New Zealand - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about New Zealand: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


New Zealand

New Zealand, island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, located south of the equator in the Southern Hemisphere, and marking the eastern boundary of the Tasman Sea, a portion of the Pacific Ocean that separates New Zealand and the nearest large landmass, Australia, by a distance of about 1,600 km (1,000 mi). New Zealand includes two large islands that constitute most of its landmass, as well as numerous small islands. New Zealand administers two overseas territories, Tokelau and Ross Dependency (in Antarctica). The self-governing entities of Niue and the Cook Islands are in free association with New Zealand, which handles their foreign affairs and defense as requested.

New Zealand is known for its scenic landscapes of snowcapped mountains and rolling green pastures. Its image as a farming outpost stems from the traditional importance of agriculture to the economy as well as the low population density in most areas. However, the majority of New Zealanders live in urban areas, and many now earn a living in service industries such as tourism. The capital of New Zealand is Wellington. The largest and most cosmopolitan city is Auckland.

Polynesians first settled the islands of New Zealand about 800 to 1,000 years ago. According to legend, they named the islands Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud”). Their descendants are the Maori. The first European settlers came from the United Kingdom, arriving in increasing numbers after New Zealand became a colony of the British Empire in 1840. Until the mid-20th century the non-Maori population of New Zealand was predominantly European in origin. Since then many people have migrated from the Pacific Islands and Asia, and the ethnic composition of the country is becoming more diverse. In 1907 New Zealand became a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Now an independent nation, New Zealand maintains close ties with the United Kingdom as a full member of the Commonwealth of Nations, but increasingly it sees its identity as a nation in the Pacific and Asia.


New Zealand is part of the Pacific Islands, or Oceania, a grouping of thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean. The South Island and the North Island of New Zealand are Oceania’s second and third largest islands, respectively. New Zealand is considered part of Polynesia, one of three major divisions of the Pacific Islands.

The total land area of New Zealand is 267,710 sq km (103,360 sq mi), about the same size as Japan or the British Isles. The North and South islands make up almost the entire area of the country. Separating these islands is Cook Strait, a channel between the South Pacific Ocean on the east and the Tasman Sea on the west. The islands stretch along a predominantly northeast by southwest axis. Their length from north to south is about 1,600 km (1,000 mi), and their maximum width from east to west is 450 km (280 mi).

Many small and widely scattered islands are also included in the territory of New Zealand. Some are tiny and uninhabited. Of the inhabited islands, Stewart Island is the largest and nearest, located about 30 km (20 mi) off the southern shore of the South Island. Campbell Island lies 600 km (375 mi) farther south, and the Chatham Islands are about 850 km (530 mi) east of the South Island. Raoul Island, the largest of the Kermadec Islands, lies more than 900 km (600 mi) northeast of the North Island.

The South Island contains the highest point in New Zealand, Mount Cook (in Maori, Aorangi), reaching a height of 3,754 m (12,316 ft) in the central Southern Alps. Another 18 mountains in the chain rise above 3,000 m (10,000 ft). The Southern Alps extend about 500 km (300 mi), almost the entire length of the South Island. The western side of the chain rises at the coast, with a narrow strip of coastline between mountains and sea. The eastern side of the chain descends to a region of rolling hills and fertile plains, drained by numerous glacier-fed rivers. (Mount Cook contains Tasman Glacier, the largest of about 360 glaciers in the Southern Alps.) The east-central Canterbury Plains form the largest lowland area in the country. To the south are the hills and plains of the Otago Plateau, which is bordered on the west by the wilderness of Fiordland National Park. Here the southern foothills of the Southern Alps meet a rugged coastline of fjords (fiords), or deep, narrow coastal inlets. In the north the Alps break up into numerous mountain ranges, with the Richmond Range continuing to the northeastern end of the island. The Tasman Mountains form another mountain system in the northwest.

On the North Island elevations rarely exceed 1,000 m (3,000 ft), with the exception of several volcanic peaks. In the west is Mount Taranaki (also named Mount Egmont), with an almost perfectly symmetrical cone rising to a height of 2,518 m (8,261 ft). The central volcanic plateau contains the peaks of Mount Ruapehu (2,797 m/9,177 ft), Mount Ngauruhoe (2,291 m/7,515 ft), and Mount Tongariro (1,968 m/6,458 ft). Many of these volcanoes are still considered to be active even if they have not erupted in the last two centuries. The two most recently active volcanoes are Mount Ruapehu and White Island (in Maori, Whakaari). Mount Ruapehu, the highest point of the North Island, erupted with substantial clouds of ash in 1995 and 1996, and dangerous lahars (concrete-like mixtures of volcanic ash and mud) occasionally slide down its slopes. White Island is the peak of a submerged volcano in the Bay of Plenty, off the east coast of the North Island. Visitors to White Island can witness constant low-intensity volcanic activity.

Geology in New Zealand

New Zealand is located within the Ring of Fire, a region encircling the Pacific Ocean where the movement of tectonic plates (huge segments of Earth’s crust) leads to volcanic and seismic activity. The Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates meet at New Zealand, but their movements are significantly different under the two main islands. At the South Island the plates converge in a mostly lateral, or sideways, movement. This created the Southern Alps by uplifting and folding oceanic sediment. At the North Island, however, the Pacific plate is folding under the other plate. This subduction has forced volcanic activity to the surface. Scientific evidence shows that the North Island has had a number of huge volcanic eruptions over the last 30,000 years. Two huge eruptions 26,000 years ago and nearly 1,000 years ago created the deep crater that is now Lake Taupo; the latter eruption is considered to be one of the largest in history. Volcanic activity continues today in the island’s central region. Geysers and hot springs (signs of geothermal activity) are also found throughout the region, and earthquakes are frequent but generally moderate.

New Zealand was once part of the ancient super-continent Gondwanaland, which also included Africa, Madagascar, India, Australia, Antarctica, and South America. Plate tectonics began to break up Gondwanaland around 170 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The New Zealand landmass remained attached to Antarctica until around 82 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. The small landmass then broke off, drifted northward, and became isolated from the rest of the world. Around 35 million years ago, during the Oligocene Epoch, large portions of New Zealand were underwater, leaving perhaps only 20 percent of the modern area as dry land. Thousands of years ago during the ice ages the land area of New Zealand was larger than now and the two islands were connected as a single body when world sea levels were as much as 135 m (450 ft) lower.

Coastline of New Zealand

The coastline of New Zealand is about 15,134 km (9,400 mi) in length. The North Island coastline has many bays, harbors, and inlets. The coastline is highly irregular in the region of Northland, a 330-km-long (205-mi-long) peninsular extension to the northwest of Auckland. The chief seaports of Auckland and Wellington overlook natural harbors. The South Island coastline is more regular in parts, although exceptions include Fiordland in the southwest, where glaciers long ago carved deep valleys that the ocean flooded to form fjords, and the Marlborough Sounds in the northeast, an area of many sheltered inlets and islands.

Rivers and Lakes in New Zealand

Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand. It covers an area of 606 sq km (234 sq mi) in the central volcanic plateau of the North Island. The lake occupies the crater of an extinct volcano and reaches a depth of 162 m (531 ft). Its outlet is the north-flowing Waikato River, the country’s longest river. The Waikato flows to the northwest for a distance of 425 km (264 mi) and empties into the Tasman Sea. It has been dammed in several places for hydroelectricity generation, and its drainage basin is one of the country’s most fertile agricultural areas.

The largest lake of the South Island is Te Anau, covering an area of 344 sq km (133 sq mi). Te Anau and many other South Island lakes are glacially carved troughs on the eastern flank of the Southern Alps. Several of these lakes are part of the upper Waitaki River hydroelectric system. Water from Lake Manapouri, south of Te Anau, is also harnessed for hydroelectricity.

Most of the rivers of the South Island originate in the pristine glacial lakes of the Southern Alps and flow generally southeastward to empty into the Pacific Ocean. The Clutha River, the largest river of the island at a length of 336 km (209 mi), originates at Lake Wanaka and is fed by several tributaries as it flows southward across Otago Province. The Clutha River discharges the largest volume of water of any river in New Zealand and has been dammed in a number of places for hydroelectricity generation. North of the Clutha, the Waitaki River crosses the Canterbury Plains in central South Island. Its huge catchment area is one of the most valuable hydroelectric power resources in the country. It and other rivers to the north formed the Canterbury Plains by redistributing vast quantities of gravel from the Southern Alps. They occupy wide gravel beds and are navigable only by jetboat, a flat-bottomed boat that skims the surface of shallow waters. The rivers provide a source of irrigation water for the crops and grasslands of the agricultural region.

Plant and Animal Life in New Zealand

The long geographical isolation of New Zealand had a profound effect on its plant and animal life. When New Zealand broke away from the last part of Gondwanaland around 82 million years ago, it carried with it plants and animals from the Age of Dinosaurs—most famously primitive tree ferns and the tuatara, a lizardlike reptile that emerged more than 200 million years ago. However, the fossil record on the islands is relatively sparse and is particularly fragmentary for land animals. Only a few bones show that dinosaurs and flying reptiles once lived on New Zealand. Better known are remains of giant extinct marine reptiles from the Mesozoic Era such as mosasaurs and plesiosaurs. Fossils of early whales that lived during the following Cenozoic Era have also been recovered.

Scientists once thought that snakes and nonflying mammals had not reached New Zealand before it broke away from the rest of Gondwanaland. However, recently discovered fossils show that snakes, crocodiles, and primitive nonflying mammals survived on New Zealand as late as 16 million years ago during the Miocene Epoch. Later climate change apparently killed off these three groups, leaving birds as the dominant land animals and bats as the only indigenous nonmarine mammals. The tuatara survives nowhere else in the world but on a few islands off the coast of New Zealand.

The plant life of New Zealand includes about 1,500 indigenous species found nowhere else in the world, including the golden kowhai and the scarlet pohutukawa. Also notable among the native plants are tree ferns and primitive araucarian pines, both holdovers from the Age of Dinosaurs. The number of introduced plant species now rivals the number of indigenous species, however. Some introduced species, such as the furze (gorse), a thorny evergreen shrub, have acclimated so well in New Zealand that they have become a menace, spreading quickly and displacing indigenous vegetation. Most of the indigenous trees and shrubs of New Zealand are evergreen, including the kauri, rimu, kahikatea, and totara. Original mixed-evergreen forests remain in only the remotest areas of the North Island and in the Southern Alps. Beech trees predominate on the western slopes of the Southern Alps. Radiata pine, a fast-growing timber tree imported from California, is found in large reforestation plantations on the central volcanic plateau of the North Island. Sown grasses predominate in many lowland plains and on the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps up to an elevation of about 1,500 m (5,000 ft).

Isolation from other landmasses allowed birds, bats, and small reptiles to flourish in the absence of predatory mammals. Without such ground predators, many bird species in New Zealand became flightless or semi-flightless, often nesting on the ground. Most famous of the flightless birds were the giant ostrichlike moas, which grew as tall as 4 m (13 ft) and weighed up to 250 kg (550 lb). The largest flying bird and top predator was the extinct giant Haast’s eagle, which had a 3-m (10-ft) wingspan and 7.5-cm (3-in) claws. It likely preyed on moas. Many of these birds, including the moas and giant eagles, became extinct after people colonized the islands. Some species such as the moa were hunted to extinction, while others suffered from the destruction of habitat and the introduction of foreign predators, such as rats and stoats. Some flightless birds have survived, however, including the kiwi, a nocturnal bird that is the national emblem; the kakapo, the world’s largest parrot; and the weka and the takahe, both large species of rail. However, many of the remaining indigenous species are in danger of becoming extinct. Some are officially protected as endangered species, and the government has designated nature reserves for the preservation of natural habitat.

Native songbirds such as the bellbird and tui also contribute to the country’s large population of wild birds. The sparrow, blackbird, thrush, skylark, magpie, and myna are well-acclimatized imported species. New Zealand also abounds in a great variety of seabirds, such as the albatross, and numerous migratory birds. Six species of penguins inhabit the islands and rugged coastlines around New Zealand, including the yellow-eyed penguin, found only in New Zealand, and the blue penguin, the smallest penguin in the world.

Many marine mammals populate the waters around New Zealand. Among the species of dolphins, whales, and seals are Hector’s dolphin and the New Zealand sea lion, which are found nowhere else. The humpback whale and the southern right whale were once numerous in New Zealand’s offshore waters, but these species never recovered from the intensive commercial whaling that took place in the 19th century.

The only surviving indigenous land mammals in New Zealand are bats. All other wild land mammals now in New Zealand arrived with humans. The Maori brought rats and dogs with them when they reached the islands. The rats were originally used as food but escaped into the wild. The Maori dog became extinct after Europeans arrived. The rest of the modern wild animals are descended from imported species brought by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries: deer, rabbits, goats, pigs, weasels, ferrets, and opossums. The populations of some introduced mammals, such as rabbits and the Australian opossum, have reached plague proportions. Feral cats are a threat to native birds.

In addition to the tuatara, the other reptiles native to New Zealand are small lizards (geckos and skinks), and turtles and tortoises. No snakes now inhabit the islands and special care is taken to prevent snakes from being accidentally introduced in cargo from Australia and other regions. A few native species of frogs also survive.

Unique to the islands are the cricketlike wetas, giant insects that play an ecological role similar to that of small rodents elsewhere. Venomous insects are rare but the introduced German yellow jacket and English wasp have become serious pests. The bumblebee was brought to New Zealand to pollinate imported clover.

The rivers and lakes of New Zealand have a variety of fish, including whitebait, eel, and freshwater crustaceans, particularly crayfish. Trout and salmon are imported species. The surrounding ocean waters are the habitat of many species, including the snapper, flounder, blue cod, hapuku, tarakihi, swordfish, and shark, as well as edible shellfish such as the oyster, mussel, paua (abalone), and toheroa. The giant squid appears to be fairly abundant in the deep waters—more than 100 specimens have been caught off the coast of South Island in recent decades.

Natural Resources of New Zealand

Land is one of the country’s most valuable resources. Much of the soil is not naturally fertile, however, and has to be supplemented with fertilizers for crop cultivation. More than half of the land area is either cropland or pastureland. Most of the arable land is found on the east coasts of both islands, in particular the Canterbury Plains. Pastures for livestock grazing dominate in north-central and western North Island and southern South Island.

About 31 percent of the land area is forested. The country has 6.4 million hectares (15.8 million acres) of old-growth forest, much of which is designated for preservation. In addition, some forests are plantations of imported species such as the radiata pine. The western Southern Alps of the South Island constitute the largest forested area of the country and include extensive areas of native forest. The North Island has native forest mainly in more remote areas, notably around Mount Taranaki and in isolated pockets of Northland.

In 2008 the government of New Zealand signed over huge tracts of forest land to the Maori to settle grievances stemming from past violations of treaties with the Maori. The settlement involved 176,000 hectares (435,000 acres) of forest in the central part of North Island. The area mostly consists of commercial pine tree plantations. Seven Maori tribes collectively own and manage the land under the terms of the agreement.

New Zealand rivers and lakes are an important natural resource as the source of hydroelectricity. Mineral resources are limited, with some reserves of coal, gold, iron ore, and limestone. Significant stocks of natural gas and less plentiful reserves of oil are located both offshore and in the western region of the North Island.

Climate in New Zealand

New Zealand’s location in the Southern Hemisphere, or south of the equator, means that its seasons are opposite to those in the Northern Hemisphere. The warmest months of summer are January and February and the coldest months of winter are June and July. New Zealand is located in the Southern Temperate Zone, south of the tropics. It has a mild climate with four seasons. Inland areas have cooler winters and warmer summers than coastal areas, where the moderating influence of the ocean creates a more temperate climate.

Temperatures tend to be warmer in the north than in the south; the warmest area is in the extreme northern end of the North Island, and the coldest area is on the southwestern slopes of the Southern Alps. In most of the country, however, there are only minimal climatic differences between north and south. Average low winter temperatures range from 2°C (35°F) in Christchurch, on the South Island’s central east coast, to 8°C (46°F) in Auckland, in the northwest of the North Island. Average high summer temperatures are 23°C (73°F) in Auckland and 21°C (70°F) in Christchurch.

New Zealand is located in the “Roaring Forties” wind belt, an area between latitudes 40° and 50° south where westerly winds sweep across the southern oceans. The prevailing westerly winds bring moisture from the ocean, resulting in heavy rainfall on the western coasts, especially on the South Island. The main divide of the Southern Alps receives the most precipitation in the country. The mountains form a natural barrier to weather patterns from the west; in the eastern rain shadow of the mountains, the westerly winds become warm, dry, and gusty. The east coasts are therefore much drier than the west coasts, and eastern areas of the South Island have some of New Zealand’s sunniest, driest weather. Average annual rainfall in Christchurch is about 638 mm (25 in), compared to 2,906 mm (114 in) in Hokitika, on the west coast. Auckland receives 1,247 mm (49 in) of rain annually.

Although the westerly winds prevail, the eastern part of the country is open to frequent southerlies, wind currents drawing cold air up from the Antarctic. Usually they bring rain, a sharp fall in temperature, and in winter, snow in the mountains. The northernmost extension of the North Island is subject to the tail end of tropical weather systems from the Pacific, and temperatures there are warm year-round, in most places never reaching the freezing point.

Environmental Issues in New Zealand

New Zealand has a reputation as “clean and green” because of its relatively small population and unspoiled alpine scenery. However, the country faces real environmental issues. Industrial and agricultural discharges into waterways, notably the Waikato River, have led to water pollution in some areas. Air pollution from motor-vehicle and industrial emissions is a concern in the large cities, such as Auckland. In addition, widespread clearing of the original mixed-evergreen forests—both for timber and to create more agricultural land—has led to loss of wildlife habitat. The practice also led to severe soil erosion, a problem the government has attempted to solve through reforestation programs. However, targeted reforestation areas have been replanted with fast-growing nonindigenous species.

New Zealanders have pioneered conservation efforts, clearing offshore islands of rats and other predators to help native birds survive. New Zealanders also have a tradition of environmental activism. In the 1980s grass-roots opposition to the construction of new hydroelectric power stations led the government to suspend plans for future projects. New Zealand relies heavily on hydroelectric power, which is generally regarded as clean energy. Many New Zealanders opposed the construction of new dams, however, because they alter the natural flow of rivers and are environmentally disruptive. Controversy over the building of new dams was an important factor in the creation of a new tier of regional government in 1989 to help implement resource-management provisions designed to foster long-term sustainability. The antinuclear lobby is also a potent force in New Zealand. There are no nuclear reactors in the country, and nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered vessels are not allowed in the ports.

The government-managed national parks program was significantly reorganized and expanded in 1987. Nearly one-quarter of the country’s land area is protected in government-designated national parks and reserves, including some of the country’s wetlands, mangrove swamps, coastal areas, and native forest. New Zealand works with the World Heritage Fund to preserve the World Heritage Site of Te Wahipounamu. This internationally designated preservation area includes several locations in the Southern Alps, including some areas of indigenous forests and two alpine national parks, as well as the coastal fjords. In addition, some areas have been designated for the protection of wildlife, including the Royal Albatross Sanctuary on the southern coast of the South Island, the world’s largest mainland breeding ground for the royal albatross.

New Zealand is actively engaged in helping to preserve the fragile marine habitats and ecosystems of the South Pacific Ocean. The country has ratified a number of international environmental agreements on topics such as biodiversity, marine dumping, and whaling.


According to the 2001 census, New Zealand had a population of 3,820,749. The country has a low population density, with an average of 16 persons per sq km (41 per sq mi). About three-quarters of all New Zealanders live in the North Island, even though it is smaller than the South Island, because the largest cities and industries are located there.

About 86 percent of the people of New Zealand live in urban areas. More than half of the urban population lives in the country’s five largest cities—Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton, and Dunedin. Auckland, by far the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country, has a consistently higher growth rate than the other cities. It is an important seaport and industrial center. Wellington is the seat of national government and a hub for domestic transportation and commercial shipping. Both cities are located in the North Island, with Auckland in the northwest and Wellington in the southeast. Hamilton, a short distance south of Auckland, is a center for dairy farming. The largest city in the South Island is Christchurch, on the eastern coast, and the wool-processing, educational, and tourism center of Dunedin is located farther south.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in New Zealand

New Zealanders of European descent, who are often known by the Maori name Pakeha, comprise about 75 percent of the population. They are usually described as the largest ethnic group, but in fact they are ethnically mixed. People of English, Scottish, and Irish descent comprise the largest groups (in that order), but there are also people of German, Australian, Scandinavian, Croatian, and Dutch descent.

Maori, the original inhabitants of New Zealand, are the largest non-European group. They are a Polynesian people whose ancestors first settled the islands in about AD 1100. Their share of the population declined precipitously in the 19th century, after European colonization of the islands, but it rebounded dramatically during the 20th century from less than 5 percent in 1900 to about 15 percent in 2000.

Pacific Islanders and East Asians each account for about 5 percent of the population. Large-scale Pacific Islander immigration began in the 1960s. These immigrants came mainly from Tonga, the Fiji Islands, Tokelau, Niue, the Cook Islands, and, most of all, Samoa. East Asian immigration dates from the 1860s, when gold rushes attracted thousands of Chinese. Another wave of immigration began in the 1980s by peoples from East and Southeast Asia, including ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Koreans, Thais, Malaysians, Vietnamese, and Filipinos.

English and Maori are the official languages of New Zealand. Most of the people speak English with a New Zealand accent, which resembles the Australian accent. The Maori language belongs to the Austronesian language family. It was recognized as an official language in 1987. A small percentage of the total Maori population is considered fluent in Maori, but the language is being revived in early-childhood programs known as kohanga reo (“language nests”). Other Polynesian and European languages are spoken by a small percentage of the population.

Religion in New Zealand

The majority of New Zealanders are at least nominally Christian. Anglicans traditionally have formed the largest single denomination. The next largest Christian groups are Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. Membership in the major Christian churches has been declining steadily in recent decades. Membership in some smaller sects, such as the Pentecostal church, has meanwhile increased, as has the number of New Zealanders professing no religion or refusing to state their affiliation. Many Pakeha claim the religious affiliation of their families but are not active churchgoers. In general, religious practice is stronger among Maori and Pacific Islanders than among Pakeha. The Maori Christian churches, the Ringatu Church (founded in 1867) and the Ratana Church of New Zealand (1918), have relatively small but consistently active membership.

Education in New Zealand

Education in New Zealand is free and compulsory for all children aged 5 through 16. Students spend eight years in primary school, often transferring to specialized intermediate schools for the final two years. Secondary schooling generally takes five years, and it remains tuition-free for students under the age of 20. Most students attend public secular schools; only a minority attend private or church-affiliated schools.

The system of higher education in New Zealand includes eight universities. The largest are the University of Auckland (founded in 1882), at Auckland, and Massey University (1926), with campuses at Auckland, Palmerston North, and Wellington. Other institutions of higher education are the University of Waikato (1964), at Hamilton; the Victoria University of Wellington (1899); the University of Canterbury (1873), at Christchurch; the University of Otago (1869), at Dunedin; Lincoln University (1990; formerly Lincoln Agricultural College), near Christchurch; and the Auckland University of Technology (2000, formerly the Auckland Institute of Technology). Several colleges provide teacher training, and polytechnic institutions offer degree programs, diplomas, and certificates in various technical and professional trades.

Way of Life in New Zealand

New Zealand society has changed dramatically in recent decades. Until the 1960s the country was culturally isolated from the rest of the world, except Britain. Most homes did not have television, import controls limited access to some consumer goods, and overseas travel and tourism were small in scale. Most women did not participate in the paid workforce. Retail stores and other businesses were closed on Sundays, and pubs (taverns) closed at the dinner hour. All of this changed by the 1990s, however, and today New Zealand is just as modern and consumer-oriented as any other Westernized nation. Social issues facing New Zealand include increasing rates of unemployment and crime, especially since the 1980s.

New Zealanders enjoy a high standard of living. Many live in single-family houses with a plot of land, even in the larger cities. The rate of home ownership is high, although apartment dwelling has increased in the cities. High-rise residential development is a recent phenomenon confined mainly to Auckland and Wellington. Although most people live in the cities, scenic rural areas are just a short distance away. Popular leisure activities include beach swimming, fishing, skiing, and hiking. Most New Zealanders take pride in their healthy, active way of life. In recent years New Zealanders have become more conscious of the need to moderate their sun exposure and high-fat diets. Restaurants now offer more varied and health-conscious cuisine, although traditional dishes such as fish and chips and lamb roast remain popular.

New Zealanders are keen sport participants and fans. Rugby Union football is traditionally the favorite national sport. Rugby League football, soccer, hockey, cricket, softball, netball (a form of basketball), water sports, and track and field are also popular. Women participate actively in all these sports except professional rugby. New Zealanders take part in a variety of international sporting events, such as rugby, soccer, cricket, tennis, and sailing competitions.

In recent years Maori culture and perspectives have experienced a sort of renaissance in the predominantly white society. Maori views on the colonial past have gained some mainstream acceptance, especially in regard to land grievances in the courts, and Maori arts are shown prominently in the Te Papa national museum in Wellington. Maori themselves have made sustained and vigorous efforts to stem the loss of their traditional ways of life, or Maoritanga. Social inequities remain a problem, however, as Maori remain underrepresented in higher levels of education and in the professions.


The earliest cultural tradition in New Zealand was that of the Maori, who developed a rich and diverse Polynesian culture in geographic isolation from the other cultures of Polynesia. European settlers brought with them their own traditions, which eventually dominated the country’s cultural life. Since the 1950s the cultural fabric of New Zealand has become increasingly diverse with the immigration of peoples from the Pacific Islands and Asia.

Traditional Maori culture is expressed in song, dance, oratory, woodcarving, weaving, and architecture. Maori artists also bring Maori perspectives to canvas painting, fiction and poetry writing, and other art forms. The Maori have made a concerted effort to preserve their culture. In the 1980s they initiated a revival of their language and other traditions. By that time many Maori had assimilated into the predominant European culture. The majority of Maori had become urban dwellers, and most younger Maori did not know the Maori language. Today Maori culture thrives in both traditional and reinvented traditions.

Cultural activity among people of European descent, who are known as Pakeha in New Zealand, has long been strong, but until recently tended to follow British models. Cultural output was high in both quality and quantity. It was complicated by strong links with Britain, however, because London was in many respects the cultural capital of New Zealand. The most acclaimed New Zealand artists produced their famous works as expatriates in England. Artists and writers who stayed in New Zealand tended to feel alienated from, and unappreciated by, overseas European society. Even expatriate artists, however, explored their New Zealand roots. In the second half of the 20th century, Pakeha culture developed in its own right, producing many notable writers and artists whose works draw on the New Zealand experience.

The government of New Zealand helps fund and promote the arts, literature, and music through an arts council known as Creative New Zealand (formerly the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand), established in 1964.

Literature in New Zealand

The modern literary canon of New Zealand was founded by Katherine Mansfield, one of the 20th-century’s greatest short-story writers. Mansfield launched her writing career in England, but the influence of her New Zealand upbringing pervades her work. Female writers have long predominated in New Zealand fiction writing, especially the novel. Janet Frame, Keri Hulme, Margaret Mahy, Margaret Sutherland, Fiona Kidman, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner are just a few of New Zealand’s many acclaimed female writers. Important male writers include Maurice Shadbolt, Maurice Gee, Witi Ihimaera, Vincent O’Sullivan, and Owen Marshall. Along with Hulme and Ihimaera, contemporary Maori writers include Patricia Grace and Alan Duff. Maori-authored works such as Grace’s Mutuwhenua (1978) address difficult questions of biculturalism and the survival of the Maori community and culture.

James K. Baxter, author of Beyond the Palisade (1944) and other poetry collections, is widely regarded as New Zealand’s preeminent poet. Maori poet Hone Tuwhare published the first major Maori poems in English, drawing on his Maori oral tradition and urban working-class life. His direct, lyrical verse and command of the vernacular are evident in his collections No Ordinary Sun (1964) and Sapwood and Milk (1973).

The oral literary tradition is a vital part of Maori society. Traditional Maori literature consists of history, tales, poems, and legends, all of which have been preserved through the generations by oral recitation. The Polynesian ancestors of the Maori established tribal kin groups in defined territories, following Polynesian custom. Each group produced a complex oral tradition concerning all aspects of its life. Some traditions were exclusive to the Maori tribe that composed them; others came to be known and used universally. The strikingly poetic language of the compositions aided their memorization and recitation. The main types of composition are whakapapa (genealogy), karakia (incantations), korero (narratives), whakatauki (sayings), and waiata (sung poetry).

Performing Arts and Cinema in New Zealand

New Zealand’s first professional theater for the dramatic arts, an intimate community theater, opened in Wellington in 1964. The city continues to be the country’s strongest performing-arts center, although Auckland also has a lively theater scene. Drama was long considered an underdeveloped genre of New Zealand writing. Playmarket, a professional writer’s agency founded in the early 1970s, encouraged the writing, production, and performance of New Zealand plays. Playwright Roger Hall produced Playmarket’s first major commercial successes, Glide Time (1976) and Middle-Age Spread (1977), bringing widespread recognition to New Zealand’s community theater movement. The play Foreskin’s Lament (1980), by Greg McGee, was also an important benchmark.

In classical dance, ballerina Rowena Othlie Jackson established an international reputation in the 1950s that has yet to be surpassed in New Zealand. Along with Jackson, Alex Grant and Bryan Ashbridge became outstanding dancers of the British Royal Ballet. Douglas Wright became the country’s pioneering exponent of modern dance. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, established in 1946 as the National Orchestra, is the most successful of the country’s major national artistic organizations. New Zealand-born opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa is known as one of the world’s leading sopranos.

Maori cultural performances include traditional dances such as kapa haka, performed by large singing and dancing ensembles. More than 70 of the best ensembles perform in national competition at the Maori Aotearoa Performing Arts Festival, held in various host cities since 1972.

New Zealand filmmakers were active in the early days of cinema, producing about 20 feature films in the 1920s and 1930s. Rudall Hayward is remembered as the country’s most pioneering feature filmmaker during those years. Few films were produced from the 1940s until the early 1970s, when New Zealand filmmaking began to experience a renaissance. Since then many feature films have been produced, some with the help of the government Film Commission, established in 1978. Directors Jane Campion, Lee Tamahori, Vincent Wright, and Peter Jackson have produced some of New Zealand’s most well-known contemporary films, including Campion’s The Piano (1993); Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) and The Lord of the Rings, a film trilogy based on the epic works of writer J. R. R. Tolkien; and Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994), based on the novel by Alan Duff.

Visual Arts and Crafts in New Zealand

The New Zealand painting and sketching tradition dates from early European settlement. Before the camera became commonplace, artists recorded the realities of the land and its people on canvas. This developed into a strong landscape-painting tradition. Painters adapted in various ways to the New Zealand environment, particularly its brilliant light. Frances Hodgkins was the most internationally successful New Zealand artist of the first half of the 20th century. Since then painters such as Toss Woollaston, Rita Angus, and Colin McCahon have brought New Zealand painting into its own. Maori painter Ralph Hotere is one of the country’s most highly acclaimed contemporary artists. Cartooning is another strong visual art in New Zealand; David Low and Murray Ball are the best known of many fine cartoonists.

New Zealand also has a strong handicraft tradition, with many artisans producing jewelry, pottery, blown glass, loom-woven textiles, and other works that blur craft and art. Traditional Maori crafts such as woodcarving have immense cultural significance. The most stunning examples of Maori woodcarving are in the marae, or communal meetinghouses, where every carved wall panel has a symbolic significance. Contemporary Maori woodcarvers, notably Cliff Whiting, blend traditional and modern forms.

Libraries and Museums in New Zealand

New Zealand has more than 260 libraries, most of them part of a well-established and well-used public library system. The National Library in Wellington incorporates the leading research library, the Alexander Turnbull Library. Other important collections are held by the National Archives in Wellington, the Auckland Public Library, and the Hocken Library in Dunedin. The universities of Auckland, Otago, and Canterbury have large collections.

The new national museum of New Zealand, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (commonly known as Te Papa), opened in Wellington in 1998. This national museum features cutting-edge exhibits on New Zealand’s culture, history, and natural environment. The Auckland War Memorial Museum is the country’s other large and well-visited museum. Both museums attract more than 1 million visitors a year. New Zealand also has about 400 small museums and art galleries, many of them showing works of local artists.


The economy of New Zealand has relied on overseas trade and capital since the 19th century, when Europeans colonized the islands. Most of the country’s infrastructure was initially developed by the state using imported capital. Imported goods and capital were paid for with exports of frozen meat and butter, which from the 1880s were the mainstay of overseas earnings for nearly a century. Terms of trade (the relative prices of exports and imports) were strongly in New Zealand’s favor until the early 1970s. At that time, increases in world prices for oil (which New Zealand imports), reduced world demand for New Zealand’s traditional primary goods, and decreased access to the British market with the development of the European Community (now European Union) contributed to a balance-of-payments deficit. The deficit persisted, making it difficult for New Zealand to regain the prosperity of earlier years. The economic problems were largely attributed to the economy’s slow adjustment to external market changes. The economy’s dependence on the export of a limited range of goods meant that any fluctuation in world prices and demand for those goods had a considerable effect. In addition, the economy was strongly regulated by the government.

In the mid-1980s the government initiated a program of economic restructuring along free-market lines. The reforms were designed to promote economic flexibility and competitiveness while decreasing the government’s role in the economy. A program to deregulate the economy involved the removal of many legal and governmental restrictions that were regarded as hindrances to free competition, including agricultural subsidies, tariffs and import duties, and fiscal controls. The government withdrew from the manipulation of currency and financial markets and reduced its financial burden for social-welfare provisions. Privatization was vigorously pursued, and many state assets were transferred to the private sector. The economic restructuring ultimately transformed a highly regulated welfare state into a free-market economy.

The transition was not entirely successful in terms of economic performance, however, as New Zealand’s economy fell short of growth expectations. One reason for this was the increased export of profits, especially in growth sectors such as banking and telecommunications. In addition, some economic sectors could not compete with the lower wage levels and higher industry protections in some other countries. The automobile industry was completely eliminated, while many clothing and footwear manufacturers moved their operations to countries with cheaper labor. The reforms also exacted a social cost, leading to high rates of unemployment (virtually nonexistent from the 1940s until the mid-1970s) and increased income inequalities.

The country’s national income, or gross domestic product (GDP), was $135.7 billion in 2007 (in U.S. dollars). Some 66 percent of the GDP derives from services, 25 percent from industry, and 9 percent from agriculture, forestry, and fishing. However, the relatively small GDP figure for agriculture, forestry, and fishing underestimates its importance for New Zealand’s exports. Half of the country’s export earnings come from these products. In recent years New Zealand has developed its agriculture and manufacturing industries to suit the needs of niche markets. Dairy and meat exports continue to make a large contribution to New Zealand’s economy. However, industries such as forestry, horticulture, fishing, manufacturing, and tourism have become increasingly significant.

Labor in New Zealand

New Zealand has a workforce of about 2.3 million people, 54 percent of whom are male. The proportions of the workforce in different sectors of the economy closely mirror each sector’s share of GDP. Wage rates are modest, and GDP per capita is $32,085.60 (in U.S. dollars). The unemployment rate was 3.6 percent of the workforce in 2007. The first labor unions were established in the mining industry more than a century ago. Union membership became compulsory, and trade unions negotiated wage increases for their members. In 1991 the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) reversed the country’s union traditions and promoted the rapid deregulation of the labor market. It made unionism voluntary and enhanced the employer’s bargaining power. Union membership decreased by about half, to about 300,000 workers. In 2000, however, the ECA was replaced by the Employment Relations Act (ERA), under which union membership remained voluntary but union powers were strengthened. Only unions are allowed to negotiate collective contracts, and union representatives once again have legal access to workplaces.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing in New Zealand

Agriculture has an importance for New Zealand’s exports that outweighs its share of the labor force and GDP. Most agricultural land is pastoral and well suited for the raising of livestock. The climate produces nearly continuous grass growth, and farm animals are generally kept outside all year. Sheep are raised for both meat and wool. Sheep numbers have declined from a peak of 70 million in 1982 to 40 million in 1999. The country also has about 10 million beef and dairy cattle, as well as deer, goats, and pigs.

New Zealand agriculture receives no direct subsidies from the state, as subsidies were discontinued in the mid-1980s as part of the government’s deregulation policies. Agricultural production therefore tends to follow world price trends. From the late 1970s to 2000, the relative output of mutton, lamb, and wool nearly halved (from 34 percent to 18 percent of agricultural output by value), while the relative output of dairy products—including butter, cheese, milk powders, and casein—nearly doubled (from 16 percent to 31 percent). Crops account for less than 5 percent of agricultural output. New Zealand now produces more than twice as much produce (fruits and vegetables) as it did in the 1970s. Principal crops are cereals (barley, wheat, maize, and oats), grapes, apples, pears, kiwi fruit, potatoes, and peas. The production of some specialized horticultural products such as wine, kiwi fruit, and squash has expanded considerably in recent years, and products like these are thought to represent an important future direction for New Zealand agriculture.

Timber production is almost exclusively from the 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of plantation forests. Radiata pine, a species originally imported from California, is the most widely planted tree because of its rapid and straight growth in New Zealand. Tree plantations are generally clear-cut and then replanted, with each growth cycle lasting from 25 to 30 years. Major plantings in the 1960s and 1970s are expected to provide ample supply through at least 2010, while the allocation of more land for tree plantations is likely to continue to boost supply. Timber is used to produce sawn logs, wood pulp, paper, and building materials such as fiberboard.

Fish and other seafood are caught primarily in the country’s exclusive economic zone. This zone extends 200 nautical miles (370 km/230 mi) seaward from the main and offshore islands and is one of the largest such zones in the world. It covers an area that is about 15 times the total land area of New Zealand. The total commercial fisheries catch in 2000 was about 650,000 metric tons, with just under half this being exported. Deep-sea fishing involves the use of large trawlers to catch commercially valuable species, the most important of these being hoki, orange roughy, ling, squid, and hake. Also important for export income are aquacultural (farmed) salmon and mussels as well as harvested rock lobster (crayfish) and paua (abalone).

Mining and Manufacturing in New Zealand

New Zealand has a wide diversity of minerals, but few are mined on a significant basis. The most notable is gold, of which 10,500 kg (23,100 lb) was mined in 2006. Most gold comes from two mines, Macraes in the Otago region (southern South Island) and the Martha Mine in the Coromandel mountain range (northern North Island). Some alluvial mining takes place on the west coast of the South Island and in Otago. These regions are historic centers of the mining industry, which in the 1860s and 1870s furnished the bulk of New Zealand’s exports. Iron sand is mined south of Auckland and supplies the country’s one steel mill. Limestone is mined for the manufacture of cement. New Zealand has extensive coal resources, but much of it is low-grade lignite. Most mining operations now focus on the country’s deposits of higher quality subbituminous coal. In 2003 New Zealand produced 5.7 million short tons of coal. About one-third of the total coal production is exported, primarily to Japan and Chile.

The biggest manufacturing sector, accounting for 25 percent of industrial employment, is food, beverages, and tobacco. Most food-processing industries are located in urban centers. Meat-processing and dairy factories are located in the main agricultural regions. Winemaking is increasingly significant, with the main production centers in Marlborough on the northeastern coast of the South Island and Hawkes Bay and Gisborne in eastern North Island.

Also important to the economy are industries producing machinery and equipment, metal products, processed timber, pulp and paper, textiles, clothing, footwear, and leather. Most New Zealand wool is used for either carpet manufacture or clothing. Some of it is exported in bulk for external processing into finished goods. Although some industries have declined as a result of the tariff cuts of the 1980s and 1990s, some specialized industries have established international markets for themselves. The boatbuilding industry, for example, has expanded its market, especially for luxury yachts, since New Zealand won the America’s Cup, an international yachting-race trophy, in 1995.

Services in New Zealand

The services sector is the most important to the economy in terms of contribution to GDP and employment. Services include tourism, transportation, retail sales, hospitality, education, health, business consultancy, and banking. These are mostly urban trades, although many serve agricultural production as well. Tourism is one of the most important components of this sector in New Zealand. Ten percent of New Zealand jobs are in the tourism industry. Tourism is also the country’s top earner of foreign exchange. In 2001 New Zealand hosted 1.9 million tourists from countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, and Germany.

Energy in New Zealand

Electricity is generated in New Zealand by hydroelectric power stations and thermal power stations. Hydroelectricity accounts for 55 percent of the country’s total electricity generation. The remainder comes from thermal power plants, which rely on three fuel sources: geothermal steam, natural gas, and coal.

New Zealand has many hydroelectric facilities that convert the waterpower of rivers and lakes into electricity. In 1965 the power transmission systems of the two main islands were linked by submarine direct-current cables across Cook Strait. These cables send hydroelectric power from the South Island to the North Island. The main thermal power stations are located on the North Island, including a geothermal power plant in the central volcanic plateau, a gas-fueled plant in the western Taranaki region, and a coal- and gas-fueled plant south of Auckland. Electric heating in homes is supplemented in parts of the North Island by natural gas from fields in the Taranaki region.

New Zealand imports about half the petroleum it consumes. The balance comes from domestic oil fields in the Taranaki region, both onshore and offshore. Natural gas is also used to manufacture synthetic gasoline, and some motor vehicles run on forms of natural gas. Since 1973, when world oil prices rose sharply, New Zealand has made considerable efforts to reduce its dependence on imported petroleum and, more generally, its consumption of petroleum products. Measures included switching the fuel source of the thermal power stations from oil to coal and gas.

Transportation and Communications in New Zealand

New Zealand has 93,000 km (58,000 mi) of road, 64 percent of which is paved. Most roads, even between big towns, are only two lanes. In rural areas one-lane bridges are common, and occasionally motor vehicles and trains must share them. The networks of urban motorways planned for Auckland and Wellington in the 1960s have yet to be completed. Ownership of motor vehicles is high by international standards, with approximately 1 vehicle for every two people.

The country has about 3,900 km (2,400 mi) of narrow-gauge rail track, forming a rail network that links most of the country’s urban and agricultural centers. Developed by the state, the rail network was sold to private enterprise in the early 1990s. The network includes ferries carrying freight and passenger rail cars from Wellington to the South Island. Substantial quantities of goods are transported by rail. Passenger travel is limited to some long-distance trains, used mainly by tourists, and commuter networks in Wellington and Auckland. The principal shipping ports are at Auckland, Wellington, Tauranga, and Lyttelton (near Christchurch).

Air travel is the preferred mode of travel between major cities. Air transport is widely used, with numerous airfields located throughout the country to serve private pilots. Air New Zealand, the national airline, and the Australian airline Qantas operate international as well as domestic flights. The primary international airports, serving many different airlines, are in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.

The communications industry in New Zealand is competitive, with a number of companies offering Internet access, cellular-phone services, and basic local and long-distance telephone services. The government sold its national telecommunications company to the private sector in 1989. Nearly all homes have telephones, and New Zealanders are avid Internet users.

Two dozen daily newspapers are published in New Zealand, but none is distributed nationwide. The highest-circulation newspapers are the New Zealand Herald, published in Auckland; the Press, in Christchurch; and the Dominion and the Evening Post, both in Wellington. Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights, and government regulation of the media industry is minimal.

Foreign Trade in New Zealand

New Zealand has always been a trading nation and is dependent on exports to buy imports of oil and a wide range of manufactured and consumer goods. The country typically spends more on imports than it earns from exports. In 2007 the value of exports totaled $26.9 billion, and the cost of imports totaled $30.9 billion. World prices for New Zealand’s primary products have not kept up with prices of goods that New Zealand imports. The country has sought to diversify its product offerings and trading partners since the early 1970s in response to changing world demand and prices. The United Kingdom was long the largest export market, but its demand for New Zealand’s primary products, especially lamb meat and butter, declined after it became a member of the European Community (now European Union) in 1973. Australia then became New Zealand’s chief trading partner, and in 1982 the two countries secured close trade and business ties in a bilateral trade agreement, the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement. Among other provisions, the agreement phased out tariffs for goods traded between the two countries.

The major export destinations are Australia, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. The key export groups by order of importance are dairy products, meat, timber, and fish. The main sources of imports are Australia, the United States, Japan, China, and Germany. The most important imports are mechanical machinery, vehicles, electrical machinery, and mineral fuels. Imports of unprocessed products, notably metals and unrefined petroleum, are also significant.

Currency and Banking of New Zealand

The monetary unit is the New Zealand dollar, which is divided into 100 cents (NZ$1.40 equals U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (founded in 1934) has the sole power of issue. The banking industry was deregulated in the 1980s. Legislation that took effect in 1987 allowed the incorporation of foreign banks into the domestic banking system, and this resulted in an expansion of the number of banks. The great majority of registered banks in New Zealand are now foreign-owned. In 2002 the government-owned Kiwibank opened with the purpose of serving small businesses and investors, as well as keeping all its profits in New Zealand. The New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZSE), created in 1981 as the successor to the Stock Exchange Association of New Zealand (founded in 1915), is the only stock exchange in the country.


New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government. After British sovereignty was established in New Zealand in 1840, the Constitution Act of 1852 created the first system of government, including a two-chamber legislature and provincial councils. Additional legislation subsequently modified most of its provisions, such as the elimination of the legislature’s upper house in 1950. Like the United Kingdom, New Zealand does not have a single written constitution. Instead, constitutional legislation is an accumulation of statutory and customary laws. The miscellaneous laws are given cohesion through precedent, tradition, and unwritten formal rules known as conventions. The Constitution Act of 1986 consolidated and augmented New Zealand’s collection of laws. New Zealand maintains close ties with the United Kingdom as a full member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Executive of New Zealand

New Zealand recognizes the British monarch as its sovereign, or formal head of state. The monarch is represented in New Zealand by a governor-general. This official is appointed by the monarch on the prime minister’s recommendation to a five-year term. After national elections, the governor-general appoints the leader of the majority party in the legislature as prime minister and arranges for the prime minister to form a government, or cabinet of ministers. The governor-general formally appoints the ministers on the prime minister’s recommendation. The governor-general must also give assent for parliamentary bills to become law. These duties are mostly ceremonial, and the governor-general exercises little real power in New Zealand.

The prime minister heads the cabinet, which is the highest policy-making body of government. The cabinet is responsible for the day-to-day administration of government, and ministers have responsibility for specific areas of policy. Ministers also convene in the Executive Council, a body that advises the governor-general. Constitutional convention requires the governor-general to follow the council’s recommendations.

Legislature of New Zealand

The legislature, or Parliament, is composed of one chamber, the House of Representatives. Parliament is vested with the power to make laws. The House of Representatives is composed of 122 members, who have been elected since 1996 according to what is known as the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. In this system, half of the members are elected from voting districts (including six seats reserved for Maori representatives) and half are elected from party lists based on a party’s share of the vote in national elections. Legislative elections must be held at least every three years.

Voter registration is compulsory in New Zealand, but voting is voluntary. Registered electors, or persons who appear on the electoral roll, must be at least 18 years of age, citizens or permanent residents who have lived in the country for at least one year, and residents of the voting district in which they enroll for at least one month. People of Maori descent can enroll in either a general voting district or one of the Maori voting districts. Every elector, under the MMP system, has two votes: one for an electoral-district representative, and one for a political party.

Judiciary in New Zealand

The governor-general of New Zealand appoints all judges in New Zealand, a tradition designed to supersede politics. The judicial system includes district courts, a High Court, a Court of Appeal, and a Supreme Court, which replaced the London-based Privy Council as New Zealand’s top judicial body in 2004. These courts form a hierarchy in the appeals process. The High Court hears appeals from lower courts and tribunals, while the Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court and from District Court jury trials. The decisions of the Court of Appeal are final, except in cases that may be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Political Parties of New Zealand

The two largest political parties in New Zealand are the National Party and the Labour Party. These parties traditionally dominated the politics of the country, contesting each other for control of the legislature. In order to moderate the impact of this two-party system, New Zealanders voted in a referendum to implement the MMP system, which took effect with the 1996 elections. This system helps smaller parties to win more legislative seats, thereby decreasing the likelihood of a one-party majority. Smaller parties are therefore often solicited to enter into party coalitions with the Labour and National parties, which continue to be the most influential parties. Other important parties include New Zealand First, ACT New Zealand, United Future, and the Green Party.

Local Government of New Zealand

New Zealand is divided into 12 regions and 74 territories. Regional councils administer the regions, and territorial authorities administer the territories. The territorial authorities include district and city councils, which have responsibility for most local administration. All members of these local governing bodies are directly elected.

Social Services in New Zealand

New Zealand introduced a social security system of government-funded old-age pensions in 1898 and expanded the system in the 1920s. The central government took on the provision of social services in the late 1930s, after the global economic recession of the Great Depression. New Zealand developed into one of the world’s most comprehensive welfare states, with government subsidies for programs and services such as health care, welfare benefits, and education. In the mid-1980s, however, government began to reduce expenditures on social services. The reforms coincided with an economic restructuring program designed to decrease the role of government. The age of qualification for superannuation (the state-funded retirement benefit) was raised from 60 to 65, and the level of entitlement was cut. Measures were also instituted to reduce government expenditures on health care and education, but public outcry led to the reversal of some of these cutbacks. Although public hospitals provide state-subsidized health care, many are understaffed due to a nationwide shortage of health care providers. Increasing numbers of people have joined private health insurance schemes to circumvent waiting lists in public hospitals. Universities have found it difficult to function with decreased state funding, and students face escalating costs for tertiary education.

Defense of New Zealand

The army, navy, and air force of New Zealand are coordinated under the ministry of defense. The army numbered 4,450 regular personnel in 1999. Regular navy personnel totaled 1,980. The air force had 2,800 regular members. The army is primarily used in international peacekeeping operations. Military service is voluntary; compulsory service was eliminated in the 1950s.

International Organizations in New Zealand

New Zealand is a founding member of the United Nations (UN) and a full member of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of countries and dependencies with ties to the United Kingdom.


The first people to settle New Zealand were the ancestors of the Maori, who are thought to have called the islands Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud”). The Maori were part of the extraordinary spread of Polynesian peoples across the far-flung islands of the Pacific Ocean between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago. Although scholars have long debated the time of their arrival in New Zealand, the strongest evidence to date indicates that the first major Maori settlement was established about AD 1200.

Early Maori Life

Maori history credits the explorer Kupe with the discovery of Aotearoa. Polynesian settlers subsequently came by canoe, or waka. The first Maori settlers found a country rich in easily hunted big game, notably fur seals and giant wingless birds known as moa. Seeking the highest concentrations of seal and moa, as well as sources of the best stone for tools, early Maori appear to have rapidly settled in many areas. Maori cultivated crops brought from central Polynesia, notably the kumara (sweet potato) and hue (gourd). They also fished and gathered wild plants, especially aruhe (fernroot).

By about 1500 the moa and fur seal populations had begun to decline, and the Maori shifted from hunting toward more intensive fishing, gardening, and gathering. It may have been about this time that modern tribal organization began to emerge. Groups began building great wooden forts, called pa, that dotted the country at the time of European contact. Intensive warfare, however, may have been less common than Maori legends and the large number of pa suggest. The Maori population is estimated to have been about 85,000 in 1769, when ongoing European contact began.

Maori culture before European contact was rich and dynamic. The Maori traveled widely and exchanged goods through reciprocal gifting. Mythology, religion, and rituals were well developed, and a vast body of lore transmitted history, identity, and practical knowledge. Singing, dancing, oratory, weaving, and woodcarving were important cultural traditions. Ritual cannibalism was sometimes practiced on the bodies of slain enemies, and prisoners of war were made slaves or low-status wives. Social status depended on mana (repute), which could be acquired through inheritance, such as high-ranking lineage, or individual achievement. Evidence for the status of Maori women, although inconclusive, indicates that mana was a key factor. Some women of esteemed mana ranked among the highest sacred chiefs, warriors, and other community leaders. Women also had important formal roles in social rituals. Both male and female children were cherished.

European Contact

According to legend, Europeans may have visited New Zealand as early as 1504. The first documented visit was by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642. Maori killed four of Tasman’s crew, helping to discourage further visits until British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1769, during the first of his three voyages of exploration in the South Pacific Ocean. He returned to New Zealand during each of these voyages. Early French expeditions to the islands included those of Jean-Francois Marie de Surville, who arrived shortly after Cook in 1769, and Marion Dufresne, who was killed by Maori in the Bay of Islands in 1772.

Sealing expeditions to the southern coasts and islands (where seals had survived Maori hunting) began in the 1790s. Oceangoing whalers began to make visits in about 1800, and shore whaling, trading, and lumbering began in the 1820s. Missionaries arrived in 1814. There were less than 1,000 permanent European settlers before the late 1830s, but short-term visitors were much more numerous. Whale hunters from New England were probably the largest single group of temporary settlers. Hundreds of their ships called at the Bay of Islands for water, fresh food, and recreation. Australians of European descent also made early contact in New Zealand.

European contact from 1790 to 1840 changed Maori society in many ways. New plants and animals, notably potatoes and pigs, and metal tools made life easier. Maori engaged eagerly with Christianity from about 1830, although they modified the new belief system for their own purposes and used religious conversion as a way of gaining literacy and mana. The introduction of European guns, however, triggered the Musket Wars (1818-1835), fierce intertribal conflicts that left thousands dead. These wars ended when muskets became evenly distributed among rival tribes. European-introduced diseases such as influenza and measles also took their toll on the Maori. Loss of life was substantial; the Maori population dropped from about 85,000 in 1769 to about 60,000 in the 1850s. Overall, however, Maori society bent but did not break under the weight of European contact.

British Rule

Britain acquired nominal sovereignty over New Zealand in 1840, by proclamation and by agreement with many Maori. British sovereignty was established by the Treaty of Waitangi, signed at Waitangi in February 1840, and elsewhere later that year, by Maori chiefs. British officials eventually collected 512 Maori signatures, and on May 21, 1840, New Zealand’s North Island was declared a British colony. On neighboring South Island, however, they did not collect enough signatures to establish a British colony by treaty. In June British officials simply annexed South Island and declared it part of the colony.

The English-language version of the treaty granted Maori full British citizenship and guaranteed their property rights while it bestowed full sovereignty to Britain. In Maori-language versions, Maori retained rights of chieftainship, which could be interpreted as at least partial sovereignty. These differing perceptions led to localized conflicts between British and Maori in the 1840s, but there was also a surprising degree of cooperation between the two peoples. Maori soon realized, however, that to continue traditional feuds among themselves detracted from their ability to address the steady encroachment of Europeans, whom they called Pakeha, onto their tribal lands. Maori tribal groups began holding large meetings on the subject in the early 1850s. They established a Maori pan-tribal organization, the Maori King Movement, in 1858 to unite Maori and stop the sale of land to Europeans. Te Wherowhero was proclaimed the first Maori king, reigning as Potatau I.

Mounting tensions culminated in the New Zealand Wars, which broke out in Taranaki in 1860, spread across the North Island, and continued until 1872. Colonial governor George Grey masterminded the British war effort between 1861 and 1867. He succeeded in obtaining 12,000 imperial troops from the British government. Important Maori resistance leaders included Rewi Maniapoto, Titokowaru, and Te Kooti Rikirangi. Maori won many battles by using innovative trench-warfare techniques, but in the end they were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and resources of the British. After the wars pockets of Maori independence persisted until 1916. That year the last armed conflict took place in the isolated Urewera Mountains, in the eastern North Island.

European Settlement and Government Until 1890

Settlement of New Zealand from the British Isles and Australia began in earnest after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. New Zealand was initially made a dependency of New South Wales, Australia, but in 1841 it was constituted a separate crown colony. Auckland was founded as a planned capital in late 1840. The New Zealand Company was the major organizer of European colonization in the 1840s. It founded the towns of Wellington, Nelson, Wanganui, and New Plymouth by 1842; associated companies added Dunedin in 1848 and Christchurch in 1850.

After the treaty signing, Britain appointed a governor and began large-scale settlement. Provincial governments were established in the early 1850s and took over the organization of settlement. A national parliament convened for the first time in 1854, coming under the leadership of a premier in 1856, and took over many of the functions of the appointed governor by 1868. Under the influence of colonial treasurer Julius Vogel, a staunch supporter of British expansionism in the Pacific, the parliament began organizing and subsidizing immigration, bringing over another 100,000 people in the 1870s alone. The capital moved from Auckland, which had become a center of commercial activity, to Wellington in 1865. The central government gradually increased its hold on power at the local level by pushing aside its rivals, mainly Maori tribal leaders and provincial governments. The provinces themselves were abolished in 1876, replaced by counties and boroughs.

The European population of New Zealand grew from about 1,000 in the 1830s to nearly 60,000 in 1858, when parity with Maori was reached, and then rocketed to 500,000 by the early 1880s. The rapid population growth was due mostly to government sponsorship of immigration, employment in public-works projects, and the growth of export industries. Wool became a leading export beginning in 1850, but the export of extractive products such as timber, flax, kauri gum, and gold were also important. The discovery in 1861 of large quantities of gold in the Otago region of the South Island set off the gold rushes, in which large numbers of miners came from Australia and as far away as California to try their luck at striking it rich. Settlers led a rough-and-tumble life in the early colonial days of New Zealand. Families were large, women were less numerous than men, and crime was high. Settlement was scattered in numerous camps and towns. Opportunistic individualism and a pervasive “rush” mentality prevailed.

New Zealand politics from the 1850s to the 1880s were dominated by a small elite of men who, having prospered in business and sheep farming, formed a landed gentry. They controlled government and became New Zealand’s ruling class. Nevertheless, they always had to compromise with the middle- and working-class desire for at least nominal equality and for the expansion of opportunity. The demand for equality was met in part by extensions of the right to vote, first to virtually all men by 1881, and then to women in 1893. Women in New Zealand were among the first in the world to gain suffrage. However, the ruling elite failed to deliver expanding opportunities. In the 1880s a worldwide recession hit New Zealand. Growth rates plummeted, and the electorate saw stagnation as a breach of contract. The gentry lost power to the Liberals, an alliance of middle- and working-class politicians, in 1890.

Liberal Government and World War I

The Liberal government of 1891-1912 was led first by John Ballance (until 1893), then by Richard Seddon (until 1906), and finally by Joseph Ward. Seddon, a remarkable populist politician, was known to himself as well as others as King Dick. He led New Zealand into the Boer War (1899-1902), to which it contributed 6,600 troops, and kept it from becoming part of the Commonwealth of Australia, formed in 1901.

The Liberals formed the first of three reformist New Zealand governments in the 20th century. Their policies established the foundation of social welfare that was to be expanded into a comprehensive welfare state after the economic depression of the 1930s. The Pensions Act of 1898, although limited in both amount and eligibility, set the precedent. Labor, land, and industry reforms were more comprehensive. The centerpiece of labor legislation was the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894, establishing a system that institutionalized labor unions and reduced the frequency of strikes. Land legislation included measures to buy and subdivide gentry estates and remaining Maori land for the benefit of small farmers. The state also supplied credit to farmers for farms, and later to workers for homes, at cheap rates. Government involvement in industry included the expansion of railways and the assistance and regulation of new industries.

These measures helped, but did not cause, the great economic transformation of the period. In the mid-1880s New Zealand switched from net importer to net exporter of both goods and capital. Wool exports remained important, but public works, organized immigration, and extractive industries began a relative decline. They were increasingly replaced by the so-called protein industries, which exported refrigerated meat, cheese, and butter to the British market. The new export-based economic system was up and running by 1900. Tight government regulation maintained the products’ reputation for quality in the British market. The focus on regulated exports tightened links with Britain, despite widely held expectations for steady moves toward national independence.

The status of New Zealand changed from colony to dominion in 1907, with premiers taking the title of prime minister thereafter. The Reform Party, conservative despite its name, took power from the Liberals in 1912. The Reform Party was led by William Massey, who served as prime minister from 1912 until 1925. His hard-line policy during a serious industrial crisis in 1912-1913 involved some violence. The failure of a general workers’ strike in 1913 encouraged organized labor to shift emphasis from industrial action to politics. The Labour Party was formed in 1916. New Zealand participated enthusiastically in World War I (1914-1918), supplying 100,000 troops to the Allied forces. Politicians and historians claimed that the country earned full nationhood through this contribution, but the price was staggeringly high: 60,000 casualties out of a total population of barely more than 1 million.

The Great Depression and Reform

New Zealand’s political and economic fortunes were mixed between 1918 and 1935. The protein industries consolidated and expanded in the 1920s, but there were recessions as well, and the country was swept up in the global economic collapse of the Great Depression from 1929. The Reform government ended its long reign in 1928, replaced by various combinations of rightist and centrist parties until 1935. That year, as economic depression began to lift, the first Labour government was elected, and the second of New Zealand’s three great spasms of reform began.

Labour held power from 1935 to 1949, led first by Michael Savage and, from 1940, by Peter Fraser. It set up a comprehensive social security system of welfare benefits and health care; further expanded the free education system; took some initiatives in state support for arts and culture; and extended state regulation into most areas of economics and society. In foreign policy, Labour clashed with Britain over policies toward Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). When World War II began in 1939, however, New Zealand did not hesitate to back Britain. Once again New Zealand mounted an extraordinary war effort for a small country, mobilizing about 200,000 soldiers, sailors, and pilots. These forces were used mostly at Britain’s discretion. After Japan entered the war in 1941, New Zealand assisted the United States in its Pacific campaign, mostly through increased food and factory production.

The war strengthened New Zealand’s relationship with the United States, leading to increased trade and diplomatic contacts. In 1951 the mutual-defense alliance of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (ANZUS) was formed, leading to greater policy coordination between the three countries. The United States gradually replaced Britain as New Zealand’s senior partner in international relations. Economic and cultural links between Britain and New Zealand persisted strongly, however, until Britain joined the European Community (now the European Union) in 1973, thereby strengthening its ties with other countries in Europe.

National Party Dominance

Labour lost its hold on power in the 1949 elections. The National Party (established as a successor to the Reform Party in 1936) won a decisive victory under the leadership of Sidney Holland, who became prime minister. In 1951 his government responded to a prolonged dockworkers’ strike by restricting civil liberties. Holland served as prime minister until he retired, citing ill health, in 1957. In the elections of that year the National Party, under the leadership of Holland’s successor, Keith Holyoake, lost to the Labour Party under Walter Nash. But Holyoake led the National Party to victory in the 1960 elections and in three subsequent elections, holding office as prime minister until 1972. That year the Labour Party secured an election victory under Norman Kirk. Kirk died in office in 1974 and was replaced by Wallace Rowling. The National Party was reelected in 1975, now under Robert Muldoon, who served as prime minister until 1984.

During these decades of National Party dominance, a high level of integration between state, business, farming, and even workers’ unions persisted. The economy was fairly prosperous from the 1950s through the 1970s. Waning demand for New Zealand products in Britain led to more diversified trading partners. Muldoon’s government regulated many parts of New Zealand’s economy, to the benefit of farmers and businesses. He advocated traditional social values and maintained close ties with Britain and the United States. These policies, along with his authoritarian brand of leadership, brought him into conflict with Maori rights organizations, feminist groups, and a growing anti-nuclear environmentalist movement.

Several dramatic social changes took place between the 1950s and the early 1980s. Perhaps the most important was the resurgence of Maori, whose population began to make a healthy recovery in the 1940s. The Maori population increased from 45,000 to 523,000 between 1896 and 1996. This growth was coupled with massive Maori urban migration and, from 1970, political protest and radical activism that resulted in more official recognition of Maori concerns. Other important social changes included a major movement of women into the paid workforce and new waves of immigration by people from Europe as well as the Pacific Islands and, especially after 1984, East Asia. In the 1960s nonconformist youth and marginalized groups began to challenge the status quo. This was coupled with considerable activity in the arts. New Zealand experienced a general social liberalization, perhaps even cultural decolonization, as a result of these social changes.

Third Period of Reform

In 1978 and 1981 the Muldoon government was narrowly returned to power, but when Muldoon called an early election in 1984, the Labour Party under David Lange defeated him. Growing support for social, political, and economic reforms as well as frustration over a depressed economy contributed to the National Party’s downfall. As prime minister, Lange initiated the third period of intense reform in New Zealand’s modern history. Reversing its traditional position, the Labour Party set out to deregulate economy and society and to disengage the state from both. The policies, often referred to as “Rogernomics,” were masterminded more by Finance Minister Roger Douglas than by Lange, who eventually came to oppose them and removed Douglas in 1988. However, economic restructuring was continued by succeeding governments, both National and Labour, until 1999.

The new Labour government also set the precedent of making the first real attempt to address Maori grievances. Since 1975 Maori had been able to submit grievances to the Waitangi Tribunal, but only for claims of recent breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. The tribunal was largely ineffectual until 1985, when the government enabled it to consider Maori grievances from as far back as 1840. Since then there have been several major settlements, under which the state paid compensation to Maori tribal groups for breaches of the treaty. Although the settlements met with a mixed reception from some Maori claimants, the tribunal process does suggest that at least some reconciliation is possible.

Under Lange the Labour government also adopted an antinuclear policy, which led to the suspension of the ANZUS treaty. After the Labour election victory in 1984, a strong section of the party and of the public advocated an uncompromising antinuclear policy, directed against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and visits to New Zealand’s coastal waters by nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships of the U.S. Navy. Protests against French tests were led by the environmental organization Greenpeace. In 1985, before planned Greenpeace protests at the nuclear test site of Mururoa, an atoll in French Polynesia, the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior was blown up and sunk in Auckland’s harbor. One person died as a result of the bombing. Investigations revealed that the ship had been deliberately sabotaged with explosives planted by undercover agents of the French military. This incident broadened and strengthened public support in New Zealand for an antinuclear stance. New Zealand’s military alliance with the United States, effectively the cornerstone of foreign policy since 1942, lapsed. In 1986 the United States suspended its ANZUS security guarantees to New Zealand. (Separate defense agreements with Australia remained in force.) In June 1987 New Zealand’s ban on nuclear-carrying vessels in its territorial waters became law with the enactment of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Bill.

The Labour government won reelection in 1987. Citing ill health, Lange resigned in 1989 and was replaced by Geoffrey Palmer. Internal disputes within the party and the declining popularity of the government caused Palmer to resign in favor of Michael Moore in September 1990. The national election held the following month was fought mainly over economic issues. Labour was ousted by the National Party, then headed by James (Jim) Brendan Bolger.

Recent Developments

The results of the parliamentary election in 1993 were the closest of the 20th century. The initial outcome was a hung Parliament, with no party holding an outright majority. Recounts of votes in marginal electorates allowed the National Party , led by Bolger, to emerge with 50 seats, a 1-seat majority in Parliament. Soon after the narrow defeat of the Labour Party in the 1993 elections, Helen Clark replaced Moore as party leader, becoming the first woman to head a major political party in New Zealand.

Also in the 1993 elections, a national referendum was held on whether New Zealand should retain its majority-vote electoral system or replace it with a system of proportional representation, known as the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. The MMP system was seen as a way to limit the dominance of the two largest parties, Labour and National, by making it more difficult for either party to win a simple majority, forcing them to form coalitions with smaller parties. By a slim margin, voters approved the new system to go into effect with the 1996 elections.

The first elections under MMP returned Bolger and the National Party to power in a coalition with the New Zealand First party. A challenge from Jenny Shipley, former minister of social welfare, forced Bolger to resign as prime minister and head of the National Party in 1997. Shipley replaced him in November of that year, becoming New Zealand’s first female prime minister.

In the 1999 legislative elections voters, weary of economic restructuring, ended nine years of National Party rule by voting in a center-left coalition led by the Labour Party. Labour was led by Helen Clark, who became New Zealand’s first female prime minister to be selected following parliamentary elections. Clark began a second term following the 2002 elections, in which the Labour Party won a plurality in Parliament. Clark formed a government with the support of the center-right United Future party, but that party declined to become an official coalition partner. In 2005 Clark became the first Labour leader to win a third term as prime minister. Her party formed a coalition government with the support of a number of minor parties, including United Future and the nationalist New Zealand First party.

In the 2008 legislative elections the National Party, led by John Key, returned to power. As in past elections since the adoption of the MMP system, no party won an outright majority. However, the National Party won the most seats and was able to fashion a center-right government. Its winning margin came during an economic recession and a corruption scandal that tainted one of Labour’s coalition partners. The National Party campaigned on a platform of tax cuts and measures aimed at stemming a trend that has seen New Zealanders increasingly immigrating to Australia. A former investment banker and self-made millionaire, Key was expected to govern as a centrist.

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