As we were, Barry Gustafson

The Politics of Equality: New Zealand’s Adventures in Democracy
Leslie Lipson
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864736468


Leslie Lipson, an Englishman, became foundation Professor of Political Science at Victoria University College of the University of New Zealand in 1939. He spent seven years of his distinguished academic career in New Zealand before moving on to the United States. During that time he researched and wrote a comprehensive study of New Zealand political history and government which was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1948. It is still, as Jon Johansson notes in his excellent introduction, “the pre-eminent scholarly analysis of New Zealand’s political development from the beginning of responsible government in 1856 up until the mid-point of the twentieth century”.

Systematically and chronologically, with chapters on the electoral system, political parties, cabinet, premiership, parliament and public administration, Lipson describes the ways New Zealand adopted and modified between 1840 and 1890 the British model of democratic government. He then analyses that small, young and centralised system in operation during the period 1891-1947, before speculating on the prospects for what he calls New Zealand’s “Equalitarian Democracy”.

Lipson is fascinated by the underlying political culture and the ways and extent to which New Zealand democracy balanced the values of liberty and equality. He argues that both were important. Too great an emphasis on liberty for the individual favours the ruthless and the strong, and could result in gross inequality, extremes of poverty and wealth, and a fragmented society which undermines democracy. On the other hand, too much emphasis on equality can limit the freedom of the individual and result in excessive conformity, uniformity and lack of creativity. Lipson’s book suggests New Zealand erred on the side of equality and evolved in a way that tended not only to raise the less advantaged but also to restrict and level down those more advantaged not only in wealth but in talent.

The balance between equality and liberty perceived by Lipson has certainly changed over the 63 years since his book was first published. Some generational, technological and attitudinal changes were inevitable in New Zealand’s political system, culture, values and parties. Other changes resulted from decisions political leaders made in response to external economic pressures, and theories and actions espoused initially by other governments such as those of Britain and the US.

At the time Lipson was writing, New Zealand was just coming out of its second world war in a generation. Between those wars had come the Great Depression. New Zealanders were in broad agreement in the 1940s and 1950s on the need to maintain full employment, to fund adequately a public health system, and to extend educational opportunity to all. There was a commitment to state planning, management and regulation, and an egalitarian redistribution of wealth from the relatively rich to the relatively poor through the taxation and welfare systems. The Government constantly consulted the leaders of the farmers, employers, manufacturers and trade unions. The consensus on the economy and on social security at home was matched by all politicians agreeing that strategic security depended on alliances with major protectors such as Britain, the United States and Australia and a commitment to forward defence.

The year after Lipson published The Politics of Equality, the National Party came into office for the first time. It was to govern New Zealand for all but six of the following 35 years. National under Sidney Holland, Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon largely accepted the economic and social welfare systems that the Labour Party, itself building on earlier work by the Liberal Party half a century before, had created. National Party politicians simply asserted that they would be better managers of a New Zealand they did little to change, and Labour and National argued over the details and costs of the system rather than fundamentally over the morality, desirability or sustainability of the welfare system or the universal right of all citizens to equal and adequate access to it.

That consensus started to disintegrate after a dramatic and long-lasting decline in New Zealand’s terms of overseas trade from late 1966 and 1967. The decline worsened with Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community in 1972, the oil shocks of the 1970s, and chronic international inflation, high interest rates and rising unemployment. Frustration and anger over these issues were exacerbated by Muldoon’s policies and personality as he desperately and eventually unsuccessfully tried by traditional means to defend the old order.

The fourth Labour Government of 1984-90 led by David Lange, and driven especially by his Finance Minister Roger Douglas, introduced radical reforms that were to swing the balance between equality and liberty firmly towards the latter. This change in the nature of New Zealand democracy was carried on between 1990 and 1993 by the fourth National Government and almost completely undid the legacy of the Liberals, the first Labour Government, and the earlier National administrations.

The changes after 1984 were not just about economic efficiency. Underlying them was a view, earlier espoused by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US, that the state needed to be rolled back because it had become too pervasive, paternalistic, authoritarian and bureaucratic. It threatened individual freedom and failed to encourage individual responsibility and accountability. State involvement in the economy and expenditure on the welfare state were questioned on grounds of morality as well as efficiency and sustainability. New Zealand was thereafter no longer, as Lipson describes it, distinguished primarily by “the politics of equality” but by a dramatic rise in inequality.

Today, the ways New Zealand government is structured and functions also differ from those described by Lipson, though he himself recognised that the system would continue to change in the future. The Upper House was abolished in 1950 and never replaced. New Zealand is no longer a bicameral legislature with its lower House of Representatives elected in single-member constituencies by a first-past-the-post electoral system. We changed to a mixed-member-proportional system in 1996, after voters became alienated from successive governments elected by a minority of voters and contemptuous of the interests and will of the majority.

The membership of political parties collapsed between 1984 and 1993, and today they are much more professional, parliamentary-caucus, cadre parties than the volunteer, extra-parliamentary, mass-membership parties of the past. Parliament now meets throughout the year and has a host of committees. The civil service bureaucracy is much larger, more centralised and more diverse, and some would argue more pervasive throughout New Zealand society. Many of the older state-owned and operated enterprises, once major government departments, have been privatised. Only the power of the prime minister and a small group of senior cabinet ministers seems relatively unchanged from the days of Richard John Seddon, William Ferguson Massey, Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser.

Lipson’s attempt to assess the identity of New Zealanders in 1948 is certainly obsolete today. The country has become much more independent internationally and diverse domestically. Lipson contends that New Zealand was a relatively homogeneous society with “98 per cent of [Pakeha] New Zealanders … drawn ultimately from the British Isles … the bulk from England”. That ethnic origin and cultural heritage was consolidated by the overwhelming dependency of the New Zealand economy on the British market. Maori, who at the time formed about six per cent of the total population, were, according to Lipson, “largely content with their status” and had successfully “conducted their own adjustment of a Polynesian to a European culture”.

Sixty years later there is much greater ethnic and cultural diversity, with the Maori cultural and political renaissance much greater than Lipson recognised or predicted. Only 74 per cent of New Zealanders now identify their ethnic origin as European. Another 14 per cent are Maori, nine per cent Asian, of whom half are Chinese, and seven per cent of Pacific Islands descent. Significantly, two-thirds of Maori babies, half the Pacific Island babies, and a third of both European and Asian babies are of more than one ethnic group.  Britain is no longer New Zealand’s major trading partner, having been replaced by Australia, with China now second as both a destination of New Zealand’s exports and source of its imports.

In my last few years lecturing at the University of Auckland, I taught a course entitled “The New Zealand we have lost”, which looked at New Zealand politics prior to 1984. This was necessary because most of my students had been born after that date and, like most young New Zealanders, had little knowledge of a political culture or system different from that in which they had grown up and which they accepted as normal. Lipson’s The Politics of Equality is a very good starting point for people who want to see the alternative that existed for most of the 20th century and how it evolved. Lipson also poses fundamental questions about the type of society we live in and the political means of achieving and maintaining a healthy democracy that are still very relevant today.


Barry Gustafson is a political biographer and historian and Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Auckland.



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