International Day of Democracy
On 15 September 2009, parliaments around the world will be celebrating the second International Day of Democracy, declared by the United Nations in 2007. The New Zealand Parliament has a proud history of democracy, being amongst the oldest continuously functioning Parliaments around the world. Although established relatively recently (in 1854), it has continued to assemble without interruption since that time - unbroken by war, civil disturbance or political upheaval.
Within this span of more than 150 years the democratising impulse has been strong. Māori gained four seats in Parliament in 1867. The four seats remained until 1996 when the number of seats was related to the number of Māori registered on the Māori electoral roll. Now there are seven Māori seats.
Since 1879 Parliament has met for three-year terms rather than five-year terms and in the same year full manhood suffrage was established. A decade later in 1889 plural voting based on property was abolished, giving New Zealand a fully established system of ‘one man, one vote’.
In a landmark change women gained the vote in 1893. New Zealand was the first country with female suffrage. In 1919 women were able to stand for Parliament. The first woman entered the House in 1933 and in recent years approximately one-third of MPs have been women.
The electoral system was changed in 1996, introducing Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP). This has broadened representation in Parliament considerably. There has been an increase in the number of parties in the House and a much wider range of groups and interests represented. At the same time the select committee system was strengthened, allowing greater public participation in the democratic process and giving a greater role to backbench MPs and to Opposition parties. This has been reflected in a shift to government involving coalition and other support agreements between parties.