New Zealand is an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Like the United Kingdom, it is a constitutional monarchy, the head of state being the representative of the crown, the governor-general, who is appointed for a five-year term.
The government is democratic and modeled on that of the United Kingdom. The single-chamber legislature, the House of Representatives, has 120 members (2003), elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of three years. Adult male suffrage dates from 1879; adult women received the right to vote in 1893. The voting age was lowered to 18 in November 1974. Since 1867, the House has included representatives of the Maoris, and in 1985, the Most Reverend Paul Reeves, Anglican archbishop of New Zealand, became the first person of Maori descent to be appointed governor-general. As of 2003, six seats in the 120-member parliament were reserved for its native Maori minority population. Persons of at least half-Maori ancestry may register in either a Maori electoral district or a European district. Members are elected by simple majority. Although recent elections have resulted in coalition governments, a two-party system usually operates. The party with a majority of members elected to the House of Representatives forms the government; the other party becomes the opposition.
On his appointment, the prime minister, leader of the governing party, chooses 20 other ministers to form the cabinet. Each minister usually controls several government departments, for which he is responsible to the House of Representatives. Although the cabinet is the de facto governing body, it has no legal status. Members of the cabinet and the governor-general form the Executive Council, the highest executive body.
An act of 1962 established the post of ombudsman, whose principal function is to inquire into complaints from the public relating to administrative decisions of government departments and related organizations. In 1975, provision was made for the appointment of additional ombudsmen under the chief ombudsman.
In a September 1992 referendum, nearly 85% of voters rejected the established electoral system of simple plurality (first-past-the-post) in favor of a system based upon a mixed member proportional system, as used in Germany. Final approval came in a second referendum held as part of the 1993 general election, and the proportional voting system was introduced during the 1996 elections. Under New Zealand's proportional representation system each voter casts two votes, one for a candidate and one for a political party. Each party is awarded seats according to its share of the overall vote, with a minimum set at 5%.