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Political values

by Stephen Levine

It has been said that if New Zealand was to erect a huge statue like the Statue of Liberty, it would be the Statue of Equality. Like other countries, it has developed its own national character, and equality, fairness and honesty are values which most New Zealanders see as important.

New Zealand politics and political values

A country’s politics reflects the values and historical experience of its people. In turn, a nation’s values are a significant part of its identity and distinctive outlook.

Every nation has its own distinctive history, influencing the lives of its people. Each country has its own political institutions, and the way these work in practice has a great deal to do with the prevailing beliefs, habits and expectations of that country.

Political socialisation

People acquire their political values – their political identity and identification with a larger political community (such as the nation) – through a process of ‘political socialisation’. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, people acquire their political values from family members (initially, in most cases, from their parents), schools, the media (including the internet, films, television, music and books, as well as from news sources), work, friends, travel and their own unique experiences.

Some educators have attempted to introduce a more systematic approach to the process by which New Zealanders acquire their particular beliefs and principles. The Ministry of Education has attempted to give greater emphasis to the explicit articulation of values in the New Zealand social studies curriculum.

Political culture

While there is much diversity in any society, every nation has distinctive views, shared by many of its people, about government and politics. These expectations about what governments ought to do, and how they should function, is a nation’s ‘political culture’.

Continuity and change

A nation’s political culture changes over time. New Zealand’s political development has been characterised more by evolution than revolution – slow change rather than sudden change, and its political system functions without a single written constitutional statement of principles and policy direction. New Zealand’s political values do not reflect a consistent, logically organised perspective on the means and ends of politics and government. However, certain features of a nation’s overall political outlook remain more or less constant, sometimes strengthening over time.

Colonial political values

British origins

Like its political institutions, New Zealand’s political culture has largely British origins. From around 1840 the country’s European settlers brought with them certain opinions about how politics and government ought to be run. While these have evolved over time, the overall set of attitudes towards politics in contemporary New Zealand would probably be recognisable to 19th- century New Zealanders, even if they would be surprised by some ways in which matters have developed.

Colonial political culture

There are no colonial opinion polls summarising what the colonists thought about political matters. Nevertheless, from contemporary accounts and from their behaviour – and their presence as settlers in islands far from their place of birth – settlers showed beliefs in:

  • the superiority of their way of life
  • their rights as British subjects
  • their right, and capacity, to begin their lives anew in a land free from European strife and prejudice.

Rights of British subjects

Article Three of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, extended the rights of British subjects to Māori. This expressed an underlying political value which was shared by the British government and British settlers alike: that in the political world there was no higher aspiration than to be given the rights of British subjects. The idea of equality for all, irrespective of race, colour, religion or national origin, was also implicit in the Article Three guarantees, although for Māori, the achievement of genuine equality involved a lengthy and ongoing struggle.

Loyalty to empire

While colonial politics was not free of quarrels between the governor and settler politicians, New Zealand’s colonials recognised their dependence on British power and felt an instinctive attachment to ‘the mother country’. They felt pride in the British Empire – its strength, prosperity, size, culture, values and royal family. Loyalty to empire proved a bond strong enough to induce the colony’s young men to join, with popular enthusiasm, in wars far from New Zealand – in South Africa (1899–1902) and in the world wars in Europe and elsewhere (1914–18 and 1939–45).

‘Victorian’ values

In the 19th century what are now generally characterised as ‘Victorian’ values included ideas about honour and glory, part of a vocabulary no longer much in use. New Zealanders fighting for the British Empire – for queen (or king) and country – were responding not only to government policies but to the society’s overall view of what was right, proper and expected of the men of that time.

Enduring political values


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. During discussion of the Treaty of Waitangi on 5 February 1840, the missionary Henry Williams read out a carefully worded statement: 'The Governor says the several faiths, of England, of the Wesleyans, of Rome, and also the Maori custom, shall be alike protected by him.' Some see this as a ‘fourth article’ of te tiriti, although it was not incorporated in either version of the document. 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.

The fair society

Freedom, equality and security

Like other western societies, especially the United States, New Zealanders value ‘freedom’. But they have given equal value to ‘equality’. They have been willing to tolerate restrictions on their freedom of action so long as those restrictions contributed to greater equality. In general this did not mean an absolute equality, but rather an equality of opportunity and a fair distribution of wealth.

Most New Zealanders were also willing to accept restrictions intended to contribute to economic and political security. From 1938 until the mid-1980s, for instance, New Zealanders were unable to send their own money overseas without approval from the Reserve Bank (the country’s central bank). Long-standing exchange controls were justified as a necessary part of maintaining a stable and secure economy.

Statue of Equality

In 1948 New Zealand’s first professor of political science, Leslie Lipson, wrote that if New Zealanders chose to erect a statue like the Statue of Liberty, embodying the country’s political outlook, it would probably be a Statue of Equality. This reflected New Zealanders’ view that equality (rather than freedom) was the most important political value and the most compelling goal for the society to strive for and protect.


A central value for New Zealanders is ‘fairness’. ‘Fair enough’ is a common response in conversation, particularly to unwelcome news. To be ‘fair’ is to be ‘reasonable’. The 1985 Royal Commission on the Electoral System contained 10 criteria for evaluating electoral systems, with many involving ‘fairness’ – to Māori, to ethnic minorities and to political parties. For New Zealanders an electoral system – and, more broadly, a political system, or a set of government policies – is defensible only if seen to be ‘fair’.


New Zealand is regarded as one of the most honest countries in the world, often ranked number one by the organisation Transparency International. New Zealanders reject corruption from politicians and public officials. There is no expectation that public servants or elected officials will use their positions for the purpose of illegal or inappropriate private enrichment. Residents do not expect to be required to offer bribes, and officials do not expect to receive them.


New Zealanders have pride in their country, and pleasure in being ‘Kiwis’, but it is generally a more subdued patriotism than elsewhere. While New Zealanders joined with enthusiasm in Britain’s major wars, a militaristic (or aggressive) patriotism has gone out of fashion. New Zealanders are not, in general, given to conspicuous patriotic display – as in the flying of flags, the singing of the national anthem, or marching down streets on a particular holiday. There is, nonetheless, a patriotic spirit, honouring the country and its achievements. The much-noted involvement of young New Zealanders at Anzac Day commemorations, in New Zealand and at Gallipoli, in Turkey, is one example. So is their passionate support for New Zealand sporting teams.

New Zealand’s values and the wider world

Leading the world

New Zealand is not a large or powerful country. Nevertheless its political culture includes a view of the country – part of its attractive self-image – as capable of inspiring others. The idea of New Zealand leading the world by example, through idealism and pragmatic innovation, is an attractive one. It gives New Zealand a ‘mission’ – a wider purpose – that does not involve aggressive endeavour or the use of force. As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the idea that New Zealand’s social, economic or political policies might be emulated by others – particularly by the more powerful – is potentially a deeply satisfying one.

Examples of New Zealand’s world-leading role are:

  • being the first country in the world to give women the vote, in 1893
  • the development of a welfare system, beginning with old age pensions in 1898 and including the welfare state of the 1935 Labour government, which earned New Zealand a reputation as ‘the social laboratory of the world’
  • the country’s race relations – relations between Māori and non-Māori – were traditionally a source of pride, but have become less so
  • the liberal economic reforms of the 1980s – not viewed positively by some New Zealanders.

Good neighbour

In October 1997, Prime Minister Jim Bolger noted that New Zealand was working to find a solution to the war in Bougainville by organising peace talks in New Zealand. ‘It’s not glamorous work’, he said, ‘it’s called helping your neighbours’.1 In New Zealand’s political culture, being a good neighbour is a central virtue, and most New Zealanders would support New Zealand efforts, through aid and other programmes, to help the country’s Pacific neighbours.

New Zealand’s place in the world

New Zealanders’ values also encompass perceptions about the country’s place in the world. New Zealanders have never been ‘isolationist’. A remote island nation, dependent on external trade for its prosperity and, ultimately, on the support of larger powers for its security, could hardly adopt such a perspective. At the outset New Zealanders took pride in membership of the British Empire, and would have seen little alternative to it. A taste for military adventure and a degree of colonialism of their own in the Pacific were also among the values honoured by 19th- and early 20th-century New Zealanders.


Since the 1980s, New Zealanders have valued independence more highly – once a virtually unthinkable (if not treasonable) concept when compared to the benefits of being a dominion within the empire and (later) the Commonwealth. They now treasure the opportunity to chart their own course in regional and world affairs. They no longer value the idea of being an ‘ally’ – the word is now associated not with loyalty and reciprocity, but rather with subservience and militarism. New Zealand’s political vocabulary tends to emphasise friendship and the virtues of being a small, non-aligned country, ostensibly acting more on principle than out of self-interest.

    • J. B. Bolger, ‘Springtime in the New Era.’ Speech, Auckland, 2 October 1997. Back

Political values and cultural diversity

Ethnic subcultures

In any community formed from people of different cultural backgrounds, there will be different sets of values, which can be politically meaningful. Immigrants maintaining strong links with their country of origin may adhere to beliefs more common in those countries, and will take a greater interest in what is occurring ‘back home’ than will most New Zealanders. In the early 20th century Irish immigrants were concerned about Irish home rule. In the early 21st century many migrants from the Pacific Islands maintain strong family connections with their island of origin – Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and Tonga being the islands with the largest numbers of migrants in New Zealand. Their values of family loyalty lead them, in many cases, to make regular, substantial remittances (payments) to family members back home.

Māori political values

While Māori share many of the beliefs, attitudes and values of New Zealand’s wider political culture, their own experience as a community means that their views about New Zealand and its history, the state and government policies are not wholly identical with those of non-Māori New Zealanders. There are also differences within the Māori population, depending on, among other things, whether their forebears signed the Treaty of Waitangi, whether their tribal group or family suffered significant land confiscations, or whether their group has unresolved grievances.

The view that New Zealand’s number one priority is to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, held by many Māori (as well as many non-Māori), puts the unsecured rights of Māori, and the right to an honest application of treaty law and principles, above other issues and concerns. An alternative view, summarised by National Party leader Don Brash in 2004 (and stated by other politicians before and since), that the number one priority for New Zealand, if it is to move forward as a nation, is ‘one law for all’, represents a different set of values.


The existence in New Zealand of substantial numbers of migrants from a variety of backgrounds means that the idea of ‘multi-culturalism’ – celebrating the existence of many cultures – has become part of the vocabulary of New Zealand politics and the curriculum of New Zealand schools.

Immigrants and immigration

In any society there are inconsistencies and contradictions in people’s values and behaviour. From time to time New Zealand’s politicians have discovered that, at least briefly, support can be gained by raising concerns about levels of immigration and about the particular types of people being admitted to the country. Negative perceptions have sometimes been expressed towards Pacific Island migrants; Asian migrants (particularly Indians and Chinese) and Muslim immigrants. In general, since the later 20th century, antagonistic views about immigrants have been frowned upon by government spokespeople and state institutions, television news and mainstream newspapers, and within the education system. New Zealanders’ politeness, courtesy and sense of fairness have largely combined to overcome hostility towards newcomers.

Values and political change

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.

Political values and the ‘Kiwi’ way of life

Crime and punishment

Apart from particular anxieties – about Māori ‘rebels’ in the 19th century or ‘radicals’ in the 19th and 20th centuries – the majority of New Zealanders have generally viewed their country as offering a safe environment: ‘a good place to bring up children’, in the widely quoted colloquial view. Leaving home and vehicle unlocked, however, has become a thing of the past in most parts of the country. The police, while not regularly armed, have easier access to firearms in the 2000s than they had in the past.

New Zealand and the death penalty

In 1961, in a free vote, New Zealand’s Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. In 1987 the National Party leader, Jim Bolger, suggested, during the election campaign, the possibility of a referendum on the death penalty. The proposal was much criticised and no steps were taken by the National government to discuss such a referendum, let alone hold one, once it gained office. In 1989 the death penalty for treason was also abolished.

While ‘law and order’ represents an important value – New Zealand has a high rate of imprisonment compared with most other similar countries – a highly punitive approach to crime falls outside the New Zealand consensus. There is no capital punishment, with the last execution having taken place in 1957. However, a non-binding referendum in 1999 found high levels of support for a tougher stance towards criminals and subsequently governments (both Labour-led and National-led) have responded accordingly.

A small state

The phrase ‘small is beautiful’ describes another element in New Zealand’s political culture. New Zealanders tend to have a self-mocking satisfaction with the country’s small size and limited political and military resources. So the converse of that may reflect New Zealanders’ outlook – that large is often ugly and dangerous. Examples include:

  • the French, ‘arrogantly’ intervening in New Zealand in 1985 to blow up the anti-nuclear protest vessel, the Rainbow Warrior
  • the United States, seen as sometimes taking a heavy-handed approach to world affairs
  • New Zealand’s near neighbours, the Australians, being characterised as overly brash and clumsy.


An important value in any democracy is tolerance – respect for the rights of others, including those with a lifestyle or point of view different from that held by the majority. As in other democracies, tolerance has not always been upheld in New Zealand. In the 1950s communists or ‘reds’ were often socially ostracised. In contemporary New Zealand, with its mix of peoples and cultures, this value is more widely promoted and observed than previously.


New Zealanders like to see themselves as practical, adaptive, pragmatic, adjusting to circumstance with good skills and a cooperative ‘can-do’ spirit. These values extend back to the pioneering days of the 19th century. A preference for common-sense solutions can still be heard in New Zealanders’ discussions of politics, giving the country’s political processes a less rigid ideological character.

A guide to Kiwi values

Visitors to New Zealand may sometimes need guidance about New Zealanders’ values. The University of Auckland, for instance, advises international students that while ‘New Zealanders have a way of life that’s similar to most Western countries … there are some special characteristics. Kiwis are passionate about sport and have a firm belief in social equality. New Zealand people dislike formality and tend to see each other as equals’, and ‘neighbours and people in the workplace are normally on first-name terms’.1


Some have held less positive images of New Zealanders’ values. In the 1950s some intellectuals characterised New Zealanders as overly complacent, anti-intellectual, shallow, smug and conformist: ‘fretful sleepers’ rather than confident, thoughtful and independent participants in a lively cultural community. A resentment for those aspiring to be different, and succeeding – ‘tall poppies’, in the New Zealand vernacular – discouraged excellence and individuality, qualities generally associated in Western culture with the pursuit of happiness. By the 2000s there was less cutting down of ‘tall poppies’, less pressure to conform and a much greater readiness to celebrate excellence and diversity.

  1. ‘New Zealand social values.’ The University of Auckland, (last accessed 6 March 2012). Back

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How to cite this page: Stephen Levine, 'Political values', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Stephen Levine, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012