Civil and political rights

Desired outcomes

Everybody has civil and political rights, and actively participates in democratic society. Mechanisms to regulate and arbitrate people’s rights in respect of each other are trustworthy and without discrimination or repression.


The enjoyment of civil and political rights enables people to participate in decision-making, be fairly represented, seek redress for discrimination, conduct business with public officials in an open and transparent manner, and live in a tolerant society free from repression.

Civil and political rights fall into two broad categories. The first requires that people are protected from interference or abuse of power by others. The second requires that society is organised in a way that enables all people to develop to their full potential.

Rights are defined in various international treaties and in domestic legislation. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 sets out many of the rights New Zealanders enjoy. These include rights to life and security, voting rights, and rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, thought, conscience, religion and belief. They also include rights to freedom from discrimination, and various rights relating to justice and criminal procedures. Other laws, such as the Privacy Act 1993, also provide protection for specific rights.

The relationship between Māori and the Crown is guided by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Civil and political rights are important for wellbeing in many ways. At a fundamental level, they protect people’s lives and their physical wellbeing (eg by recognising rights to freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest).

Wellbeing depends on people having choice or control over their lives, and on being reasonably able to do the things they value in a society that embraces diversity. This is only possible if people can exercise the many rights referred to above.


New Zealand is internationally recognised as having an excellent human rights record. The court system is independent and courts can enforce the rights affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, although there is no power to strike down legislation inconsistent with the Act. Other institutions exist to protect people from government power (examples include the Privacy Commissioner and the Ombudsmen) or to help people resolve issues of unlawful discrimination (such as the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Review Tribunal).

However, the direct measurement of civil and political rights is not a simple matter.

This chapter uses six headline indicators to show how New Zealand’s formal commitments to civil and political rights are reflected in reality. They are: voter turnout; the representation of women in government; the representation of ethnic groups in government; perceived discrimination; acceptance of diversity; and perceived corruption.

A fundamental right in any democracy is the right to vote. The first indicator, voter turnout, provides an indication of the confidence people have in the nation’s political institutions, and the importance they attach to them. High voluntary voter turnout rates suggest that people see these institutions as relevant and meaningful to them, and they believe their individual vote is important.

An effective and relevant political system should broadly reflect the society it represents. The second and third indicators measure the proportion of women and the proportion of ethnic groups in elected positions in government. Equality before the law and freedom from unlawful discrimination are fundamental principles of democratic societies. New Zealand law generally meets international standards for protecting the right to freedom from discrimination. Under the Human Rights Act 1993, discrimination is prohibited in New Zealand on the following grounds: sex (including pregnancy and childbirth); marital status (including civil unions); religious belief; ethical belief; colour; race; ethnic or national origin; disability; age (from age 16 years); political opinion; employment status; family status; and sexual orientation. The perceived discrimination indicator measures people’s subjective experience of personal discrimination. Research suggests that many people who experience discrimination will not make a complaint.

New Zealand society is increasingly diverse, and the willingness to accept such diversity helps people to become open and welcoming of different views and ways of life. The inability of people to be accepted can impact on access to education, healthcare, employment and successful participation in their community. The fifth indicator measures people’s acceptance of selected minority groups.

Corruption undermines the democratic process and the rule of law. It is difficult to measure levels of corruption by the number of prosecutions or court cases as this will be driven, to some extent, by the efficient functioning of the justice system. The final indicator measures the level of perceived corruption among politicians and public officials using Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Domain summaryTop

In the Civil and Political Rights domain, outcomes are mixed.

Voter turnout in general elections has been declining over time, though turnout in the 2014 General Election was higher than in the 2011 General Election. Research shows that voter turnout for the 2011 General Election was much lower for younger age groups, the unemployed, and those on low incomes. Declining voter turnout over time has also been reported for local authority elections.

Although the proportions of women represented in central and local government have increased since the 1980s, the proportions have remained relatively unchanged in terms of recent-change and medium–term-change, and remain below the proportion of women in the total population.

Representation of Māori, Pacific and Asian Members of Parliament in central government has improved over time, although Asian ethnic groups continue to be under-represented.

In 2014, a small proportion of people reported being discriminated against in the last 12 months, with some groups much more likely to experience discrimination than others. People were less likely, in 2014, to feel comfortable with a new neighbour who has a mental illness than other selected minority groups.

New Zealand’s perceived corruption score is favourable and stable, ranking second least corrupt out of 34 OECD countries in 2014.