New Zealand - Aotearoa, challenges of a multicultural society


By Mathilde Domont, Analyst in the South Asia, Pacific & Oceania Department of the Institute for Applied Geopolitical Studies

In 2018, a tourism campaign used the hashtag #getNZonthemap. The campaign's goal was to increase tourism and enhance New Zealand's position in the world states ranking by the number of foreign tourists. In this campaign, we can see the New Zealander humorist Rhys Darby and the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern[1] realizing the disappearance of New Zealand on the world map. One of their conclusions is that New Zealand is looking like a "half-eaten lamb chop". The government rallied behind the joke, by altering the official website with the sentences "page not found", "we're sorry, something is missing", followed by a world map where New Zealand is missing. In the world, thousands of people used the hashtag #getNZonthemap, which amplified the joke and let people know about this country. Helped by social media, it highlighted New Zealand's place during a few weeks. This country, barely known, is made up of two islands and has a rich history and culture that are important to bring to light.

The first population to inhabit New Zealand, around the 8th century, were the Maoris, an aboriginal Polynesian population. Then, the country was "discovered" in 1642 by Abel Tasman, a Dutchman. The Maoris fought with the explorers, which allowed the country to be freed from European influence, at least for a few decades. In 1769, James Cook[2], an English explorer, arrived on the archipelago. Again, armed conflicts made cohabitation difficult between the Maoris and the colonizing English and French. It was only in 1840 that New Zealand became British territory, after diplomatic and political fights between England and France. The acquisition of this new country for England was formalized by the Waitangi Treaty, in the same period of time. This treaty gave rights of ownership to the Maoris, for their fields, in theory, but many of them were actually stolen by the English. The Crown wanted to allow white settlers accessibility to the fields, the Treaty was transgressed and the Maoris were marginalized. The Maoris wanted reparations, so in 1975, the Law of Waitangi Treaty offered a legal way to ask for reparations for stolen fields. It similarly opened a debate about colonization consequences, influencing the government, its policies and society. That is why in 1996, Sir Robin Cooke[3], Court of Appeals president said that the Waitangi Treaty is the most important document in New Zealand history, for the Maoris and the Pakeha[4].

However, these two ethnic groups aren't the only ones in the country. Indeed, in the 1990's, new policies promoted immigration of Pacific people and Asians. Since then, New Zealand society has been multicultural, a society made up of more than two ethnic groups. In which way New Zealand's multicultural society is frequently reduced to a bicultural society?

The Waitangi Treaty symbolizes the union between two different ethnic groups, the Maoris and the Pakeha. This union, as a political imperative, allowed Maoris culture to be recognized and preserved. Nevertheless, the other cultures were forgotten because of the emphasis on reparations for the Maoris. This hasn't been without consequences for these ethnic groups.

Recognition, compensation and preservation of the Maoris cultural identity

The colonization of a country often develops conflicts between the different ethnic groups, and these conflicts can go on for decades. According to Florence Faberon, the colonization in New Zealand has been more or less respectful of the autochthones, in comparison to Australian colonization, for instance, marked by genocides[5]. She added in her article that New Zealand is continuing to make efforts to bring together two different populations.

The work on remembering history started years ago and continues. It started with the Law of Waitangi treaty. Then in the 1980s, the Maoris' activism allowed them to gain recognition and representation by the state. For instance, the government and the Maoris agreed that New Zealand history didn't start with colonization, the Maoris were there before and their history, culture and heritage needed to be accessible to everyone. They also agreed that New Zealand history needed to be written according to the different points of view, the one of the Maoris and the one of the settlers.

It continued in the political field, as a reconciliation will and it became a union and cohabitation between the Maoris and the Pakeha. In 1989, a document was published by the government, presenting five principles which need to be followed, such as representation and partnership. Since then, the principles have been central in the cultural diversity policy. The partnership is one of the five principles which aims to enhance the union between the Maoris and Pakeha. It implies power sharing and decision sharing and means that the Maoris are included in the projects.

The National Library of New Zealand[6] (NLNZ), as a governmental institution, has been trying since the 1980s to be representative of New Zealand society. John H Mohi said in the article entitled "La gestion de la diversité culturelle en Nouvelle Zélande"[7], the collections that a library contains are the reflection of the community that they are representing. According to the author, the partnership is the first step a National Library can do to reach diversity and fix the errors of the past, or at least try. The Maoris have been included in partnerships with the NLNZ. It allowed some of them to be hired[8], to organize and complete the collections, to help the visitors to access Maori information. Furthermore, partnerships allowed discoveries of manuscripts and archives once unknown. Finally, even if the cultural diversity policy comes from the state, the NLNZ keeps autonomy regarding its actions. It is an opportunity for the Maoris to develop projects and point out their culture and language.

Nevertheless, despite these policies, Maoris aren't represented in the major fields like the Pakeha are. Maoris have faced and still face inequalities. For instance, during colonization, the settlers tried to erase the Maori culture and language. At school, the children needed to speak English, they were beaten if they spoke reo[9]. It was only in 1987 that the reo was recognized as an official language in the country. Maoris as a minority, can't guarantee the survival of their own language. According to experts, it won't just be Maori that save the language, Pakeha too. Indeed, only 4% of the population and one in five Maoris speak reo. Reo can't spread because the dominant language is English.

Today, Maoris are in the minority in the media, mostly represented by women. According to the Maori journalists, neither the Maoris nor their language are represented in the media. That is why they are advocating for the spread of the reo on TV and on air. They hope that racist messages will stop at the same time[10].

Since independence, the country has experienced different immigration waves, creating important ethnic groups in the society today. However, biculturalism[11], as an official recognition of Maori cultural values and skills, stopped New Zealand from representing all the ethnic groups. Cultural diversity policies focused on the Maoris culture. Indeed, a lot of efforts have been made to give rights and recognition to them. However, efforts need to be made to reduce the inequalities between the other ethnic groups also.

Immigration and inequalities between ethnic groups: a contemporary challenge

According to the report 2013 Census QuickStats, there are four ethnic groups in New Zealand, the European (74%), the Maoris (15%), the Asian (12%) and the Pacific people (7%). The Asian immigration started in the 1990s, with the first wave coming from Hong-Kong, Korea, Taiwan, followed by the second wave in the 2000s from China and India. New Zealand wanted to attract immigrants that had professional skills and capital for investment. Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said that Asians are a diverse group of people that come here for a better life, and to contribute to New Zealand society. Asians in New Zealand are very diverse in religion, culture, language, education and socio-economic experiences. Nowadays, Asian immigration is still important. In 2043 the Asian ethnic group will represent 26% of the population, and is the fastest-growing ethnic population in New Zealand.

However, Asians are facing immeasurable discriminations. A discussion paper published in 2010[12] showed that Asians in New Zealand are facing more discriminations than other ethnic groups, experiencing the highest level of verbal and physical harassment and are at a disadvantage in finding employment. In March 2021, hundreds of people protested against Asian-racism in Auckland's streets. The immigrants' children, the second generation, are concerned about this racism that they can't understand. They were born in New Zealand, they speak English as a first language and identify themselves as New Zealanders, but the color of their skin is the first thing that people see, instead of their nationalities. The Mental Health Commission published a report about mental health issues for Asians in New Zealand stating that Asians immigrants are facing mental health problems, especially because most of them have language difficulties, reducing interactions with the host population, creating employment problems[13]. The lack of measures to integrate them in society, by employment especially, has an impact on their mental health.

The Pacific people are also a diverse group, with different origins and thus cultures, coming from different ethnic groups such as Samoan (49%), Cook Islands Māori (21%), Tongan (20%), Niuean (8%), Fijian (5%), Tokelauan (2%), Tuvaluan (1%) and Kiribati (less than 1%).[14] According to a 2010 report focusing on Pacific people's health, "Pacific people are overrepresented in areas of higher deprivation and lower skilled occupations and have higher levels of unemployment". They are also over-represented in lower socio-economic communities, so they are "more vulnerable to gambling-, smoking- and alcohol-related harm", thus more exposed to cancers and chronic diseases. Finally, they are exposed to greater levels of health risks and unhealthy behaviors. Their socio-economic situation influences their health and lives.

The risk that Pacific people's children have the same socio-economic situation is high. Moreover, the Pacific population is young compared with other ethnic groups in New Zealand, and will contribute significantly to New Zealand's future.[15] These assessments show that Pacific people's health needs to be improved, by acting in the fields of education and employment. Political decisions can make a difference and enhance life conditions for the different ethnic groups.


It seems that New Zealander cultural diversity policy has been challenged during all its history. Since the publication of the reports stating different ethnic groups' conditions, the government has taken actions in the most important fields, health, education, employment, and is trying to reduce the inequalities between ethnic groups, which is a mammoth and ongoing project.

It took time for the Maoris culture to be recognized. Today, they aren't represented in important fields like Pakeha are. Moreover, they don't have the same socioeconomic situation as the Pakeha. Will the Maoris be represented and have the same socioeconomic situation as the Pakeha ? We can ask ourselves the same question concerning Pacific People and Asians.

[1] She is the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand, leader of the Labor Party.

[2] (1728-1779) English sailor, explorer and mapmaker. He was the first European to discover Australia's east coast, the New Caledonia, the Sandwich Islands and Hawaii. He did an Antarctique tour and charted Newfoundland and New Zealand.

[3] (1926-2006) New Zealand judge, a British Law Lord and member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. He was one the New Zealand's most influential jurists.

[4] Name given to the settlers' descendants.

[5] Faberon, Florence. « Chronique des États d'Océanie - 2020 », Revue française de droit constitutionnel, vol. 126, no. 2, 2021, pp. 259-271.

[6] The National Library Act (1965) brings together the General Assembly Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library and the National Library Service to form the National Library of New Zealand.

[7] Mohi H John, "La gestion de la diversité culturelle en Nouvelle Zélande", 65th IFLA Council and general conference, Thailand, 1999.

[8] Generally, Maoris, rather than non-Maoris, are hired because they have an expert knowledge of the Maori culture and language. They have a cultural capital that the NLNZ is looking for.

[9] This word means "the language" in Maori.


[11] Definition invented by the anthropologist E. Schwimmer,

[12] The discussion paper was prepared by researchers at the Center for Applied Cross-Cultural Research, for the Human Rights Commission.

[13] Mental Health Issues for Asians in New Zealand: A Literature Review, Mental Health Commission, Elsie Ho, Sybil Au, Charlotte Bedford and Jenine Cooper, Migration Research Group, Department of Geography, University of Waikato, 2003

[14] Statistics New Zealand Censuses of Population and Dwellings, 2013 Census.