Kōrero: New Zealand identity

Whārangi 4. Politics

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Social laboratory of the world

During the 1890s the innovations of the Liberal government attracted international interest and established an image of New Zealand as a place that pioneered political experiments. These innovations included:

  • giving women the vote in 1893, the first country in the world to do so
  • the 1894 introduction of a system of compulsory arbitration in industrial relations
  • legislation in the early 1890s to break up the large landed estates and establish more egalitarian smallholdings
  • the introduction of old-age pensions in 1898.

Foreign observers

Reports from visitors to New Zealand helped promote the idea that New Zealand had a distinctive political tradition. American journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd described New Zealand as the country without strikes; French socialist André Metin defined its philosophy as socialism without doctrine; and French geographer and economist André Siegfried agreed that New Zealanders had a contempt for theory.

Later governments built on this reputation for experimentation and novelty in such initiatives as the welfare-state measures of the 1930s, the introduction of a government accident compensation scheme in the 1970s, the introduction of a radical policy of open government in 1982 and the free-market policies of the 1980s and early 1990s.

An independent status

The movement from a British identity towards a New Zealand identity was also expressed in political change. New Zealand did not experience a sudden moment of independence. After its transition from British colony to dominion status in 1907, New Zealand’s relationship with the United Kingdom weakened over time. The 1931 Statute of Westminster of the British Parliament, which removed its right to legislate for New Zealand, was ratified by New Zealand only in 1947. Some institutions took longer to establish in New Zealand. New Zealand’s Supreme Court replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the final court of appeal only in 2003. The country’s place as a member of the Commonwealth still shaped it in the 2000s.


Changes in citizenship policy affected the way New Zealanders understood their national identity. In 1948 New Zealand citizenship was created. However, the Citizenship Act 1977 was the first time that all links between British and New Zealand citizenship ceased. New Zealanders had previously been subjects of the British Empire, but the Citizenship Act 1977 made their citizenship – imprinted in the New Zealand passport – simply that of New Zealander.


The process of moving away from Britain also occurred in New Zealand’s foreign and economic policy. In 1973 the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC). New Zealand lost its privileged access to the British market, and began searching for new markets throughout the world. Active, government-led protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific showed that New Zealand foreign policy increasingly focused on the Pacific. Prime Minister Jim Bolger suggested in the early 1990s that New Zealand should think of itself as part of Asia.

Moral example

The idea of serving as a moral example to the world has been an important element of New Zealand national identity. The anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s, protests against French nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll in the 1970s, and popular support for the New Zealand government’s anti-nuclear position in the 1980s were manifestations of this. In 1985 a United States naval ship, the USS Buchanan, was denied entry to New Zealand and Prime Minister David Lange gave a famous anti-nuclear speech at the Oxford Union debate in the UK. In 1987 Parliament passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act, banning visits by nuclear-armed or -powered vessels. Many New Zealanders saw these as the courageous actions of a small nation staking out a clear position on the world stage.

Political ideals

Ever since Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s strong stand at the 1945 San Francisco conference which established the United Nations, New Zealand has consistently promoted human rights and multilateral action through international institutions like the United Nations.

New Zealanders have held to other ideals as central to the nation’s political culture. Although not all agree, some claim that New Zealanders believe egalitarianism, a ‘fair go’, easy access to politicians and ideological pragmatism are important features of New Zealand’s political culture.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Fiona Barker, 'New Zealand identity - Politics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/new-zealand-identity/page-4 (accessed 23 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Fiona Barker, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012