme violence (including genocide) to organised discrimination, to low-key or commonplace expressions of prejudice. In general New Zealanders’ intolerance has been towards the lower end of this spectrum.

Intolerance towards Māori

19th century

Intolerance towards indigenous people is typical of colonial societies. Māori, as individuals and communities, were the subject of racism and discrimination as Europeans settled in New Zealand in the 19th century.

However, the extent and nature of intolerance varied. Partly because of their strength in war and political negotiation, Māori were accorded civil rights through the Treaty of Waitangi, more than a century before Aboriginal people became full citizens of Australia. Māori had four seats in Parliament from 1867, and were members of national sports teams from the beginning. There was a general acceptance of intermarriage. It was commonly thought by Pākehā that Māori were genetically superior to other native peoples, and at the end of the 19th century they were considered to be Aryans, like Anglo-Saxons.

Better than blacks

In 1898 politician and historian William Pember Reeves wrote: ‘The average colonist regards a Mongolian with revulsion, a Negro with contempt, and looks on an Australian black as very near to a wild beast; but he likes the Maoris, and is sorry that they are dying out.’1

The intolerance of most white people was based less on an assumption of genetic superiority than of cultural superiority. The conversion of Māori to Christianity, the usurping of their resources (notably land for farming by settlers) and the growing dominance of the institutions of the New Zealand state were based on beliefs about the superiority of European civilisation and the perceived backwardness of Māori culture. Māori schooling was based on the assumption that Māori were capable of becoming westernised as ‘honorary whites’.

There were instances of racist intolerance. When large areas of Taranaki were confiscated from Māori in 1865 after the Taranaki wars, this included the land of tribes who had not fought against the government. They lost land purely because they were Māori.

Early 20th-century discrimination

The effects of war and disease had a major impact on the size and health of Māori communities until the early 20th century. Discriminatory aspects of New Zealand were still very obvious until the 1960s. From 1926 Māori normally received 25% less than the full rate for old-age and widows’ pensions. Despite the Labour government’s claims of equality, discrimination by the pensions department continued into the 1940s. Not until 1945, following the full participation of Māori in the Second World War, was this discrimination stopped.

Keeping the poor poor

In 1937 senior Treasury official Bernard Ashwin explained Māori levels of pension payments: ‘On the face of it, it may appear equitable to pay the average Māori old-age pensioner the same amount per week as the average European pensioner, but in this matter questions of equity should be decided having regard to the circumstances, the needs and the outlook on life of the individuals concerned … the living standard of the Māori is lower – and after all, the object of these pensions is to maintain standards rather than to raise them.’2

In 1959 Dr Henry Rongomau Bennett, a senior medical officer in an Auckland hospital, was refused a drink in the bar of a local hotel because he was Māori. Other hotels refused bookings from Māori. Rental properties were advertised for ‘Europeans only’, and in some places Māori were kept separate from Pākehā in cinemas and swimming pools.

Māori migration and restored mana

After 1945 increasing numbers of Māori moved to the city. This meant that Māori and Pākehā had greater contact as they intermingled in urban areas, and a new generation of Māori grew up without significant contact with their cultural heritage.

From the late 1960s Māori organisations, influenced by the American black civil-rights movement, challenged the way their culture and rights had been treated. They received support from Pākehā groups such as the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD), which researched the discriminatory treatment of Māori.

Attitudes to race relations changed between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. The Race Relations Act 1971 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, nationality or ethnic origin. A Race Relations Conciliator was appointed to set up procedures for investigating complaints about discrimination. Under the Human Rights Commission Act 1977, discrimination on the grounds of marital status, sex, religion and ethical belief also became illegal. Pākehā intolerance and institutional discrimination were extensively challenged.

Māori activism about land rights, culture and language led to the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to investigate alleged breaches of te Tiriti o Waitangi. From 1985 the Waitangi Tribunal could investigate breaches dating back to 1840. Māori whānau, hapū and iwi presented their claims to the Tribunal relating to many actions by the Crown that were breaches of the treaty. On the basis of findings by the Waitangi Tribunal the Crown embarked on a range of settlements, starting in the late 1980s.

There was a new sensitivity towards Māori by state organisations, reparations for Treaty of Waitangi breaches, and the restoration of resources such as fisheries (in 1992) to Māori ownership. Māori were active in establishing new institutions such as kōhanga reo (language learning nests) to foster their cultural interests. While the settlement process was often demanding and slow, and institutional change was difficult, New Zealand in the 2000s was a very different place for Māori than it had been previously.

    • William Pember Reeves, The long white cloud (Ao-tea-roa). London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1898, p. 57. Back
    • Quoted in Margaret McClure, A civilised community: a history of social security in New Zealand, 1898–1998. Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1998, p. 79. Back

Intolerance towards European immigrants

Until the 1960s nearly all immigrants were British or Irish. They were generally well-received, although there was some gentle ribbing of English newcomers – called ‘new chums’ in the 19th century, ‘homies’ in the 1920s, and ‘Poms’ in the 1950s and 1960s. British-born unionists received some public abuse as stirrers with foreign accents.

Tolerant Kiwis?

Richard Ingles was born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and migrated to New Zealand with his wife in 1965. When asked why they came to New Zealand rather than Australia, he answered that ‘Australians call us “Pommy Bastards” but in New Zealand it’s just “Bloody Pom”’.1

There was less tolerance of the Irish. Traditionally regarded by the English as uneducated, lazy, papist and overly fond of drink, the Catholic Irish suffered from discrimination in the recruitment of immigrants. Canterbury and Wellington provinces tried to avoid offering assisted passages to Irish, and the New Zealand government concentrated its efforts on the Protestant north of Ireland. There was some discrimination against Irish immigrants in terms of employment.

Continental Europeans

There were few immigrants from elsewhere in Europe. Most – such as the Germans and Scandinavians – were fully accepted, and were easily able to become naturalised as citizens.

Two world wars brought suspicion towards Germans, who in the First World War became the object of campaigning by the Anti-German League. Several hundred Germans were imprisoned as enemy aliens on Matiu (Somes Island) in Wellington Harbour and Motuihe Island near Auckland. In the Second World War over 100 Germans were detained on Matiu, along with 38 Italians and some Japanese.

Dangerous professor?

German-born, with an English mother, George von Zedlitz was the foundation professor of modern languages at Victoria College (later University) in Wellington. Although loyal to his adopted country, he offered his resignation when the First World War broke out. However, the university refused it. Rumours spread that von Zedlitz was a German agent who was in radio contact with German ships and signalled to internees on Matiu (Somes Island) from his hillside home. The Alien Enemy Teachers Act was passed in 1915 to force von Zedlitz out, and after the war a motion to reinstate him was defeated. A new building which opened at the university in 1979 was named after von Zedlitz.


Dalmatians from the Croatian coast were victims of some intolerance. Most came to New Zealand to work on the kauri-gum fields, and were regarded as illiterate and dirty. In 1898 the Kauri-gum Industry Act introduced kauri-gum reserves for British subjects only, and licences for gum-digging. Laws passed in 1908 and 1910 further restricted Dalmatians’ rights by confining digging licences to British subjects.


Intolerance towards Asians

The intolerance of colonial New Zealanders was most obviously directed at migrants from Asia.

Anti-Chinese hostility

Chinese miners were invited into the goldfields of Otago from the late 1860s, and by 1886 their numbers had reached 5,000 (although they subsequently decreased). Their presence provoked significant racial intolerance. In 1857, Nelson set up an anti-Chinese committee. In the 1880s these were joined by groups such as the White Race League and the Anti-Asiatic League.

Chinese were considered racially inferior to white people, and their culture was seen as a threat. Their ability to work hard and save money was seen to threaten the livelihood of whites. Many Chinese men had no wives in New Zealand and were suspected of having immoral designs on the women of the colony. Their habits were viewed as strange, and they were seen as ‘drug-besotten sin-begotten fiends’1. The Liberal politician William Pember Reeves described the Chinese as ‘dirty, miserly, ignorant, a shirker of social duty, and a danger to public health’.2

Anti-Chinese acts were passed.

  • In 1881 a £10 poll tax was placed on each Chinese immigrant, and their numbers were restricted to one person for every 10 tons of ship’s cargo. These figures were raised in 1896 to £100 poll tax and 200 tons of cargo.
  • In 1892 naturalisation as New Zealand citizens became free for all except Chinese. The naturalisation of Chinese was abolished in 1908 and did not resume until 1952.
  • In 1907 a reading test in English was imposed for Chinese immigrants.

Chinese were specifically excluded from the old-age pension (1898), widow’s pension (1911) and family allowances (1926). The effect was discrimination against the small local Chinese community from the 1880s through to the 1950s. The 1935–49 Labour government lifted some of the discriminatory legislation and policy, but the ‘white’ New Zealand immigration framework – which favoured immigrants from Europe – only disappeared when immigration policy was reviewed and changed in 1986 and 1987.

Selective violence

Apart from Māori, Chinese were the only people to be the victims of deliberate acts of violence. In the goldfields town of Naseby in 1868 Ah Pack was stripped of his clothes, put into a barrel and rolled about town. In 1905 in Haining Street, the centre of Wellington’s Chinese community, Lionel Terry shot Joe Kum Yung to draw attention to the ‘yellow peril’.


Until the First World War there were fewer than 200 Indians in New Zealand, but this did not prevent some hostility towards them. Indians were considered (like the Lebanese) to be ‘Assyrian hawkers’. Premier Richard Seddon wanted stern measures, but Indians were citizens of the British Empire. The Immigration Restriction Act 1899 tried to circumvent this by requiring those not of ‘British parentage’ to make their immigration application in a European language. Immediately after the First World War Indian migration increased. The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 required all those not of British parentage to apply for a permit. Indians were excluded from this definition, despite being British subjects.

White New Zealand League

By 1921 there were 671 Indians in New Zealand. They attracted growing antagonism, especially in the market-gardening area of Pukekohe, where other growers campaigned against them. In 1926 the White New Zealand League was set up in Pukekohe to restrict Asian immigration and rights. The league wrote to all 200 local bodies in New Zealand, asking them to endorse a ‘white New Zealand’ policy on the basis of the supposed low morals of Asians. They received positive responses from 160 of the local bodies and strong support from the media. Prime Minister Gordon Coates was also supportive.

Indians, like Chinese, could not receive state pensions until 1936. In Pukekohe they continued to be excluded from barbers’ shops, private bars and balcony seats in the local cinema until the 1950s.


Intolerance towards Pacific migrants

Migration from 1950s

The first significant wave of migrants from the Pacific Islands began in the late 1950s. As the New Zealand manufacturing sector expanded, employers turned to the Pacific for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Migrants from Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau arrived as New Zealand citizens. Technically, Samoans and Tongans needed approval to live and work in New Zealand. However, the government overlooked this requirement during the 1960s.


The economic impact of the 1973 oil crisis and growing unemployment provoked a backlash against these recent arrivals. Populist opinion saw them as taking the jobs of New Zealanders. Pacific Islanders were blamed for the deterioration of inner-city suburbs, and for law and order problems. Under the 1972–75 Labour government, police and immigration officials sought to identify and deport those who had overstayed their work permits. Raids on the homes of alleged overstayers – usually at dawn, to catch people before they woke – began in 1974.

In the 1975 general election campaign, a National Party cartoon depicted Pacific migrants as a threat to New Zealand. The new National government continued to authorise random street checks and dawn raids to identify overstayers. Pacific migrants, including those who were New Zealand citizens, were described by politicians and the media as unwelcome.


In 1982, the Privy Council in London ruled that a Western Samoan, Falema’i Lesa, who was being prosecuted for being an overstayer, was a natural-born British subject and therefore a New Zealand citizen. This meant that most of Western Samoa’s population qualified as New Zealand citizens. The response was the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982, which had the effect of overturning the ruling. The act confirmed negative attitudes towards Samoans.

Antagonism towards Pacific peoples continued into the 1980s. In 1986, 86% of those prosecuted for overstaying were Pacific people, although only a third of all overstayers were from the Pacific – the majority were from Europe or North America.

Not an underclass

In May 2008 a report appeared in a Wellington newspaper quoting an academic who claimed that Pacific Islanders were an underclass and a drain on the economy. Pacific people were outraged. The Race Relations Commissioner reviewed the matter and decided that the claims were based on out-of-date data; trends were positive in many areas.

Increased tolerance

Public attitudes changed in the 1990s, by when most Pacific people in New Zealand were New Zealand-born and they were beginning to have a noticeable impact on public life. In the early 21st century, with more than a quarter of a million people of Pacific ethnicity in New Zealand, levels of public intolerance were low. After the 2020 election, 11 members of Parliament identified as Pasifika (9%, compared to 3% in 1996).

A survey in 2009 found that 58% of respondents believed there was some discrimination against Pacific peoples, but only 5% believed they were the group most discriminated against.

Anti-Asian politics

New Asian migration

Concerns about the arrival of Asians surfaced again in the 1990s. Changes to immigration policy in 1986 and 1987 based the selection of immigrants on skills, not country of origin. There was a significant increase in immigration from Asia. The first wave of arrivals in the early 1990s were mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. After 2000, China and India provided many immigrants. In 2013, nearly 12% of New Zealand's population was Asian.

Community concern

In 1993 Auckland community newspapers published articles by journalists Pat Booth and Yvonne Martin on the ‘Inv-Asian’. A number of groups formed to oppose Asian immigration, and the New Zealand First Party, led by Winston Peters, campaigned in the 1996 election against the current levels of immigration and ‘non-traditional’ immigrants.

There was concern about a range of issues – everything from the driving abilities of Asians to the impact of non-English speakers on schools. Much public comment echoed the ‘yellow peril’ concerns of a century earlier.

Race-hate murder

Racial violence in the 2000s has been very rare. But in 2003, 25-year-old Korean economics student Jae Hyeon Kim was murdered by white supremacists while hitchhiking from Westport to Greymouth. The Reverend Taeil Choi of a Nelson Korean church suggested that for Jae Hyeon Kim’s sake, the country should commit itself to becoming ‘a place where all cultures and all people are tolerated equally’1.

Growing tolerance

Public opinion became more tolerant in the early 21st century. In an Asia New Zealand Foundation study of 2017, the majority of New Zealanders agreed that Asian growth had a positive influence on New Zealand’s economy, and 46% felt that Asian traditions and cultures would have a positive impact on New Zealand's future. 57% of respondents said that not enough was being done to understand Asian cultures and traditions, while 24% said enough was being done. Involvement with Asian cultures and peoples are major factors in developing a positive outlook. 

In the early 2010s New Zealand had a far more varied ethnic make-up than a century before – in 2013 over 34% of New Zealanders declared their ethnicity as Māori, Asian or Pacific. There was less explicit racial intolerance. The country had an annual Race Relations Day on 21 March – the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In 2015/16 the Human Rights Commission received 282 complaints or enquiries about discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ethnic or national origin, down from 338 in 2014. After the 2020 election, 7% of MPs were Asian.

The Human Rights Commission facilitates the New Zealand Diversity Action Programme: Te Ngira. Established in 2004, this programme works to foster positive relationships between diverse peoples and fulfill the promise of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Commission also sponsored the New Zealand Diversity Action Awards, which rewarded actions by a range of groups that contributed to better relationships among New Zealanders of diverse ethnicity and religious beliefs.

The different stories of New Zealanders with diverse ethnic backgrounds were recorded as part of the #ThatsUsNZ initiative in 2016/17. Personal stories of casual racism and of starting a new life in New Zealand highlight informal and casual forms of discrimination. This was reinforced by the subsequent #GiveNothingToRacism campaign.

Immigration and housing

In 2015, as house prices rose steeply in Auckland as a consequence of rising demand and limited supply, issues relating to Chinese purchases of domestic housing became headline news. Labour Party housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford, released data from a real estate firm in July 2015 that suggested that almost 40% of houses in a 3 month period were purchased by people with Chinese names. The implication was that Chinese buyers were driving up the cost of Auckland homes.

The Labour Party was criticised for using questionable information to 'scapegoat' Chinese home buyers in ways that verged on racism. Some commentators argued that the bulk of recent permanent and long-term immigrants were Chinese and Indian and this could explain their representation among house buyers. But these were New Zealand residents or citizens.

From October 2015, foreign buyers had to register with Inland Revenue before buying property in New Zealand and have a New Zealand bank account. Data from Land Information New Zealand in May 2016 suggested that overseas Chinese buyers were the biggest investors among foreign buyers in New Zealand homes in the first quarter of 2016 and 58% of foreign buyers in the Auckland region. However, overseas buyers were only 3% of all home buyers in early 2016.

    • Quoted in Tūī tūī tuituiā: race relations in 2008. Auckland: Human Rights Commission, 2009, p. 23. Back

Anti-Semitism and neo-fascism

New Zealand has seen few examples of prejudice directed at Jews (anti-Semitism). In the 19th century Jews faced little discrimination. An early premier, Julius Vogel, was Jewish. During the 1930s, when countries settled by Europeans such as Australia and Canada experienced a rise in anti-Semitism promoted by fascist groups, New Zealand did not have similar groups.

Social Credit

There was one political tradition, Social Credit, which was hostile to Jews. The movement grew rapidly in New Zealand, from six branches in 1931 to 225 in 1935. Major C. H. Douglas, the Canadian founder of Social Credit, toured New Zealand in 1934 and expounded his view that Jews were behind a global conspiracy to control finance. This idea was discussed in the Social Credit publication Plain Talk.

Social Credit’s support came from small farmers and businesspeople, who were attracted to its financial ideas during a difficult economic period. The anti-Semitism of Social Credit ended in the 1970s when a more liberal leadership under Bruce Beetham came to power.

League of Rights

Traditional anti-Semitism was taken up by a Social Credit-inspired and Australian-led organisation, the League of Rights, which at its height in the 1970s had about 1,000 members. It talked about an international Jewish conspiracy, allegedly based on ‘the protocols of the learned elders of Zion’ – which were actually a forgery from the early 20th century. The League of Rights had an ageing membership, and it had disappeared by the 1990s.

In surveys from the 1980s onwards, the Jewish community did not see anti-Semitism in New Zealand as a major issue. The expression of anti-Semitism was largely confined to a small group of organisations and individuals.


New Zealand had few examples of fascism until the late 1960s. The National Front, a direct imitation of the British neo-fascist party of the same name, appeared in 1967; the National Socialist White People’s Party, which took its ideas from German Nazism, began in 1969. Both were white-supremacist organisations which argued for the continued ‘purity’ of white people, and against biculturalism or the arrival of non-white immigrants.

White-supremacist groups

As Māori asserted their rights through the 1970s, and the anti-apartheid movement gained strength in the late 1970s and early 1980s, white-supremacist groups increased. In the South Island, the White Defence League, New Order and the European Liberation Front were established. Nationally, other groups such as New Force, the New Zealand–Rhodesia Society and Friends of South Africa argued for the continued supremacy of whites in New Zealand, South Africa and what was then Rhodesia.

Some expressed more extreme views than others, but all believed that the political supremacy of whites was under threat, and were concerned at racial intermarriage and intermingling. They opposed Māori rights and many saw a ‘One World government’ and a Jewish banking conspiracy as threats.

‘Not bloody Appleby’

‘Watching a family flee their home is something you see in Rwanda, not bloody Appleby in Invercargill,’1 commented one Appleby resident in 2009. A couple had left their home in the Invercargill suburb to escape a household of skinheads next door. The group had spray-painted Nazi swastikas and the words ‘Hail Satan’ on houses. They had allegedly defecated on the couple’s front doorstep and burgled their home.

These groups probably had only a few thousand members at their height in the 1980s. Their views were espoused by skinheads from the 1980s onwards. These white-supremacist gangs, modelled on British working-class groups of the same name, were responsible for violent homophobic and racist attacks, especially in some South Island centres.

More recently there have been attacks on property. In 2004 Jewish gravestones were smashed in Wellington’s Bolton Street cemetery. Then more than 80 headstones at Makara cemetery near Wellington were toppled and the Jewish prayer house was burnt down. These actions prompted a unanimous cross-party resolution in Parliament condemning the desecration. The resolution was supported by a wide range of community leaders.


Religious intolerance

The major examples of religious intolerance in New Zealand involved hostility between Catholics and Protestants during the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. At Ōkārito on the West Coast in 1865, and in Christchurch and Timaru in 1879, there were fisticuffs between Irish Catholics and Protestants.

Protestant Political Association

Antagonism towards Catholics intensified during the First World War and lasted through the 1920s. Catholics, most of whom were of Irish descent, were thought to be ambivalent about the war because of Britain’s refusal to give lreland ‘home rule’. In 1919 Baptist minister Howard Leslie Elliott formed the Protestant Political Association (PPA), which in 1919 he claimed had 200,000 members. Elliott argued that the Catholic Church was responsible for the First World War and that Catholics dominated the public service. His allegation that the Post Office authorities, under postmaster general and Catholic Sir Joseph Ward, were responsible for stopping PPA publications from being distributed led to a Royal Commission. The commission found no truth in the allegations. The antagonism between Elliott and the PPA and Catholics was not helped by the fact that equally strong views were held by James Kelly, the editor of the Catholic publication The Tablet.

Bishop Liston’s trial

Another public clash came when Catholic Bishop James Michael Liston was prosecuted in 1922 for sedition after a St Patrick’s Day speech in Auckland. Liston had been vocal on Irish independence and had voiced his concern at the bigotry which had led to the concription of seminarians and brothers in 1917. He was acquitted after a two-day trial by an all-Protestant jury – although they did find him guilty of a ‘grave indiscretion’.

Later 20th century

Despite the anti-Labour politics of Elliott and others, a Labour government with strong Catholic links was elected in 1935. The antagonism between some Protestants and Catholics continued. At a popular level there was verbal abuse hurled between Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren, and for much of the 20th century Catholic schools were excluded from school sporting competitions in Dunedin and Christchurch. But the separation of state and religious organisations, and the growing secularisation of the New Zealand population, eased religious tension. In the 2013 census 46% of New Zealanders stated that they had no religion, objected to stating a religious adherence or did not indicate any adherence. Moreover, religious diversity was growing and 6% of New Zealanders were part of non-Christian religious communities.

In the early 21st century there was little obvious religious tension. There were some incidents directed at Muslim communities following the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, but these were minor compared to anti-Islamic politics in other countries. Individual Muslim New Zealanders experienced occasional verbal and physical attacks from those who told them they had no right to be in New Zealand. Some of those experiencing this intolerance were women wearing hijab or headscarves which identified them as Muslim. The 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, in which 51 people were killed, were a shocking break with the long-term trend towards greater tolerance.

The Human Rights Commission’s Statement on religious diversity (2007) helped identify the principles of religious tolerance. It included a commitment by the state to treat all faith communities and those who do not belong to any religion equally before the law and in the provision of public services. It also recognised that religious diversity was increasing in New Zealand and that the government and faith communities needed to develop and sustain positive relationships with one another. The statement was rewritten in 2018 to reaffirm the importance of religious diversity.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Spoonley, 'Ethnic and religious intolerance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Paul Spoonley, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 7 o Hune 2018