What Type of Democracy is New Zealand?

August 24, 2009

I finished my previous post by stating that there is a disconnect between NZ society and the system through which it elects its parliament and I said the disconnect was that NZ society is pluralist and majoritarian, and the electoral system is consensual. This idea needs to be more fully developed.

As we all know, there are different types of democratic electoral systems all over the world. Prominent political scientist Arend Lijphart has looked at them and he sees two types of democracies: Majoritarian and Consensual.

Majoritarian Democracies are those like in Britain which are also called Westminster democracies. They are characterised by first-past-the-post voting, two-party dominance of parliament, powerful Prime Ministers/Cabinets, and unitary (not Federal) governance.

Consensual Democracies are like those in Germany and are characterised by proportional voting systems, multi-party coalition governments and federal governance.

So if there are these two types of democracy, which does New Zealand fit into? Lijphard actually addresses NZ in his book Patterns of Democracy and for him it was the best example of Majoritarian Democracy, until the introduction of MMP in 1996.

Since then the picture is a little clouded. Perhaps you might have thought NZ had swung all the way over to a Consensual Democracy, but that is not the case. Lijphard works on 2 Dimensions: Executive-Parties and Unitary-Federal.

1. Executive-Parties Dimension: Here NZ seems to be on the Consensual side. Since 1996 we have only had multiparty coalitions in government; we vote according to proportional voting rules; in the end, it is not easy for one party to take control of government.

The only place where we diverge is in interest group mediation, where NZ is more pluralist than corporatist, i.e. interest groups agitate on their own behalf for influence and do not reach compromises within their own institutions.

2. Federal-Unitary Dimension: On this one NZ would seem to be more on the Majoritarian side. We do not have independent federal states with wide-ranging competence and independently elected parliaments; we have no independent upper house of parliament; we have no written constitution and no constitutional court. In effect, once in power the government has great control of actual policy.

Here we diverge only in that we have an independent central bank.

So it looks like since the introduction of MMP New Zealand has gone from a majoritarian democracy to a bit of a mixture between majoritarian and consensual democracy.

Or, if we look at which aspects have changed from majoritarian to consensual we see that only those factors relating to the electoral system have changed: Which parties are represented in Parliament; How many parties are in Government; How people vote in elections. Everything else has remained the same, staunchly Majoritarian.

This seems to me to be part of the disconnect: Half the political system has been wrenched from Majoritarian to Consensual Democracy while the other half has continued on as before.

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4 Responses to “What Type of Democracy is New Zealand?”

  1. Red Rosa Says:

    Perceptive comment. Maybe it has relevance to the two current NZ issues being hotly debated. These are the smacking referendum /Boscawen Bill, and the reserved seats for Maori on the Auckland SuperCity. Neither falls easily into left/right analysis, nor is any consensus likely. In both cases, large numbers of voters will be upset at the decisions announced in the last 48 hours. Majoritarian rules, OK?

  2. Geoffrey Says:

    Very good assessment. Regarding point 2, I think it is very relevant that NZ lacks the judicial challenges to legislation that you see in countries with constitutions in a single written document. This gives the government of the day significant power once formed. Look at Australia, US, Germany where supreme courts regularly rule out pieces of legislation because they breach the constitution.

    And as you indicate, no upper house either since 1950 which consensual democracies such as Germany have (tied in with federalism). So: the NZ govt can pass laws with no fear of them being overturned until the govt changes. I’ve always thought this has a dual-effect. Not only are laws unchallenged, but it emboldens the governing parties to put forward controversial legislation because you’re not going to look stupid if it gets chucked out by a court challenge or modified by an upper house.

    The fact that we now have micro-parties rather than small parties also has reduced the potential for consensual democracy IMHO. In Germany the third parties tend to be quite a bit bigger with a lot more clout. Interestingly also small parties in Germany are not usually labelled as such and are certainly not called “minor parties” which I’ve always thought as terribly pejorative and based on an FPP worldview.


  3. […] traditional wisdom on proportional systems versus majoritarian systems (or MMP vs. FPP) is that proportional sytems are ‘nicer’ and more inclusive, whereas […]

  4. Leo Says:

    Then, you mean Newzealand democracy is Majoritarian?? Not pluralist. Right??


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