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Monitoring of democratic governance


New Zealand: Tradition and Necessity

The ranking published by CADAL deals with three matters of paramount importance in today’s world: democracy, markets and transparency. They are closely linked to the construction of that sought by many, both governments and citizens: a well-governed, prosperous country in constant progression, where law, security and political certainty rule. A country that responds to the individual and society-wide aspirations of its two most interested partners: the political community and civil society.
By Darryl John Dunn

Ehara i te mea
No inaine te aroha
No nga tupuna
Tuku iho tuku iho

(Civilization and humanity are not our own discoveries
They were left to us, our inheritance,
By our grandparents and ancestors)

The ranking published by CADAL deals with three matters of paramount importance in today’s world: democracy, markets and transparency. They are closely linked to the construction of that sought by many, both governments and citizens: a well-governed, prosperous country in constant progression, where law, security and political certainty rule. A country that responds to the individual and society-wide aspirations of its two most interested partners: the political community and civil society.

I’m pleased New Zealand has been chosen by CADAL as a model in which these three factors are currently reflected in the most positive manner. The results change a little each year, I know, but New Zealand usually finds itself among the top countries in the three studies referred to by the ranking.

I won’t comment further on the results of CADAL’s ranking. Instead, I will offer some observations on the New Zealand reality from an important perspective that is not clearly reflected in such an exercise (not that I’m complaining!). I’m referring to history.

Tradition and necessity

New Zealand incorporates two very different historic and cultural traditions: British and Māori. The Māori are descendants of the original Polynesian inhabitants of New Zealand. Although both traditions have preserved a strong identity in today’s society, they have mutually influenced one another, forming a distinct New Zealand identity, different from that of Great Britain and all other countries of the British tradition.

Nevertheless it was this British tradition that played the strongest role in the determination of New Zealand’s institutions. It is a tradition that saw considerable development during the 18th century – the century of the Enlightenment – and during the beginning of the 19th century, in the sense of representative government, respect for human rights, and a driving mission to leave behind the cobwebs of ignorance and superstition in favor of logical, scientific methods of investigation. These methods contributed to the advances achieved in cartography and industrialization. New Zealand benefited from all of these advances.

Following its third discovery, this time by English mariner James Cook in 1769, New Zealand was established as a British colony by means of a treaty between the British Crown and the Māori tribes in 1840. The British intended to establish a model colony in New Zealand, according to the most progressive principles of the era. The Treaty, while recognizing British sovereignty in the islands of New Zealand and paving the way for the immigrants (who wasted no time in arriving), also confirmed the rights of the Māori, including property rights to their lands, forests and fishing grounds. The British anticipated an organized immigration respectful of the indigenous population.

As you doubtless already know, it didn’t happen that way. There were misunderstandings on both sides, especially regarding the possession of land, and wars broke out. The colonists confiscated many of the Māori lands and the tribes were relieved of their assets and marginalized. There was much injustice.

Nevertheless, New Zealand continued to follow British traditions, developing them along the same lines they had already followed, finally achieving greater recognition of and respect for human rights, more autonomy, and greater governmental responsibility. These developments were encouraged and supported by British authorities, who had long since accepted the lesson of the American Revolution.

In 1867 the right to vote was granted to all adult Māori males and in 1893 women achieved the vote at a national level. New Zealand was the first country in the world to make such important steps. In the 1930s, New Zealand introduced the world’s most complete system of social protection. Finally – and this is a brief outline – in the 1970s, New Zealand began a program to correct the historic injustices committed against the Māori people, a program that continues to this day.

I will, instead of immediately commenting on the conclusions to be drawn from this analysis of tradition, pass to another theme: necessity.

In the 19th century, New Zealand was – and still is, from many perspectives – at the end of the world. Its closest neighbor is Australia, 2000 km away. The first Māori navigators had performed a superhuman feat to arrive in modest canoes. The isolation fortified the mental strength and discipline of the colonists, qualities they needed to survive. Far from everything, external trade was fundamental and New Zealand, an ideal agricultural country (despite its many forests) had to organize the world’s first refrigerated meat exports, in 1882. This is an evident example of the initiative and enterprising spirit of the population. Lacking sufficient capital at a domestic level, the government borrowed the necessary sums in the English financial markets and become the most important creditor and investor in national development and construction.

I’ve presented here the three principle features of the socioeconomic consensus reached in New Zealand in the hundred years between 1880 and 1980: a private sector completely dominated by agricultural industries, national development and provision of services almost completely in the hands of the government, and dependence on international trade, especially with Great Britain, to import everything necessary for development. This simple division of work lasted until the 1980s and was more than adequate for the demands of the country: in the 1960s New Zealand enjoyed, for a while, the highest gross domestic product per capita in the world.

But it all changed around the middle of the 70s, when Great Britain entered into the European Common Market. All of a sudden, New Zealand realized that its primary market was threatened by European restrictions, and that it was obligated to search for new markets and to diversity its exports. It was a complicated and difficult process, during which the country greatly fortified its diplomatic and commercial representation abroad. At the same time, it discovered that its mostly unrefined products were not to everybody’s tastes and that the markets for these products were highly volatile and subject to ups and downs. The country tried to protect its principal industries with subsidies, but rapidly realized this policy was unsustainable. It was difficult to respond to the market’s demands with sufficient speed.

This perception led to a radical change in New Zealand’s national alliance. The old division of labor was too rigid and monolithic to respond to the increasingly rapid and significant changes in international trade in a globalizing world. New Zealand needed a radical change in its internal equilibrium: to stimulate initiative and enterprise, to permute greater diversification and agility in its foreign trade relations, and to oblige its producers to listen and react to the signals given by foreign markets.

This led to a fundamental reform of New Zealand’s governmental institutions, felt in almost all the important sectors of the country including parliament, the formation of the executive power, the legal structure of internal and external trade, the labor market, the tax system, education and health, and all the reforms carried out during the last two decades.


New Zealand was founded on already developed principles of government. Even when it failed to adequately respect these principles, such as in its dealings with the Māori people, it stayed on this track and achieved important progress. In a framework of respect for human rights and free election of political representatives, these traditions taught the New Zealand people the importance of values such as autonomy and independence, resistance and discipline, love of work and an enterprising spirit, public service, family and community.

There is a sacred expression in New Zealand: “Everyone deserves a fair go”. That is, everyone deserves the opportunity to better their circumstances through their own efforts, and everyone deserves the support and understanding of the rest when good fortune abandons them. Nevertheless, New Zealand is a radical country, in the sense that, once the need to make a significant, even revolutionary, change was recognized, the country faced up to and carried out this challenge in a substantive way (even if this wasn’t always successful).

New Zealand’s status as a small country (4 million inhabitants) has facilitated radical change, by favoring both the agility and direct responsibility of the elected government. This same responsibility, and a legal system that is strictly and equally applied to all, are the most important components of the transparency that reigns throughout the country.

Many propose it as a model to imitate, but what New Zealand has to offer the world is no model: it is a human experience from which inspirational ideas may be taken. It is not about applying a strict regime or doctrine. New Zealand, in its turn, was inspired by the ideas and experiences of other countries, which served to inform traditions and cultures that already offered the essence of the country’s path.

The world’s population and, with it, the demand for food, will grow at a rate of 50% in the coming decades. The markets will increasingly prize those food products they consider natural, healthy and of consistently high quality. Those that are able to best respond to the international markets’ demands, that are more agile and intelligent in development and the application of technology, will be those that benefit most from the global situation.

New Zealand had to change because it had no alternative. Failing to change, it would have lost vitally important achievements for its society. It needed to maintain a level of income that allowed it to sustain essential spending in education, health, retirement, security and other sectors that ensure the wellbeing of the nation.

With its tradition of respect for human rights and capacity for revolutionary change, the country had very important tools to follow policies of rapid, radical change without losing the confidence of the people. At times citizens complained and criticized the measures, but during the entire reform process in New Zealand there was never that level of intense popular reaction that elsewhere may topple governments.

Summary of the presentation of Ambassador of New Zealand, His Excellency Darryl John Dunn, in the Latin American Forum Montevideo, 25 March 2010.

Translated by Camden Luxford.

Darryl John Dunn
Darryl John Dunn

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