Thoughts on Canadian Democracy following New Zealand Elections

4 minute read

By Gaafar Sadek, Executive Director, Public Sector Reform Initiative


In the current state of uncertainty and complexity in democracies around the world, events such as the recent elections in New Zealand become opportunities to explore relevant parallels with our own national context. And a closer examination of the health of Canadian democracy and its institutions by the IOG may be timelier than it seems, as our country has just avoided plunging into a snap pandemic election, with the Liberal government surviving a confidence vote about its alleged corruption.

A Majority Government in New Zealand

On October 17, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party won 49.1% of the votes, giving New Zealand its first majority government since 1993, with a projection to hold 64 out of the 120 seats of the assembly. Next in votes was the centre-right National Party, with 26.8% of the votes, or 35 seats.[1]

When we know how favourably New Zealand’s population has viewed Jacinda Ardern’s performance in crisis management until now, the results of these elections become somewhat expected; the main preoccupation remains the instability and uncertainty stemming from the pandemic. She referred to the poll as “the COVID election.”

Politics and Charisma

New Zealand’s population have already seen Ms. Ardern and her cabinet deal with a number of crises during their first term, including a terrorist attack and the ongoing global pandemic. Her focus on compassion and kindness has been very well received. While the Labour Party ran a campaign that underlined its proposals on climate-friendly policies, funding for disadvantaged schools, and raising income taxes on top earners[2] the decisive win is largely attributable to Ms. Ardern’s now demonstrated ability to create a sense of safety during uncertain times, and more specifically, uniting the country in its fight with COVID-19.

JacindaArdern is a natural at playing the role of the political celebrity and influencer, through social media and beyond, to the point of becoming her own phenomenon: Jacindamania. During the campaign, she was followed and greeted like a star wherever she went, and she continues to appear approachable, down-to-earth, positive and authentic in her interactions. All of this has made her stand out in contrast to other heads of state. To many, she has even become a role model – not common in the world of politics. In this regard, she provides great case studies for the increasing number of academics and political analysts interested in the celebrity status of politicians and their use of social media, and the effects of these phenomena on the quality of democracy.

Until now, Ms. Ardern’s political style has been one of preferring compromise and consensus, but we have yet to see how she operates with a majority in the house. Examining how she handles the different power dynamics, and whether she remains as collaborative and consensual remains to be seen, especially with the parties whose support she needed to lead through her previous mandate. If New Zealand’s political culture does not shift soon, the country can be expected to go back to a minority government come next elections, in which case, it would be wise for the Labour Party to continue forging political alliances and coalitions.

Examples of other systemic parallels

In New Zealand, Parliament dissolves every three years. Their upper house was abolished in 1951, though there have been occasional suggestions to bring it back over the years. In 1996, the country modified its voting system, as a result of referendums held in 1992 and 1993, replacing its first-past-the-post system with Mixed-Member Proportional representation. Since then, no party had managed to win a majority, until now.

In these most recent elections, voters were also asked to answer questions on 2 referendums, namely:

  • End of Life Choice: “Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force?” – this is a binding vote, meaning that, if more than 50% vote ‘yes,’ it will be enacted.
  • Cannabis legalisation and control: “Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control bill?” – this is not a binding vote, meaning the government would have to introduce a bill to legalize.

The results should be announced October 30th.

Moreover, New Zealand’s Westminster system of parliamentary representation includes seats (or electorates) that are reserved for its Māori indigenous population. While ensuring that the Māori are given a direct voice in parliament carries intrinsic merit, there has been criticism of this system since its introduction in 1867, for varying reasons. Today, it is clear that these seats, originally intended as a temporary measure, continue to raise concerns.

What now?

New Zealand is now officially in a recession with a pressing need for economic recovery. There are worsening issues of childhood poverty, homelessness, and environmental destruction, and proposals of a wealth tax, whose burden will be carried by the affluent middle-class, may lead to further feelings of social fragmentation. And Ms. Ardern’s failed promises of the 2017 elections – of being a ‘government of transformation,’ – have not been forgotten. As the COVID-19 context plays itself out, the attention of New Zealand’s population will undoubtedly be less focused on charisma and online presence, and more on answers to these and other everyday preoccupations.

Use of referendums, electoral reforms, the role of the Senate, duration of term in office, Indigenous representation, and many other such issues, are very much worth keeping an eye on, to see how other Westminster parliamentary democracies are maintaining a trusting and engaged citizenry, while adapting to the realities of this fast-changing world.


[2]See Labour manifesto:

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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