Many Kiwis unable to answer basic New Zealand civics questions, study finds

Nearly a third of New Zealand voters don't know which political parties are currently in Parliament and many aren't sure how parties win seats under MMP, new research shows.

Think-tank The New Zealand Initiative has released a report, Democracy in the Dark, on Kiwis' understanding of civics. It highlights several gaps in the public's knowledge that the study's authors don't consider particularly surprising, but still think are worrying. 

One thousand voting-age Kiwis were asked 13 "basic questions to test their knowledge of civics and democracy".

Among the key findings is that only 69 percent of respondents knew which five political parties are currently represented in Parliament, 46 percent knew the two ways a party can gain a seat in Parliament under MMP, only 31 percent knew who the Minister of Education is and just one-in-20 knew David Parker is the Minister for the Environment. 

"Being a political junkie should not be a prerequisite for voting," Dr Eric Crampton, the think-tank's chief economist, said. 

"But it is hard to vote well if you don't know the basics. There has been a lot of emphasis on a civic duty to vote, but too little attention to the importance of casting an informed ballot.

"The results of the Initiative's survey are not surprising to those familiar with research on voter knowledge. What is more surprising is that policy outcomes wind up generally being decent, despite substantial proportions of the electorate having very little knowledge about what is going on."

A summary of the report says while there's a massive amount of information on the internet about New Zealand's democratic system, Kiwis' knowledge is poor. 

"These kinds of misperceptions can matter. If one does not know which parties are even in Parliament, how can the voter successfully reward or punish parties in the next election? Without a working knowledge of how MMP works, can a voter successfully reflect their preferences?

"Younger Kiwis are less familiar with the basic facts of civics than older age groups. That may be because civics education at secondary school remains relatively weak, with few students picking up the NCEA standards that rigorously approach the topic."

While the think-tank recommends strengthening civics education, it also suggests its benefits may be "overstated" pointing to how, despite civics being taught widely in the US, Americans still have poor political knowledge. 

It believes "the problem is one of incentives" and while the report doesn't look to provide "any magic bullets", it considers the value of letting Kiwis use a "political stock exchange" like iPredict or providing cash to those who correctly answer basic civics questions. 

Read the full report here.

The full set of questions asked:

  • Can you name all the political parties in the current New Zealand Parliament? 
  • Who is the current Minister of Education? 
  • Who is the current Minister for the Environment? 
  • Which parties in the current New Zealand Parliament voted for the Zero Carbon Bill which passed in late 2019?
  • Under MMP, in what ways can parties gain a seat in Parliament? 
  • Some people say that the best people from all parties should come together and form a permanent, all-party Government. Do you agree?
  • Does New Zealand have a military alliance with the United Kingdom? 
  • Which countries form the Five Eyes Alliance? 
  • In applying the law, do New Zealand courts have to take into account the political intentions of the Government of the day?
  • Can you name the three branches of Government?
  • Some countries have a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with a Parliament or elections. Is this model a very good, good, bad or very bad model?
  • How would you feel about the idea of having experts, not elected politicians, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country? Would this be a very good, good, bad or very bad model? 
  • Do you think that democracy is the best form of government?