a hybrid nation: where context meets content.

As a first-year university student, one of the first courses I enrolled in was PLCP 101, otherwise known as Intro to Comparative Politics. Over the course of the semester, Professor Schoppa took us through a study of countries such as Britain, Canada, Germany, and Japan, looking for what their governments had in common, what they didn’t, and what we could learn from these other systems. But as it is for many a university student, it’s too easy to memorize and forget, to cram for exams only to “rinse after using” in order to make room for the next day’s test. Sometimes, it takes something more to make such information stick, to make it relevant in a way that means you won’t forget it overnight.

For me, it often takes actually being in the place of which I’m learning. When my flatmates and I watched The Queen last year in London, I suddenly had a burning desire to understand the British monarchy. I walked home from the library heavy-laden with thick books, one a biography of Queen Elizabeth II, another describing the duties and positions of those working for the royal family at Buckingham Palace. What was the relationship between the Queen and the Prime Minister? Why, in these postmodern times, was the monarchy still such a critical component of British cultural and political traditions? These may or may not have been questions that were addressed in my politics class four years earlier, but it took walking by the Palace, hearing of the royal family every day in the news, for this information to take on a new meaning, to matter in a more meaningful way.

Thus after the tour of the Beehive and the New Zealand Parliamentary buildings, I had to know more. Why is New Zealand an independent nation, yet still considers the Queen of England as the Head of State? What is the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Governor-General, supposedly the Queen’s representative in New Zealand? Why are there Members of Parliament (MPs) from seven different parties in the House of Representatives? Sometimes, you need more than textbooks. You need context, you need to see it to believe it.

And so I bunkered down in the top floor of the Wellington Public Library, shelves and shelves of reserved material stretching out around me. With the internet a vast and comprehensive source of information, you barely need to even leave your room to find everything you need to know, but I find there’s still something vaguely romantic about the tangibility of a book in front of you, the flipping of pages reflecting your ever-continuing search for information. In a response to her article “Are We Losing Our Cathedrals of Knowledge to Web-based Information?” Kristen Sukalac writes, “We are losing…the ability to browse in quite the same way. Online searches tend to be very focused. At best, they may lead you onto an indirectly related line of inquiry. But gone is the opportunity to pick up the book with the intriguing cover simply because the author’s name alphabetically precedes the one whose book you were looking for.” Just as Sukalac describes, it was this ability to “browse” in the Wellington library that led me to the answers I needed.

At a desk to myself, with a view of the city before me, I opened up books, copied down notes, scoured the sources for understanding. I felt like a student again, a paper topic at hand, an assignment looming on the horizon. But – and here’s where the beauty of self-education lies – there was no grade to be earned. My search had that zeal that comes from the only motivation being my own curiosity, from being in the country of which I wanted to learn. Indeed, I could’ve been in school again, for all the books I came across. Politics in New Zealand, third edition, by Richard Mulgan. The Oxford-published New Zealand Government and Politics, fourth edition, by Raymond Miller. Democracy in New Zealand, by John Henderson and Paul Bellamy, co-published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance  and the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. It was a Kiwi crash course, if I’ve ever seen one.

Taking the lead from my humble beginnings in comparative politics, I thought the best way to understand New Zealand politics would be to dissect it in terms of its links to other countries. Clearly being such a young country, it would naturally be influenced by governments already in place across the world. Additionally, in its original status as a colonial outpost, it would be all the more influenced by its mother country, but would have assumably forged diverging paths and new customs like any maturing child does. And what I found was remarkable. A hybrid nation, New Zealand is a country neither easily defined nor simply explained.

[Unexpected] Links to America.

 I started, as you might, with New Zealand’s links to my home country, one with which whose practices and politics I was already most familiar. But this came about only because of a pamphlet I picked up from the Beehive titled, “Parliament Brief: What is Parliament?” As it began to describe various aspects of the New Zealand government, a certain line caught my attention: “A pure model of the ‘separation of powers’ can be found in the United States of America” (3). It might have been that line that got this whole comparative-thinking mentality going in the first place. It was the idea that there are general ways of doing government that look different in different countries. But then again, the ones we have in common might be all the more important.

The fundamental methodology shared by the United States and New Zealand is the importance of democracy. In the first chapters of Henderson and Bellamy’s Democracy in New Zealand, the authors answer the question of “What is democratic?” The two basic principles are “popular control over public decision making and decision makers” and “equality between citizens in the exercise of that control” (4). To see these principles in action, though, there are several “mediating values” they discuss that create a bridge between principal and practice. These include “participation, authorization, representativeness, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, and solidarity.” In this way, they write, “it is through their participation in the electoral process that the people authorize politicians to act on their behalf and that they choose a representative assembly that they can hold accountable through the sanction of future electoral dismissal. These values are what make elections democratic.”

With these principles and values at work, I realized democracy is perhaps an idea in itself, not any particular way of doing government. It’s the motive behind the government, the values any government extols – so whether a queen or a president is the head of state, two countries can both be considered democratic. That would explain the intense drive towards establishing democracy in such countries as Iraq. Perhaps it had less to do with what type of government was established post-Saddam Hussein, and more to do simply with the values behind the government. And with New Zealand the first country in the world to grant women’s suffrage in 1893, there’s a lot to be shared between Americans and Kiwis, perhaps more than either realize (or want to). There’s more in common between the two which is often eclipsed by such dividing issues as gun control and nuclear warfare.

But then again, the two governments are intensely different. Even with the underlying democratic principles close to the hearts of both nations, as I mentioned before, the separation of powers in New Zealand isn’t as clean-cut as it is in the States. As my Parliament pamphlet explained, Cabinet Ministers are chosen from those already elected to the House of Representatives, whereas members of the American Cabinet – the Secretaries of State, Defense, Education, and so on – are chosen independently by the President in a highly publicized decision-making process. Additionally, the New Zealand Parliament is unicameral, its only house that of the Representatives, whereas the American Congress features both an upper house, the Senate, and a lower house, the House of Representatives.

And ultimately, perhaps the chief distinction, the determinant of all other differences, is New Zealand’s form of government being a constitutional monarchy, rather than a republic. Although both systems may be democratic, the practical ways in which they are evidenced in the government couldn’t be more different. The definition of a republic, that being “a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch,” reads more like how you would define something by listing what it is not. What is night? Not day. What is land? Not water. Leave it to be that a republic is in fact directly opposite of a monarchy.

[Stronger] Links to Britain.

New Zealand’s history as a British colony has largely influenced the path its politics has taken over the years. Like its mother country, the form of government in New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, whereby the head of state is either an elected or hereditary monarch, but whose powers and actions are limited by a constitution (unlike an absolute monarchy, in which the monarchs can very well do as they please, unchecked and unbound). Interestingly enough – and perhaps ironically – neither Britain nor New Zealand actually have a single, written constitution, unlike the United States, Canada, and Australia. While there are several documents that function as such, including the Constitution Act of 1986, the Bill of Rights Act of 1990, and even the Treaty of Waitangi, there is no single, aging, original document with faded handwriting on torn parchment paper promising life, liberty, and the pursuit of, well, you know how it goes.

Courtesy of Neville Coville and the New Zealand Cartoon Archive: "Prime Minister Sidney Holland and Maori representative rolling out the red carpet for the new Queen's post-coronation visit to New Zealand. The Auckland to Bluff tour was the first by a reigning monarch."


Moreover, this form of monarchy is evidenced in the everyday affairs of the government via the Westminster model of Parliament, based on British politics and named after the Palace of Westminster, seat of the British Parliament. The core players in this model include:

—A sovereign head of state who functions as more of a ceremonial figurehead, whose powers are more nominal than practical and may include several “reserve powers” to be used “in case of emergency.”

—A head of government, usually referred to as the prime minister, appointed by the head of state (Note: in New Zealand as in Britain, the public does not actually elect the Prime Minister. The PM is typically the leader of the largest elected party in Parliament).

—An executive branch known as the Cabinet, appointed by the Prime Minister from those MPs already elected to Parliament.

—An elected legislature, i.e. Parliament.

Because New Zealand still recognizes the Queen of England as the head of state, there is a fourth branch of government in addition to the separation of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches: the Sovereign. This last branch is the function of the Governor-General, whose full title extends to “and Commander-in-Chief in and over New Zealand,” a role which developed from the country’s young colonial days. The current website of the Governor-General explains the evolution that has taken place:  “From an agent of a once global empire, the New Zealand Governor-General of the 21st Century is a New Zealander who represents the Head of State in New Zealand, and New Zealand to the rest of the world.”

Like the role of the head of state in a monarchy, many of the Governor-General’s duties are nominal, in a way, there “for show.” Like the Queen of England, Mullgan writes in Politics of New Zealand, “In all matters, by constitutional convention, the Governor-General normally acts on advice of elected ministers” (53). Similarly, though Parliament is technically comprised of two parts – the House of Representatives and the Sovereign – the Governor-General’s role “in law-making is reduced to a formality” (54), thus making Parliament and House of Representatives generally interchangeable terms.

For a look at this role at work, I turned to the words of a former Governor-General, the Honorable Dame Silvia Cartwright, who gave a speech in 2001 on “The Role of the Governor-General” to the New Zealand Centre for Public Law at Wellington’s Victoria University. In the speech, she discusses, among many things, the four generally accepted reserve powers that accompany her role:

—To appoint a Prime Minister.

—To dismiss a Prime Minister.

—To refuse to dissolve a Parliament.

—To force a dissolution of Parliament.

In addition to these, you might add other such traditions as reading the Speech from the Throne every three years after an election, a tradition I first learned of in the Debating Chamber of Parliament House. But as it turns out, the speech is anything but from the throne. The Cabinet Manual of 2008 explains that the speech is “the first formal opportunity for a government to outline its legislative intentions,” and is actually “prepared following a process determined by the Prime Minister, with officials assisting as required.” A more fitting title, it would seem to me, would be Speech from the Prime Minister’s Desk Chair. Or if not fitting, at least honest. Why insist on the traditional reading of it by the Governor-General? Why the reliance on rituals?

I came across a media release from the 21st of December, 1999, written by Dave Guerin, president at the time of the Republican Movement in New Zealand. His piece, titled “The Speech from the Throne is absurd,” followed the tracks of a similar train of thought: “The monarchy and all its trappings do not fit with our democratic society. With the millennium just around the corner, it is time to bring our state ceremonies into the 20th century at least. The speech is simply the incoming Government’s plan for the next three years, so why can’t we have the Prime Minister reading out her own plans?”

This questioning of the Sovereign’s role in an increasingly modern nation seems to echo similar rumblings in the foundation of other tried-and-true government practices in New Zealand, one being that of the relevance of the constitutional monarchy. The Australian republic referendum in 1999 put forth two questions to voters as they went to the polls, the first being whether or not the country should cease to operate as a monarchy and Parliament to begin to appoint a president to head a republic. Although the referendum failed to pass, the vote was a mere 54.87% to 45.13%, hardly what I would call a landslide or a crushing defeat. Instead, I would say it only suggests the number of conversations that remain to take place in the future.

A similar debate is currently taking place this side of the Tasman Sea. As former Prime Minister Helen Clark said herself in 2004, “I think it’s inevitable that New Zealand will become a republic and that would reflect the reality that New Zealand is a totally sovereign-independent 21st century nation 12,000 miles from the United Kingdom.” Several national polls have revealed that, like Australia, there is not majority support for the shift to a republic in New Zealand, yet the numbers are growing. Even though only about a third of New Zealanders would vote for that change, I believe it is important those questions are being asked in the first place, that these polls are even taking place. And even though the republic referendum in Australia in 1999 didn’t change its form of government, it still meant that the country went through – and continues to undergo – that time of debate and consideration, which is important and healthy. Like someone questioning their faith or set of beliefs, perhaps the most important thing is not that they eventually discard them, but that they came to a point where they no longer took those beliefs for granted, that they were not blindly accepted.

[New] Links to Germany.

So while New Zealand may still firmly be a constitutional monarchy and may still call Queen Elizabeth II the head of state, in 1995 the country came to a landmark decision in its government and broke with British traditions in an unprecedented way by changing electoral systems. The system previously in use in New Zealand was that of First-Past-the-Post, whereby a candidate is only successful if it wins a majority of the votes in its district. As Mullgan describes it, this system “tends to reduce the chances for smaller parties to win seats and thereby encourages the development of two-party systems” (234). For an example of FPTP, think of none other than the United States and its two clearly established political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Don’t worry about the theory; worry about the results.

But the FPTP system left many New Zealanders dissatisfied, mainly in the way that it excludes minor voices and secondary opinions. So it turned from its British ways and looked to Germany and the Mixed-Member Proportional voting system. Rather than the “winner takes all” methodology behind FPTP, MMP makes room for multiple party representatives from each district, based on the proportion of votes they receive. Mullgan writes that it further “enables smaller parties to win seats and encourages multi-party systems” (234). Think of the five or so parties on the American ballot that so often seem swallowed up in the shadow of the Democratic and Republican candidates: the Constitution Party, the Libertarians, the peace-keeping Greens.  Under MMP, maybe the likes of Nader would finally have a say.

And suddenly, all that I’d learned in Comparative Politics 101 came flooding back into my memory. With each new Canadian friend I’ve met traveling, I think often of a paper I wrote for that class first year, a paper that addressed some anomaly in the Canadian government (mainly because, ashamedly, it’s almost all that I know of my northern neighbor. Well, that and maple leaves). Of course, as the years went by, the details grew murkier and murkier, but with this sudden resurfacing of FPTP vs. MMP, I suddenly remembered. I recalled specifically discussing in class Germany, MMP, and the fact that they had several parties represented in their government. The use of FPTP in the United States, though, has clearly and predictably resulted in two. For the term paper, our assignment was to look at a country using one system yet getting a different-than-expected result. Canada, for instance, uses FPTP, but has four main parties. My task? Explain why.

So as I stood in the Debating Chamber of the New Zealand Parliament House, it all came together, it all began to make sense. The seven parties represented in the House of Representatives would of course be a direct result of the switch to MMP. After the override of FPTP in 1995, the two main parties, Labour and National, had to make room for others like two older siblings whose parents had just given birth to quintuplets: the Green Party, the Maori Party, ACT, United Future, and the Progressive Party. As Henderson and Bellamy write in Democracy in New Zealand, MMP “led to an increase in the number of parties and a more diverse Parliament” (13). And they’re right: as of today, the 122 members of Parliament include 39 women, 22 Maori, five Asians, and four Polynesians. I’d say diverse is a good word for it, wouldn’t you?

But now, where my head began to hurt was understanding the “mixed-member” of MMP, namely that there are two kinds of MPs – electorate and list MPs. Bear with me as I explain, I promise it’ll make sense. When voters go to the polls, they essentially cast two types of votes. One is for specific members, one is for the party itself. Electorate votes determine who they want representing a chosen party from their district. Party votes determine party strength in the 120-seat Parliament. To put it in American terms, it’s as if we would cast a vote not only for Polly Tishin from Buffalo, NY, but also one for the party as a whole – be it Republican, Democrat, Green, whatever.

Get it?

Yeah, me neither. For an example, I turned to yet another college textbook, New Zealand Under MMP by Jonathan Boston, Stephen Levine, Elizabeth McLeay, and Nigel Roberts. The scenario they give is that if the Labour Party happens to win 25% of party votes, they will qualify for 30 of the 120 seats available in Parliament. On the other hand, if it won 23 constituency seats (region-specific representatives), it would need to fill an additional seven seats. In this instance, the Labour Party would keep a rank-ordered list of candidates from which it would begin to pull members to fill those seven seats. As you can imagine, there’s been a bit of controversy around this area and the legitimacy of those “list members” who weren’t actually elected by the public.

But what about the philosophy behind the change to MMP in the first place? As fascinating as I found the details of the system itself (okay, not that fascinating), I found I was even more interested in what brought about a change in system in the first place. In a way, it’s not so much the system that matters, but the mindset behind it.

A Hybrid Nation.

A number of sources agree that the change in electoral system in 1995 was linked to changes towards a new national identity in New Zealand, to the beginning of an overhaul in the way in which not only New Zealanders see themselves, but in the way the world sees them. The authors of New Zealand under MMP explain that like the ‘anti-nuclear stance’ the country adopted not long ago, the adoption of this new electoral system was designed as a way of “ending the dependence on an inherited outlook, policies and institutional arrangements, and marking a move towards an indigenously crafted style of governance appropriate to a more mature New Zealand identity” (2-3). I myself had a glimpse of this change while doing basic data-entry at Statistics New Zealand. Under the ethnicity category, many chose to tick “Other” and write in “New Zealander,” rejecting the limitations of the Maori term “Pakeha” often used for those with European roots.

Thus a break from Britain and its political traditions is a first key separation in this drive for a new identity, in establishing New Zealand in its own right. The same authors write that the desire for a new electoral system or a new form of government is a change “compatible with a different national identity and would help to promote values and outlooks distinct from those inherited from the British colonial era” (2).

But with its long history with Britain, many feel that New Zealand must break away not only from its British associations, but from the Western associations that so often come with the territory. One of the first things Richard Mullgan discusses in Politics in New Zealand is the nature of New Zealand society itself:

“[O]ne of the familiar beliefs that New Zealanders have about themselves is that they live in a ‘small’ country of ‘only’ three million people or thereabouts…Yet if one lists the nations recognized by the United Nations in order of population, New Zealand is only about half way down the list. From this perspective New Zealand is more of a ‘middle-sized’ country. The perception that it is small makes sense only if the view is restricted to larger countries” (20).

Even I myself am guilty of this misperception, as the population of New Zealand is perhaps a mere 1.5% of my home country. And when you look at the numbers of the OECD, the Europe-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, New Zealand does indeed rank 27 out of 30 in population, ahead only of Ireland, Luxembourg, and Iceland. However, another chart Mullgan gives features the populations of selected Pacific Nations, including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Western Samoa, and Niue, in which New Zealand ranks third out of 15. Mullgan put it this way:

“To someone arriving for the first time in New Zealand from one of the neighboring South Pacific countries, such as Tonga or the Cook Islands, New Zealand may seem overwhelmingly large in population. Similarly, though New Zealand often represents itself as a relatively agricultural country, which it may be from an OECD perspective, that is not how it appears to Pacific Islanders. New Zealand is much more industralised and urbanized than the island societies of the Pacific. Indeed, in the South Pacific region, New Zealand, together with its larger neighbor Australia, plays the role of a major metropolitan power, looming as large in the political and economic lives of the island states as the US, Germany or Japan do in the OECD” (22).

As New Zealand continues to sever ties with Britain, it seems it should also consider redefining the scales on which it compares itself. Perhaps it is a variation on the classic fish-and-pond scenario. When viewed from one perspective, New Zealand is a little fish in a big pond, but in a different light and sea, it is quite the big fish. As Raymond Miller writes in New Zealand Government and Politics, “By the beginning of the twenty-first century the only remaining links with Britain of particular consequence were politico-cultural and historic. By this time, it would be argued, New Zealand had largely shed its British identity in favour of that of a South Pacific nation, with a trade, foreign and defence policy focus on the region of Asia-Pacific” (136).

Courtesy of Al Nisbet and the New Zealand Cartoon Archive: "In 1992, it was headline news when New Zealand was elected to join the 'big boys' around the Security Council table in 1993-1994."


But all of this – the debates and the decisions – is it not simply part of the natural process of a young nation’s maturity? A natural part of growing up? It seems to me just another step in New Zealand’s ever-burgeoning independence, as it makes its way into adulthood. The website of the Governor-General, in seeking to define its role in contemporary politics, explains the natural route New Zealand has taken towards independence:

“New Zealand ceased to be a colony in 1907 when it became a Dominion within the British Empire. Dominion status, however, was more a change of name and did not make New Zealand any more independent from Britain. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster which declared that the British Parliament could not make laws for the Dominions of Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa, without their request and consent.  The Statute was the result of the Balfour Declaration from the 1926 Imperial Conference. The Declaration said each of the Dominions of the British Empire, while joined by their common allegiance to the British Crown, were equal in status.”

Even still, it wasn’t until 1947 that the New Zealand Parliament finally adopted the Statute of Westminster and officially became independent. The United States, on the other hand, seemed to cut the process short and declare itself an emancipated minor from Mother Britain. As  Miller writes:

“New Zealand’s political history has been experimental but, very importantly, not revolutionary. Civil government in New Zealand readily adopted the democratic principal of popular sovereignty—the people ruled. For older British settler colonies, like those of America, separation from the mother country had only been achieved by a war of independence. That break had in turn precipitated the establishment of republic institutions and in the USA the democratic principle was extended to include the direct election of political officials, from the country sheriff to, eventually, the federal president. By contrast, the Australasian colonies secured the right to manage their own affairs without a fight, without the abandonment of constitutional monarchy, the dissolution of imperial ties, nor major amendment to the Westminster parliamentary system. Given the timing of the foundation of the settler colony, the concession of self-government was inevitable” (38).

I find New Zealand an interesting picture of what my home country could be like today had it not decided to turn against the Red Coats, throw a few crates of tea in the harbor, and revolt like a screaming, kicking teenager. Would we, too, still take a day off in June in honor (honour?) of the Queen’s birthday? Would we, too, have morning tea and take the “lift” to the fifth floor and rent a “flat” over the summer? Would we, too, have u’s between our o’s and r’s and reverse our r’s and e’s when writing about our night at the theatre or the cultural centre? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly food for thought. If anything, New Zealand is a hybrid nation, one still very much in the process of self-definition. Even as it still recognizes the British monarchy and employs the Westminster model of Parliament, it has begun to look to other influences, experimenting with the idea of a democratic republic, as found in the United States, and embracing new systems of voting from Germany.

And, of course, through this process of discovery I couldn’t help but regret not hanging onto more of the details from my one and only politics class at university. But as a first-year student, with a full course load and textbook after textbook requiring my dutiful attention, the classic study sequence usually went cram-for-the-exam, memorize-then-forget. Sitting in a library, reading the black-and-white script of a politics textbook over 300 pages long, you fail to achieve any true understanding, any real impression of how differently another country may operate. But residence – however temporary it may be – in New Zealand means all of this matters, all of this is real. My walk down the halls of the Beehive meant I now had a visual for any books I might read. I had content and context, and I thought of how well they go together, of the new horizons of understanding that open when the two go hand-in-hand.


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One response to “a hybrid nation: where context meets content.

  1. The most important line of this entire blog, “But – and here’s where the beauty of self-education lies – there was no grade to be earned.” I just love that. I can see you spread out in the library — your favorite place in the whole world. All I can remember is our little world map puzzle that sat before us in “Princess Snowflake Preschool” — when you were homeschooled at age 4. I wish I still had it. I would frame it. Who knew that you would bloom into a world traveller with such scholarly gifts and talents. I can’t wait to see how God knits this altogether. But, for today, wear out that library. Make sure you get a photo of your little desk in the Wellington Library. Please get one for me!

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