Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: English, Māori
Main religions: Christianity (various)
The majority of the New Zealand population is of European origin. According to the 2013 Census, the main ethnic communities include the Māori indigenous people at 598,605 (14.9 per cent) and Pacific Islanders at 295,941 (7.4 per cent). Samoans are the largest Pacific group, making up 48.7 per cent of all Pacific New Zealanders, followed by Cook Islands Māori (20.9 per cent), Tongans (20.4 per cent) and Niueans (8.1 per cent).
Estimated to have come from East Polynesia in the thirteenth century, Māori today constitute approximately 14.9 per cent of the present New Zealand population. With one in seven New Zealanders of Māori descent, Māori are the second largest ethnic group in New Zealand.
There are more than 22 different Pacific communities in New Zealand. While Samoans constitute the largest Pacific community, there are also substantial numbers of Cook Islanders, Fijians, Niueans, Tokelauans and Tongans, with smaller numbers from Kiribati, the small islands of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Due to high birth rates, it is estimated that Pacific peoples will amount to 10 per cent of the population by 2026, up from 6.5 per cent in 2001. To date, the majority of the Pacific communities in New Zealand originate from Polynesian states, however migration to New Zealand from Melanesian states has also increased, and predictions indicate that New Zealand can expect much larger numbers of migrants from Melanesia in the coming decades.
The Asian population of New Zealand is also growing, from 6.6 per cent of the population in 2001 to 11.8 per cent in 2013, with statisticians indicating that should current trends continue, the number of Asians in New Zealand will in future outnumber Māori. In Auckland, 23 per cent of the city’s residents identify as Asian.
Updated June 2019
Māori were the first inhabitants of New Zealand or Aotearoa, meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. Nevertheless, the legacy of the country’s colonization and the large-scale dispossession of their land by settlers continues to be felt to this day. Obtaining redress from the government for the wrongful invasion and confiscation of land has been a slow and bitter process. For Māoris with their concept of turangawaewae (‘a place to stand’), indicating the close connection between land and tribal and personal identity, the dispossession was not simply about alienation of their land but a loss of self-governance and of cultural identity which continues to be reflected in the inequalities experienced by Māori in comparison with non-Māori across a broad range of social indicators.
However, New Zealand’s population is also reflected in successive history of colonization and migration, with the majority of its citizens today of European origin. However, there are also more than 22 different Pacific communities in New Zealand, each with its own distinctive culture, language and history. Collectively known as Pasifika, the biggest Pacific groups in New Zealand are the Samoan, Cook Islander, Tongan, Niuean, Fijian, Tokelauan, and Tuvaluan communities. There is also a growing Asian population who, through migration in recent decades, comprise a significant and growing proportion of the population.
While New Zealand has long enjoyed a reputation for its relative tolerance and liberal environment, this image was shattered by a brutal attack on two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019 that left 51 people dead and many others injured. The assailant, a white supremacist, appeared to have been heavily motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment, with the attack intended to create intercommunal conflict. Since then, the country has been forced to confront the presence of extremist and anti-Muslim sentiment that contributed to the violence. Among other issues, rights groups have pointed to the absence of hate crime data collection in New Zealand, with calls to urgently implement effective monitoring and assessment of hate incidents targeting Muslims and other minorities.
Māori experience discrimination in a range of spheres, reflected in their continued overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, as both offenders and victims. Furthermore, despite significant gains in recent years, Māori continue to have the poorest health outcomes of any New Zealand community. Māori infants die more frequently from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), have lower birth weight than non-Māori and also experience higher rates of illness. There is also persistent discrimination against New Zealand’s other minority groups, including Pacific peoples and migrant Asian communities. While Pacific communities are making progress in some areas, they continue to face social, health, education and economic problems, with over 40 per cent of Pacific children living in poverty. They also, like Māori, experience markedly poorer health outcomes than the rest of the population, with raised levels of diabetes, obesity and infant mortality. For instance, together Māori and Pacific Islanders are three times more likely to develop diabetes than other New Zealanders. South Asians also experience higher than average levels of the disease.
Discrimination against Asians in the labour market has resulted in them disproportionately occupying low-paying employment. In other areas, too, they face complex challenges relating to access, language and integration. In health, for example, while many Asian migrants who arrive in New Zealand are relatively healthy – a circumstance attributed to the ‘healthy immigrant effect’, which requires most migrants to be in good health in order to be allowed to immigrate to a new host country – this positive effect on health is reported to gradually diminish with increased length of residency. In particular, data has demonstrated low use of primary health care, emergency health care and cancer screening for Asian people in New Zealand, particularly for Chinese New Zealanders. Some of these challenges appear to arise from underlying structural obstacles for Asian New Zealanders as a minority community: these include a lack of knowledge of the New Zealand health system, cultural beliefs and approaches to health care that differ from the New Zealand system, and linguistic barriers. Mental health also remains a challenging area because of the degree of stigma attached to such illness in many Asian cultures, resulting in potential treatment delay and possible worsening of prognosis.
New Zealand (Aotearoa) has two main populated islands, the North Island and the South Island. It is relatively thinly populated, especially in the South Island. Much of New Zealand is mountainous and of volcanic origin. The remote Chatham Islands have a distinct legislative status.
New Zealand was not settled until around the eleventh century when there was significant migration from eastern Polynesia. The Māori culture largely developed in isolation from other Polynesian cultures and European influences. By the start of the nineteenth century traders had sought to exploit New Zealand’s natural resources and missionaries had begun to evangelize the tangata whenua (the people of the land). There was considerable settlement before New Zealand officially became part of the British Empire in 1840.
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840 by the Lieutenant-General-Elect Captain William Hobson and many of the major Māori chiefs; this treaty acknowledged Māori ownership of the land. However, the treaty did not prevent unscrupulous practice by Europeans seeking to obtain more land, and consequent violence. Māori disillusionment and anger at subsequent white responses to the treaty have underlain all, and especially the more recent, attempts to gain greater self-determination and power. The increasing demand of white settlers (Pakeha) for land led to considerable conflict throughout much of the nineteenth century, especially in the North Island. Sporadic contact in the 1840s was followed by the New Zealand wars of the 1860s in the central and west coast areas of the North Island. Disease, violence and displacement greatly reduced the Māori population, and by the 1890s their numbers had declined to about 40 per cent of the pre-contact population size.
During the nineteenth century New Zealand developed as a mining and increasingly agricultural economy, in which the sheep industry dominated. Despite the displacement of Māori the white population grew slowly. Māori men were granted the vote in 1867 and in the same year received four special seats in the House of Representatives. The Māori population began to grow again but at a slow rate. Depressions in the 1880s and 1930s slowed economic and population growth. Between 1945 and 1970 the annual rate of population growth increased significantly following a higher birth rate and considerable immigration.
Historically, after the Polynesians, most migration to New Zealand was from the United Kingdom but the sources of migration became more diverse in the years after the Second World War. Immigration reached a peak in the late 1950s, when more than half of all migrants were from the United Kingdom and most others were from northern Europe. From the 1960s onwards other Polynesian migrants became a significant migration stream, especially from the New Zealand territories of Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands, and from Samoa and Tonga. In the last two decades there have been significant migration flows from eastern Asia, in some part a response to perceptions of a brain drain from New Zealand to Australia since the two countries formed Closer Economic Relations (CER) and removed immigration restrictions between them.
The most serious health, housing, educational and welfare service problems are associated with non-English-speaking migrants from the Pacific, rather than migrants from Europe or Asia. Indo-Chinese refugee settlers have experienced problems, especially in access to employment; a small number have migrated onwards to Australia.
In 1993 a new nationalist party, New Zealand First, was founded, in part to oppose perceived high levels of migration from Asia. Under its charismatic leader, Winston Peters, a part Maori politician, it also challenged the Waitangi Tribunal, the commission of inquiry set up in 1975 to adjudicate claims made by Māori in relation to grievances extending back to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. However, its overall electoral success was limited and it lost the Māori parliamentary seats it gained at the first attempt in 1996. The flow of Asian migrants declined somewhat at the start of the twenty-first century with changing immigration criteria, some anti-Asian political rhetoric and some adverse publicity in the People’s Republic of China concerning crime rates in New Zealand.
New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, where there has been limited pressure for a republic. There is a single parliament, which has generally been dominated by two main parties: the Labour Party and the National Party. Because of the proportional representation system there are many minor parties and seven seats are reserved for Māori electors. Four of these are currently held by the Māori Party, which was founded in 2004 in response to the passing of the Foreshore and Seabed Act in November 2004, which effectively extinguished this native title, leading to extensive public protest.
Relations between Māori and the government are based on the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between the British Crown and a number of Māori tribes or iwi, and considered as one of New Zealand’s founding instruments. Under the Treaty, the Māori were to retain possession of their lands and resources. In line with this, indigenous or native title was recognized under the common law of New Zealand as early as 1847 (R v. Symonds) and through legislation in the Native Rights Act 1865. However, such early recognition of native title did not last and subsequent actions by successive governments resulted in the individualization of Māori land and its subsequent sale, such that most land in New Zealand had already passed out of Māori ownership by 1900 in acts which are now widely recognized as being in breach of the Treaty.
Beginning in 1975, with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal to hear claims brought by Māori against the government for breaches of the Treaty, notable steps have been taken to address these historical injustices and to reach settlements of Māori land claims (albeit that the Tribunal’s jurisdiction was only extended in 1985 to cover grievances dating back to 1840). Other steps include the adoption of the Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 (or Māori Land Act), which, as well as establishing a Māori Land Court, preserves the capacity of Māori to hold land collectively and recognizes that Māori land is a taonga (treasure) of special significance to Māori people. There has also been the development of the Treaty settlement process, including the establishment in 1995 of a designated body, the Office of Treaty Settlements, to oversee the process under which numerous Māori communities have negotiated settlements to their historical claims, while others continue to go through the process.
Despite such positive steps the settlement process is not without its critics. Common concerns are the fact that the recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal are not binding and are frequently ignored by the government; that the negotiation procedure is inherently unbalanced in favour of the government, which determines the framework and the procedure of negotiations; and that no independent oversight exists.
Additionally, many Māori consider that the value of the settlements represents only a very small percentage of the value of the total loss. In addition, even as the New Zealand government was trying to negotiate settlements to certain claims, the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 vested the ownership of the public foreshore and seabed in the New Zealand government, extinguishing any Māori customary title over that area overnight, even as it preserved private, individual title. Following widespread criticism of this legislation, it was repealed and replaced in 2011 with the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act which, inter alia, restored any customary interests in the common marine and coastal area that were extinguished by the earlier Act and restored the courts’ ability to determine and legally recognize customary rights and title in the in the foreshore and seabed. Both pieces of legislation are ultimately testimony to the continuing vulnerability of Maori’s indigenous rights.
Asian groups have also sometimes been disadvantaged. In 2002 the government officially apologised to the Chinese community for historic grievances, especially the imposition of a poll tax that the first wave of Chinese migrants had endured at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century. Following reconciliation and consultation processes a NZ$5 million grant was provided for a Chinese Heritage Trust Fund.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
New Zealand Federation of Multicultural Councils
Federation of Māori Authorities
Māori Women’s Welfare League
Sources and further reading
Belich, J., Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders from 1880 to 2000, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2001.
Kawharu, H. (ed.), Waitangi: Contemporary Maori and Pakeha Perspectives on the Treaty, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2001.
Sinclair, K., A History of New Zealand, 2nd edn, London, Allen Lane, 1980.
Walker, R., Ka Whawhai Tonu Mataou: Struggle without End, Auckland, Penguin Books, 1990.
Wilson, M. and Yeatman, A. (eds), Justice and Identity: Antipodean Practices, Wellington, Allen and Unwin, 1995.
Maaka, R., ‘The new tribe: conflicts and continuities in the social organization of urban Maori’, Contemporary Pacific, vol. 6, no. 2, 1994, pp. 311–36.
MacDonald, R., The Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand, London, MRG, 1990.
Mutu, M., ‘Maori issues’, Contemporary Pacific, vol. 17, no. 1, 2005, 209–15.
Waitangi Tribunal: http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz
Anae, M., L. Iuli and L. Burgoyne (eds), Polynesian Panthers, Auckland, Reed Publishing, 2006.
Spoonley, P., ‘Polynesian immigrant workers in New Zealand’, in C. Moore, J. Leckie and D. Munro (eds), Labour in the South Pacific, Townsville, James Cook University of North Queensland, 1990, pp. 155–60.
Statistics New Zealand, Pacific Progress: A Report on the Economic Status of Pacific Peoples in New Zealand, Wellington, 2002.
The Evolution of Contemporary Maori Protest: www.aotearoa.wellington.net.nz/back/tumoana/#(ii)