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The Commonwealth
New Zealand



Did you know:

New Zealand was a founder member of the Commonwealth in 1931 when its independence was recognised under the Statute of Westminster.

Sir Don McKinnon of New Zealand was Commonwealth Secretary-General 2000–08.

Six New Zealanders have won overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes: Witi lhimaera in 1987 (Best First Book); Janet Frame in 1989; John Cranna in 1990 (Best First Book); Lloyd Jones in 2007; Craig Cliff in 2011 (Best First Book); and Emma Martin in 2012 (Short Story Prize). Another, Eleanor Catton, took the Man Booker Prize in 2013.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1931 (Statute of Westminster)
Population: 4,506,000 (2013)
GDP: 1.5% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 7
Official language: English, Maori
Timezone: GMT plus 12–13hr
Currency: New Zealand dollar (NZ$)


Area: 270,500 sq km
Coastline: 15,130km
Capital city: Wellington
Population density (per sq. km): 17

New Zealand’s Maori name is Aotearoa, meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. A well-watered and fertile mountainous island country in the South Pacific, New Zealand consists of two large islands (North Island and South Island), Stewart Island and a number of offshore islands. It is somewhat isolated, being about 1,600 km east of Australia, the nearest land mass. Other neighbouring countries are Vanuatu and Tonga.

Main towns:

Wellington (capital, pop. 190,065 in 2013; greater Wellington includes Lower Hutt, Porirua and Upper Hutt), Auckland (427,110; greater Auckland includes Manukau, North Shore and Waitakere), Manukau (greater Auckland, 401,883), Christchurch (353,349), North Shore (greater Auckland, 273,594), Waitakere (greater Auckland, 206,244), Hamilton (170,571), Tauranga (120,414), Dunedin (112,032), Lower Hutt (greater Wellington, 97,653), Palmerston North (78,195), Hastings (64,002), Nelson (60,561), Napier (58,221), Rotorua (53,268), New Plymouth (52,695), Porirua (greater Wellington, 51,537), Whangarei (49,182) and Invercargill (47,898).


There are 94,280 km of roads, 66 per cent paved. The railway network, privatised in 1993 and subsequently renationalised, extends over 3,900 km, with many scenic routes.

There are 13 major commercial ports, including those in Whangarei (shipping oil products), Tauranga (timber and newsprint) and Bluff (alumina and aluminium) as well as container ports in Auckland, Wellington, Lyttleton (near Christchurch) and Dunedin.

There are international airports in Auckland (23 km to the south of the city), Christchurch (10 km north-west), Wellington (8 km south- east), Hamilton and Dunedin.

International relations:

New Zealand is a member of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum, United Nations and World Trade Organization.


New Zealand being in the ‘Pacific ring of fire’, volcanic activity has shaped the landscape. Earthquakes, mostly shallow, are common, and volcanic eruptions occur in the North Island and offshore to the Kermadec Islands. Some 75 per cent of the country is higher than 200 metres above sea level. Around one- tenth of the North Island (113,729 sq km) is mountainous. Its Rotorua area, a much-visited tourist attraction, has boiling mud pools and geysers. The South Island (150,437 sq km) is very mountainous; the Southern Alps extend almost its entire length; they have many outlying ranges to the north and south-west; there are at least 223 peaks over 2,300 metres above sea level and 360 glaciers. There are numerous lakes, mostly at high altitude, and many rivers, mostly fast-flowing and difficult to navigate, which are important sources of hydroelectricity (which provides more than 90 per cent of the country’s power). Stewart Island, named after Captain Stewart, who first charted the island in 1809, and (further out) the Auckland Islands lie south of the South Island. The Chatham and Pitt Islands are 850 km east of Christchurch. In addition, the Kermadec Islands were annexed in 1887 and the Ross Dependency in Antarctica was acquired in 1923. The country has a long coastline (15,130 km) in relation to its area.


Temperate marine climate influenced by the surrounding ocean, the prevailing westerly winds, and the mountainous nature of the islands. The weather tends to be changeable. Winds can be very strong, sometimes damaging buildings and trees. Rain, sometimes very heavy, occurs throughout the year. Cold southerly winds bring snow in winter, sometimes in spring. At Wellington, yearly average rainfall is 1,270 mm (143 mm in July, and averaging 87 mm from November to February); average January temperature is 13–20°C, and July temperature 6–11°C. Most of the country experiences at least 2,000 hours of sunshine annually. In recent years, weather patterns have been affected by La Niña and El Niño; some unusually high temperatures have been recorded; and drought and unusually heavy rainfall have occurred.


The most significant environmental issues are deforestation and soil erosion and the impact on native flora and fauna of species introduced from other countries.


Forest cover includes species of conifer, kauri (North Island only) and beech – forest covers 31 per cent of the land area, having increased at 0.3 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. A great range of flora, depending on latitude and altitude, from subtropical rainforest to alpine, with 25 per cent of plants growing above the tree-line. Many species are unique to New Zealand. Arable land comprises two per cent of the total land area.


Fauna are often also unique because of geographical isolation, and include such flightless birds as the kiwi, kakapo and weka, and a great diversity of seabirds, as well as 400 kinds of marine fish and many sea-mammals including 32 whale species. The introduction of land-mammals (unknown before the arrival of humans, save for three species of bat) by successive settlers, Polynesian and European, has seriously damaged the habitat of many species, including the flightless birds – of which the moa, adzebill and flightless goose have become extinct – and reduced the forest area.


The Polynesian ancestors of the present Maori, skilled navigators of canoes fitted with sails and outriggers, arrived in New Zealand around the tenth century from Hawaiki (Eastern Polynesia). The Maori population may have been over 100,000 at the time the first Europeans arrived. The Dutchman Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand in 1642 in his search for the southern continent, i.e. Antarctica, but was driven off by Maori on his one attempt to land. He named the South Island Nieuw Zeeland after the Dutch province.

James Cook, on a search for the southern continent combined with general scientific and navigational observation, sighted the North Island in 1769. He circumnavigated both islands and charted the shores. He visited the country twice more, in 1773–74 and in 1777. His encounters with Maori were usually peaceful, though occasional skirmishes resulted in one Maori and ten European deaths. Jean de Surville (France) arrived in the country in the mid-1770s; his relations with the Maori, bad from the beginning, ended in the deaths of 25 of his men and the subsequent massacre of over 200 Maori. Cook’s good reports attracted sealers and traders, some from the new community in Sydney (established in 1788 as Port Jackson, a penal settlement), and whalers came from America, Britain and France.

With extensive European arrival, the Maori suffered severely from influenza, dysentery and diphtheria, to which they had no resistance. In 1814 the Maori were taken under the protection of the British monarch, but this protection was not always effective in practice. In 1828 the jurisdiction of the courts of New South Wales was extended to New Zealand whose population of European and European-descended settlers was estimated at 2,000 by 1839. Pressure from settlers, traders and missionaries led to intervention by Britain. On 14 January 1840 the Governor of New South Wales proclaimed British sovereignty over New Zealand and appointed a governor. Under the Treaty of Waitangi (6 February 1840) the Maori received the full rights and privileges of British subjects, and 46 Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria, in exchange for retaining ownership of their natural resources. The treaty has been widely interpreted and is now applied in all aspects of New Zealand public life, notably in organisation and employment practice.

When New Zealand became a British territory in 1840, it was divided into two provinces. Twelve years later the number of provinces was increased to six (and later increased still further) and a general assembly established, consisting of the governor, a nominated Legislative Council (an upper house) and an elected House of Representatives (a lower house). This bicameral system lasted until 1950. Maori-occupied land was governed according to Maori custom.

Immigration from Britain increased in the mid-19th century, and by 1858 settlers outnumbered Maori. A census of Maori, in 1857–58, put their numbers at about 56,000. Pressure to acquire land from reluctant Maori led to land wars from 1860 to 1872, which resulted in general but not absolute European domination. Sheep farming was expanded in the late 1840s. Wool overtook timber and flax as export commodities and in 1882 the first ship carrying refrigerated meat sailed for England. There was gold mining on the South Island during the 1860s; this attracted considerable European immigration but ended in a slump.

During the 1890s a series of laws turned New Zealand into what was probably the most socially advanced state in the world. New Zealand women were the first in the world to be enfranchised, obtaining the vote in 1893. Men had been enfranchised in 1890, the year of the country’s first general election. From 1936 the country developed into a pioneering welfare state.

In 1907, New Zealand became a Dominion – in effect an acknowledgement of its independence, which was formally recognised by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. In 1947 the last restrictions on the right of its parliament to amend its constitution were removed.

Maori membership of the House of Representatives was increased on six occasions. A Ministry of Maori Development was established in 1992, replacing the Ministry of Maori Affairs. The purpose of the Ministry of Maori Development is to assist in developing an environment of opportunity and choice for Maori, consistent with the Treaty of Waitangi.

At the general election in November 1993, the National Party won 50 seats, the Labour Party 45 seats. The National Party, not having an overall majority following defections and realignments, agreed in February 1996 on a coalition with the United New Zealand Party, which had seven MPs.

The first general election under the mixed member proportional representation system was held in October 1996. It gave 53 seats to a grouping consisting of: the National Party (44 seats) and its allies the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers of New Zealand (eight) and United New Zealand (one). The Labour Party won 37 seats, New Zealand First 17 and the Alliance Party 13. Although 34 parties contested the elections, only five received more than five per cent of the votes and so earned the right to party seats. As no single party had an overall majority in the 120- member house, New Zealand First held the balance of power. Only when that party decided to support the National Party was party leader Jim Bolger able to form a government.

In November 1997 Bolger announced his resignation as Prime Minister, when it became clear that Transport Minister Jenny Shipley had enough support among National Party MPs to force his resignation from the job he had held continuously since 1990. He took on a foreign affairs role outside the cabinet until he became US ambassador in April 1998.

New Zealand Ancient History Documentary

The New Zealand Story

Learn more about New Zealand on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

Get more information on New Zealand at:

New Zealand Tourism

New Zealand Travel Guide

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

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