New Zealand and its history

New Zealand (or Aotearoa, the Mäori name for New Zealand) is situated in the South Pacific Ocean, 2,000 kilometres south-east of Australia. It has a land area of 269,000 square kilometres (three-quarters the size of Japan) and consists of two main islands, the North Island and the South Island, plus Stewart Island and other smaller islands. The capital is Wellington, and the largest city is Auckland. The population is 4 million, with four-fifths of European ethnicity, 1 in 6 Mäori (the tangata whenua or indigenous people), 1 in 15 Asian and 1 in 16 of Pacific Island origin. New Zealand is an increasingly multicultural society.

New Zealand was first settled by waves of voyagers from the south-east Pacific beginning more than 1,000 years ago. Traditional Mäori society was organised in an inter-connected system of iwi (tribes), hapü (sub-tribes) and whänau (extended families). This tribal system continues today. The economy of traditional Mäori life reflected this social structure and was centred around agriculture, hunting, textiles, fisheries and trade.

The first European contact occurred when Dutch navigator Abel Tasman visited in 1642, and the British explorer James Cook visited in 1769, 1773 and 1777. Settlement by Europeans was initially associated with the activities of sealers, whalers, traders and missionaries. More organised settlement occurred from the 1840s onwards.

New Zealand became a British colony in 1840 when Mäori and representatives of the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi, the nation’s founding document.

The Treaty of Waitangi is an agreement between Mäori hapü and the New Zealand Government. The Treaty represents an agreement in which Mäori gave the Crown rights to govern and to develop British settlement, while the Crown guaranteed Mäori full protection of their interests and status, and full citizenship rights.

The impacts of expanding European settlement and conflict over land caused Mäori economic strength and population levels to decline. However, since the mid-20th century there has been a resurgence in the population size and role of Mäori in national life. Recent governments have begun to actively recognise the principles of the Treaty, make redress to Mäori for breaches of the Treaty and reduce inequities between Pakeha (New Zealanders of European decent) and Mäori. The Government recognises the Treaty as a ‘living’ agreement, which must grow and develop over time.

Representative government was established in the late-19th century, with the right to vote being extended relatively rapidly. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant the vote to women

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy. The Queen of New Zealand, Queen Elizabeth II, is the Head of State. The Queen’s representative in this country is the Governor-General who has all the powers of the Queen in relation to New Zealand. Although an integral part of the process of government, the Queen and the Governor-General remain politically neutral and do not get involved in the political contest.

New Zealand government has three branches: the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. Power is divided between these branches, preventing any one from acting against the basic constitutional principles of the country. Although each branch has a different role, they are not totally separate from each other.

New Zealand has a single chamber of Parliament known as the House of Representatives. The principal functions of Parliament are to:

  • enact laws
  • provide a government
  • supervise the government’s administration
  • allocate funding for government agencies and services
  • redress grievances by way of petition.

Parliament is elected using the mixed member proportional (MMP) system. The Government is formed after an election by the party or coalition which can command a majority of the votes in the House of Representatives. The leader of the winning party becomes Prime Minister.

The Government is accountable to Parliament for its actions and policies. So Ministers are answerable to Parliament for their own actions and policies and for the actions and policies of the departments and state agencies under their jurisdiction.

For further information about New Zealand and its history, including the Treaty of Waitangi, go to: