Build an understanding for the basics of NZ politics.

Below you’ll find answers to many different questions covering different areas of politics. These questions and answers are designed as an introduction to each topic, ensuring that you don’t get lost.

What exactly is Parliament?


A common misconception in New Zealand is that many people associate Parliament to the strange-looking building called The Beehive. While this is part of the government, the Beehive is mainly just offices. The real action actually happens in Parliament House. 

Parliament House is where you’ll find the Chamber of the House of Representatives (the green fancy room you’ll often see on the news clips of politicians yelling at each other). This is where the Members of Parliament (MPs) sit. On one side you have the Government, where currently Labour, NZ First and the Greens sit. On the other side, you have those not in government (National and ACT). They’re called the Loyal Opposition. 

Together, these two sides make Parliament. They are made up of List and Electorate MPs, which you can find out about more in our MP section. Parliament is where these people make laws, scrutinise and hold the government to account and most importantly, represent us. 

MPs write their own bills based on current events, public opinion and planned reforms. They then vote and debate on these issues until they pass into law. All MPs vote, regardless of whether or not they’re in Government. 

Parliament doesn’t sit all the time, but when they are, you can watch their debates, either on TV, online or in-person in Wellington. Check out the Sitting Calendar to find out when the sessions are on.

Left-Wing & Right-Wing

One of the foundations of politics is knowing what you stand for. This is crucial when trying to choose a political party or candidate to vote for - after all, you want someone who has the same ideas or thinking as you. Or perhaps someone who is passionate about something which interests and/or affects you.

Enter left-wing and right-wing. It sounds incredibly boring and complex when your friends and whānau talk about it, but getting a handle on these ‘wings’ will help you to understand why people are labelled communists, capitalists, alt-right, and liberals (to name a few). Left-wing and right-wing comes from the ‘political spectrum’. This is a theory which tries to classify different political positions and parties on a continuum. Its basic form looks something like this:

LEFT WING --------- CENTRE ---------- RIGHT WING

In theory, different ideologies (or schools of thought) sit in different places on this spectrum. Right-wing parties tend to favour tradition, conservatism and nationalism. Some typical right-wing policies are lower taxes and choosing private education and healthcare.

The left-wing side tends to favour equality, progress and reform. Typical policies favour higher tax rates and free public education and healthcare. Get the idea here? They are (almost) the opposite of one another. 

There is also a midpoint called ‘centrism’ where people or parties fall in the middle of these two terms. Centrists tend to oppose an extreme form of either side and will favour policies from both sides, usually without major changes.  

In New Zealand, the Labour Party is centre-left and the National Party is centre-right. This means they’re actually quite similar, just differing a little in their policies and the way they ‘rank’ their issues (the things each see as most important). The Green Party is left-wing, ACT is right-wing, and NZ First is in the centre.

Bear in mind that this model is not perfect. Political parties and people are very complex with their political views. It’s difficult to put a person or party in just one place on the political spectrum when you are discussing one issue, let alone all the key issues parties campaign on like education, intelligence, the environment and transport. 

It's also important to remember that not everyone is extreme left-wing (Communist) or extreme right-wing (Fascist). Most of us will sit somewhere in the middle, or shift sides depending on what policies and issues we’re talking about. So, next time you see someone labelled a liberal or conservative on Facebook, try and remind yourself they’re probably not that extreme.

What are policies?


Does your house or flat have rules that you have to abide by? Wash the dishes every night? Keep your room clean and make your bed every day? In that case you have household guidelines or policies. Political parties have guidelines too, and these are called policies!

Policies are a goal or promise that political parties make to carry out in government. They tend to change every time an election comes around (which is every three years in New Zealand). Policies can be made for every part of governance. Often, the key ones are based upon current issues or are large scale promises, named ‘flagship policies’. 

For example, in the lead up to the 2017 election, Labour campaigned on one of their flagship policies for tertiary education. This was the first year fees-free promise. National, in the same election, campaigned on a policy aimed at helping solve climate change. If elected, they would set up an urban cycleway fund worth $100M (NZD). 

Every party has policies and they are one of the best ways to work out who you want to support in politics. Policies can be dividing, so it’s important that you check to see all the party’s policy ideas on a given topic. You may also have some difficulty finding party policy. This is because these announcements are a big deal and happen on various dates throughout the year, based on when a party has their annual conference, budget reveal or to build momentum close to the election date. 

Big or flagship policy announcements will be hard to miss, especially during election years. We’ll be delving into policy areas in other content too, keeping you up-to-date as they come out. Policies will start to appear on each party’s website in what we call ‘manifestos’. Check out their websites before the election to see all their policies in one place.

What are electorates?


People can get confused as to why we vote twice on Election Day when we only elect one Prime Minister. Fair enough. It doesn’t make much sense. Why do we vote twice?

One vote does elect the Prime Minister. That’s straight forward enough. The other elects which person will represent your community in Parliament. This is the electorate vote.

Think of a map of New Zealand. Now think of this map being split up into different areas (similar to regular regions). Each area on this map is called an electorate. Electorates are normally a community or district that have one MP representing them in Parliament. Political parties will nominate a politician to run for an electorate, so they can try and get a seat in Parliament. In total, there are 71 electorates around New Zealand. These are split into 64 general electorates, and 7 Māori electorates.

For example, the New Plymouth electorate is based, very conveniently, around the New Plymouth area. In the last election, there were five politicians running to become the MP for New Plymouth. Jonathon Young was the candidate who received the most votes.  So Jonathon became the MP for New Plymouth, and got a seat in Parliament. He will represent the New Plymouth area when debating, discussing and proposing new laws for the country. MPs are some of the best people to talk to if you want to suggest any local or national changes, which they can then take to Parliament.

If you’re not sure what electorate you’re in or who your MP is and want to find out, head along to vote.nz.

Who are Ministers and what do they do?


Minister of Education, Minister of Health, Minister of Youth Development, Minister of Housing, MINISTER OF MAGIC. We see them on the news all the time but what is so special about being a Minister?

In New Zealand’s current government, there are twenty-four ministers. Every minister is a Member of Parliament (MP). They gain the title of Minister when they are assigned a specific role (or roles) within the government. These roles are called portfolios and you’ll be familiar with them. They range across all parts of the government from key areas like health and transport to more niche topics like small businesses, fisheries and broadcasting. Our current Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Jacinda Ardern is the highest-ranked minister due to her title as ‘Prime’ Minister. She holds the portfolios of Arts, Culture and Heritage and National Security and Intelligence.

While ministers are the name and face we put to these topics, in reality, there are hundreds of people who work behind the scenes in these areas, called ministries. The minister is assigned to oversee the ministries and be held to account on the portfolio. Their role is more like that of a manager. Tongue-tied yet?

Being a minister means that they are responsible for everything that happens in their given area. Perhaps you've heard of the ‘rogue minister’ story where ministers are sacked for blurring personal beliefs with ministry beliefs (think David Clark and COVID-19). The minister should also know what's happening at any given time in their ministry, despite not working within it. If anything goes wrong, at any level, it will always be the minister who lands in hot water. 

What are bills?


Bills are dreaded by most of us. The last thing we all want to see is a huge power bill because the heater was left on overnight. However, when used in a political context, bills are not dreaded at all.

A bill is essentially the start point for laws. It’s a draft law which is debated by Parliament, before it becomes the legislation we abide by. MPs draft bills based upon current events or their own areas of interest and expertise. As you can imagine, there are always a lot of these, so Bills are chosen by a ballot when space becomes available on Parliament’s agenda.

If it is chosen, the MP who wrote the bill introduces it and Parliament begins the process of moving the bill from an idea to part of law. This includes writing, debating, asking for public suggestions, editing and discussing changes. The End of Life Choice Bill is an example of this process. ACT MP David Seymour drafted this bill following a high-profile euthanasia court case and petition to Parliament in 2015, headed by Lecretia Seales. It has been written and debated by Parliament, but it has to pass a public referendum before being made into law.

To sum up, bills are the first ideas which form laws. They can be created about almost anything and are written and debated by MPs. 

What are Acts?


Let’s be very clear about what this topic is about. We’re going to be talking about an Act, not the ACT Party, but an Act. Let’s take a look at why these pieces of paper are so important.

An Act is a name for a law that has been created in New Zealand. Any piece of law that Parliament debates and makes for the country is called an Act. We have Acts for pretty much everything in New Zealand. We have the Charities Act, the Animal Welfare Act, Gambling Act and the Sports Anti-Doping Act, to name a few.

It’s important to note that we don’t call these pieces of legislation Acts while they’re being debated in Parliament. While in Parliament, they’re called a Bill. We change the wording from a Bill to an Act once it has been signed off by the Governor-General and made into a law. They are the same thing, however, one is law and one is not. 

We have so many Acts in our country, it is impossible to remember everything in them, even though we have to abide by them. But don’t worry, most of the things that we need to know in Acts are common sense, making sure that we are all kept safe and well.

But there might be some specific guidelines that you need to know in a specific Act. Say, how much you should be earning in your first job, and what your rights are when working. You can find that all out with a quick google search, like “employment law in NZ.”

What is an MP?


MFAT, MP, PM, MMP - politics acronyms all sound the same! Some aren’t worth worrying about, though one you definitely should know is MP.

MP stands for Member of Parliament. It’s the name we give to a politician who can sit and debate in the Chamber. MPs have a number of jobs. They will update and make new laws, decide what to spend money (taxes) on, and make sure our Government is making the right decisions. MPs can also be assigned special roles, which includes Ministers or positions on Special Committees.
 
A common misconception is that politicians have to represent an electorate to be called an MP. This is true, though you can also be an MP without representing an electorate. There are two subcategories of MPs: List and Electorate. 

Electorate MPs have the specific role of advocating for their electorate or community in Parliament, as well as representing their party. Check out our section on Electorates if you’d like to find out more.

List MPs come into Parliament as a part of our political system. They are politicians who do not run for an electorate - instead, they are on their party list. The amount of these politicians who get into Parliament depends on how many votes the party gets.

For instance, Jerry Brownlee is the MP for Ilam, because he represents that electorate in Parliament. Winston Peters is also an MP because he sits in Parliament, but he doesn’t represent an electorate. He got in off the NZ First List. Both these categories together create the full Parliament of 120 MPs.

What is a political party?

A fairly common question at a family gathering is ‘what political party do you support?’ This can often leave you speechless, sweaty and reaching for the roast potatoes. Let’s iron out what a political party is before you have to give a made-up answer, pretending you know what a political party is. 

A political party is an organisation that has a shared ideology by its members. This means they have a common set of beliefs on how to best run the country. These parties then field (or choose) candidates for elections who try to get elected into power. 

For example, you could start the Ice Cream Party. Your party’s common belief is that you want to get rid of what you think is the worst ice cream flavour in Aotearoa...let’s say it’s orange chocolate chip (sorry to all you orange choc chip fans). Other parties might want to get rid of more ice-cream flavours or different types of food, but your party will focus on this one ice-cream flavour. 

You would then register your Party with the Electoral Commission and decide who (it might even be you!) wants to run for Prime Minister or as an MP. Over the election campaign, you and your party will try and persuade the public that we have to get rid of the orange chocolate chip flavour. The goal would be to convince as many people as possible that New Zealand would be better off without this flavour, in the hope that you will win the majority of the votes.

In reality, political parties don’t campaign on ice cream flavours. Instead, they debate real-world issues such as the environment, housing and minority rights. They offer their solutions to problems in New Zealand and try to convince us that their solution will be the best. If you believe them, you will vote them into parliament so they can (hopefully) make that change. 

What are referendums?

This year when we go to vote in the General Election, we will also be voting in referendums. A referendum is a public vote, usually on an ‘important’ issue – important because it is controversial and impacts everyone. To put it plainly, a referendum is a decision. Because of the delicate topic, it’s not possible for politicians to hold a vote in Parliament. It’s just too 'touchy'. So, they hand the decision over to us, the public, instead.

In order for something to come into law, a referendum must have more than 50% of the vote. For example, 2016 was when New Zealand held our most recent referendum. You might remember it. The referendum asked Kiwis if we wanted to change our flag or not. 56% voted to keep our current flag. Because this is more than half of the total vote, we kept the flag. 

It is important that you understand exactly what the referendum is based on. This year we have two: the cannabis referendum and the End of Life Choice referendum. Check out our pages for some more information here. It might help you to make up your mind on how you want to vote. This is not the sort of vote where you want to ‘copy’ your friends or family members’ decision! Try and check out both sides of the issue as well as looking at exactly what you're voting on.