An equal say, Barry Gustafson

Adventures in Democracy. A History of the Vote in New Zealand
Neill Atkinson
University of Otago Press in association with the Electoral Commission, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276588

Organised society depends on the existence of governments. What those governments should do and can do depends on the political structures, processes and beliefs of the societies that are governed. One major difference between democratic and non-democratic governments is that the former are elected from among competing parties at frequent and free elections involving all adult citizens in the society. As Atkinson observes, such elections are the central mechanism by which citizens consent to be ruled by Parliament and government. By providing a peaceful means for that consent to be withdrawn, elections legitimise the ruling government and help ensure the loyalty of those who are governed. Theoretically at least, on election day everyone has an equal say in a collective decision about who will represent them in the new Parliament, which party or parties will form the government, and which party leader will become prime minister.

One cannot discuss democracy in detail in a review article, but Atkinson, in entitling his book Adventures in Democracy, is correct in indicating that electoral systems and the voting process are means to a greater end and that major changes have taken place, both to governments and to the voting system itself, when governments have been perceived to be unrepresentative of and unresponsive to the wishes of the voters.

This book was commissioned to mark the 150th anniversary of New Zealand’s first elections in 1853. Atkinson had only about 12 months to research and write it and, even allowing for the very large amount of existing secondary sources he was able to draw on, his achievement is quite remarkable. This is a comprehensive and very readable account.

Wisely, Atkinson has resisted the temptation to broaden his work to include other aspects of constitutional or parliamentary history. He also is reluctant to spend much time on detailed analysis or comparison of various electoral systems, the election campaigns, the political parties, voting behaviour, or even the politicians, although his work for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography does mean that he has an eye for an interesting person or incident. Some of these are dealt with in boxes or lengthy captions to portraits or other illustrations.

Atkinson and Otago University Press have produced a first-rate book. It is a pleasure to hold and to read; the numerous illustrations are fascinating and complement the text well; the chronological and statistical appendices will be frequently consulted; and the bibliography, notes and index are models. There are virtually no literals, though one I noticed is a caption on p118 referring to “Peter Fraser (seated far left)” when Fraser has been cropped out of the photo and the person on the far left is someone else.

New Zealand had an electoral system within 13 years of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Admittedly, few inhabitants in 1853 had the vote and even though there was officially no distinction between Maori and European men, the much more numerous Maori were largely denied the franchise because they owned property collectively not individually. That led in the 1860s to the creation of separate Maori seats, although never in the number relative to the population. The enfranchising of all Maori men in 1867 preceded the enfranchising of all non-Maori men 12 years later. Universal adult suffrage was achieved in 1893 when New Zealand became the first country in the world to enfranchise women.

Atkinson logically divides the 20th century into four periods. The first from 1908 to 1935 was indeed a turbulent time during which the older Liberal and Reform parties were increasingly challenged by the socialist-influenced and trade union-organised Labour Party. Labour owed its early seats in Parliament to the short-lived second ballot electoral system 1908-13. Although over the next 20 years there was considerable discussion of electoral reform to a preferential or proportional voting system, the persistence of the first-past-the-post method of voting forced parties of the left and right to amalgamate into two broad-based parties, Labour and National, that were to dominate elections and government until the 1990s.

For more than 30 years after 1935 New Zealand appeared to have a stable two-party system that was very responsive, some would say almost too responsive, to public opinion. The will of the people following an election could be speedily implemented because there was no written constitution and after 1950, no upper house in the Parliament. Party discipline in voting as a parliamentary caucus was ruthlessly enforced. A large section of the governing caucus was already bound by cabinet solidarity to support executive decisions in caucus and Parliament, and cabinet decisions were to a large extent determined by a strong prime minister and his three or four key ministerial lieutenants. Some observers suggested that New Zealand’s system of government was one of “elected dictatorship” but this was countered by arguments that governments should represent the wishes of the majority while taking account of the rights of individuals and minorities, and allowing them the freedom to oppose and to try to persuade voters to support their alternatives in the future.

After 1951, however, no single political party was able to gain more than half the votes cast at a general election. The advent of Social Credit at the 1954 election resulted in many electorates being won with less than half the votes cast, and the legitimacy of successive governments was questioned. In 1981, Social Credit won two per cent of the seats with almost 21 per cent of the vote. National, although for the second election in a row polling fewer votes than Labour, won more seats than Labour and Social Credit combined, and remained the government. This brought into question not only the fairness but also the legitimacy of an electoral system that clearly did not produce the Parliament or government that voters wanted.

Confidence in the electoral system was further eroded by the actions of the Labour Government 1984-90 and the National Government 1990-93, neither of which acted as their supporters had expected. The result was the 1993 referendum that endorsed a change to the mixed member proportional system of electing members of Parliament and the disintegration of the two major parties, although Labour subsequently and largely coalesced again.

As Adventures in Democracy amply shows, however, not only can electoral systems periodically change but also the voting population itself is continuously being transformed demographically, socially, attitudinally, and technologically. Parties must recognise and adapt to those changes in order to succeed or they risk finding themselves replaced by more responsive ones. Governments are also very vulnerable to downturns in the economy, the frustration of supporters’ expectations, or serious divisions within the ranks over a policy issue. It is a truism that governments are voted out of office. Atkinson has ably covered the first 150 years of an ongoing story that will evolve further in the future.


Barry Gustafson is an Auckland political historian.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
Search the archive
Search by category