[INTERVIEW] US to New Zealand Delegates Weigh In On Their Experience
On Wednesday, we sat down for a chat over Google Hangout with the US to New Zealand delegates. We wanted to get a sense of what they were liking about the program, how the experience overall has been, and whether they have any insights to share from the meetings they’ve had so far. Here’s what came out of it (paraphrased for length and content):
1. What has been the most instructive experience of the program thus far?
We had a meeting with Robert Peden of the Electoral Commission, which gave us great insight into the process of governance here. Governments in New Zealand are formed differently than in the US.
Candidates “stand” for election as either “electorate” or “list” candidates. Electorate candidates run in and represent a specific district. Running as a list candidate is more akin to running as an at-large candidate in the U.S. The total number of list seats per party are determined on the basis of the percentage of the popular vote won by each party.
Voters cast two distinct votes on the ballot: one for their favored electorate, or district, candidate and one for their party preference, i.e. National, Labor, Maori, Green etc.
2. What has been the most significant difference between the US and New Zealand in terms of politics and governance?
Again, the party system is a great example. Political parties tend to move in lockstep because the candidates only represent the party, even though they’re tied to certain districts as well. As a consequence, there is no winner-take-all system here either. They have a mixed-proportional system, which allows parties who get a minority of the vote to get an equivalent amount of representation in Parliament. It’s also been interesting to see how the people trust their government. In America you often find that people have an inherent suspicion of what their government is doing, but it’s not the same here.
They also claim to have no need for a single constitution, preferring instead to rely on a set of laws that more or less lay out the structure of the government (even though not everyone agrees on exactly which laws those are). Their government is more heavy-handed, but since there’s a trust that the government is doing right by the people, there is less suspicion about institutions like schools and police being overseen and administered only at the federal level.
We’ve also noticed that campaigning is more organic, and the conversations tend to be more sincere than what we’ve seen in the US.
3. What do you see as being the central theme of US-NZ relations?
There are some trade issues, but mostly the relationship is characterized by strong, enduring friendship. New Zealand, however, is very intent on asserting its independence as a nation. This was most notable in 1984, when the government barred all ships transporting nuclear material from entering any NZ harbor. It was seen by the people as a strong stand against nuclear proliferation and remains a point of national pride, since the United States was seen as being the main target of the new policy.
There’s also been a lot of talk about what New Zealand’s role will be in the coming years, especially as China’s influence grows and new international partnerships are established in the region.
4. What opinions or beliefs have changed for you as a result of spending time with your fellow delegates and your New Zealand hosts? Have you achieved a better appreciation of “the other side”?
Well, we’re not as opposed to the Queen (laughter). But really, we’ve gotten a much broader sense of how democracy can function outside of the US. The idea of localism vs. federalism is very strange to the Kiwis – they trust their national government, so they don’t balk at the idea of the national government handling local issues. Our impression is that the national government is the force that’s really having a major impact on the average person’s life, much more so than local governments are.
Also, as New Zealand comes to engage more with the Pacific Rim, we’d like to understand the role they’re going to play from a foreign relations perspective.
5. Which meeting or cultural experience are you looking forward to the most?
(each answered individually)
– Louisa Wall is going to be a good one. She’s the MP who recently introduced a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in New Zealand. I’m really looking forward to that.
– The District Council meeting, since it’s the closest equivalent to our county governments.
– I’d really like to know a bit more about the import-export process, and how that affects New Zealand’s foreign policy with other nations in the region.
– We’re going to visit the Ministry of the Environment in Christchurch, which is responsible for IT. There’s a bill proposed in Parliament that deals with broadband in New Zealand, and I’d like to know more about it.
6. If you could change anything about this program, what would it be?
Make it longer! But seriously, we’ve loved the program so far. It would be interesting if we had the chance to meet with the judiciary, but overall, it’s been a great experience.