Kōrero: Political values

Whārangi 7. Values and political change

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Elections and values

While New Zealand parliamentary elections have historically been understood as involving conflicting economic and sectional interests, they can also be viewed as involving different values. There are links between voters’ values and support for particular parties. For example:

  • giving priority to environmental values may incline a voter to support the Green Party
  • concerns relating to the Treaty of Waitangi, or to levels of inequality among Māori, may be associated with support for a Māori party
  • beliefs that high levels of taxation are unfair may lead to support for the National or ACT parties
  • concerns about poverty and inequality may incline voters towards the Labour Party.

Values, not politics

Promoting ‘values’ over traditional policy is not an approach exclusive to the young or the left. New Zealand’s right-wing ACT Party campaigned at the 1996 election on the slogan, ‘Values. Not politics’. The party claimed that ACT was ‘different’ because it was ‘real people, sharing Kiwi values’, and that ‘ACT will put values, not politics, into Parliament’.

Values Party

The most explicit political commitment to values in politics came when a group of young students at Victoria University of Wellington formed the Values Party in 1972. The party dissented from the traditional basis of New Zealand politics – a competition for power from among economic and sectional interests – and pushed for ‘post-materialist’ values. Rejecting the idea of ‘growth’, the party presented environmentalist ideas, and identified itself with the counter-culture of the time, which was questioning traditional values.


From the late 1960s new values emerged in New Zealand politics. Uneasy attitudes towards all things nuclear were influenced by atmospheric testing of weapons in the Pacific by the United States and the United Kingdom, and subsequently by France. In the 1970s a commission into New Zealand’s future energy needs saw no need to proceed with nuclear power at least until the new millennium. In the mid-1980s a formal alliance relationship with the US was disrupted as a result of New Zealanders’ growing hostility to nuclear weapons. From the 1990s New Zealand’s anti-nuclear outlook became seen as ‘iconic’ – virtually untouchable, a key element of government policy (irrespective of party) and of the country’s distinctive political identity.


The indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, are sometimes described (in Māori) as tangata whenua – people of the land. An attachment to this country’s land and waters is central to Māori culture and tradition.

Until the late 1960s many Pākehā New Zealanders believed that the land and its resources should be used for economic growth. Then a widespread protest movement against the raising of the water level of Lake Manapōuri for a hydroelectric power station expressed a growing awareness of environmental values. Protecting the land and enjoying it through recreational pursuits became values central to many New Zealanders’ views about their country. These views can inhibit businesses, and governments, from undertaking or permitting activities (such as mining, or the encouraging of foreign investment, control and ownership) which might otherwise be seen as profitable.

In 2011, for example, the National government announced plans for mining on conservation lands. While supported by those giving priority to economic growth, the plans were criticised by those giving environmental concerns a higher priority. The plans were initially scaled back before being withdrawn altogether.

Politically correct values

Some New Zealanders regard efforts to promote particular values as inappropriate and ‘politically correct’ (a pejorative term for ideas and language which aim to avoid offending particular groups of people, or which are euphemistic). The idea that the Labour-led government of Helen Clark was engaged in ‘social engineering’ contributed to a greater degree of caution in its last term, and possibly to its election defeat in 2008. Resentment of ‘political correctness’ can be directed towards the news media, educators and church leaders as well as members of particular political parties or government institutions.

Cultural change

From the 1970s onward New Zealand displayed a more tolerant, socially ‘liberal’ outlook. In 1986 a bill was enacted decriminalising homosexuality. This bill, highly controversial and argued over for many years, involved a clash of values, between those seeking to defend traditional ideas about morality and those opting for a more liberal and tolerant approach. In the end, in line with developments in other countries, those promoting change proved successful.

On this issue, as on others – such as rights to abortion, the introduction of civil unions in 2005 (further legalising same-sex relationships) and the decriminalisation of prostitution in 2003 – New Zealand society addressed legislative policy issues on which public sympathies were deeply (and, to some extent, irreconcilably) divided. In each case, those with more traditional values were unable to persuade a majority of members of Parliament that these values were unalterable. Most of the country’s political parties, recognising that these were issues about ‘values’ – matters of individual conscience – declined to adopt a formal policy, leaving matters to each individual member of Parliament to decide.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Stephen Levine, 'Political values - Values and political change', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/political-values/page-7 (accessed 21 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Stephen Levine, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012