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Civil and political rights

Desired outcomes

Everybody enjoys civil and political rights. Mechanisms to regulate and arbitrate people’s rights in respect of each other are trustworthy.


The enjoyment of civil and political rights enables people to participate in decision-making, to be fairly represented, to seek redress for discrimination and to conduct business with public officials in an open and transparent manner, without fear of involvement in corrupt practices.

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.76

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.

New Zealand has also signed seven core United Nations treaties. These treaties cover: civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; the elimination of racial discrimination; the elimination of discrimination against women; the rights of children; the rights of disabled persons, and protection against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment.

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. This is only possible if people can exercise the many rights referred to above.77


New Zealand is internationally recognised as having an excellent human rights record.78 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). New Zealand regularly reports to the United Nations on its record of protecting rights.

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

This chapter uses five 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 and perceived corruption.

A fundamental right in any democracy is the right to vote. Voter turnout figures provide 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.79 Perceived discrimination includes two subjective measures: one is of people’s personal experiences of discrimination; the other is of people’s views about which groups are subject to discrimination. Research suggests that many people who experience discrimination will not make a complaint.80

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