Pluralism and Policy Making in New Zealand

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The political theory of pluralism maintains that political power is not held exclusively by the government, but by a number of diverse groups. Interest groups, pressure groups, trade unions, and informal groups of like-minded citizens are all examples of the types of coalitions which pluralists believe influence the political system. New Zealand is a pluralist society. Our people are diverse and since the introduction of a MMP electoral system there is greater opportunity for groups to be involved in politics. Pressure groups are particularly active in the New Zealand political system which is illustrated in this paper by studying their involvement in the development of the Emissions Trading Scheme. A pluralist democracy places additional demands on policy makers who have many interests to consider. As New Zealand becomes increasingly diverse culturally, public policy in areas such as education will need to be careful to consider many points of view. Lastly, this paper will discuss the criticisms of pluralism and a new theory – neopluralism which emerged as a reaction to those critiques.

Pluralism is both a political theory and a way of describing how power could be structured in a democratic system. The pluralist perspective is that society is made up of a diverse group of people with different interests, and that while decisions are made in a central government framework, political power is realised through organised group activity, political parties, pressure and interest groups (Schwarzmantel, 1994, p.50). Groups involved in policy making could include unions, environmental groups, professional associations, business groups, and formal or informal groups of citizens. Because most citizens have limited time to invest in politics and are busy with work, family, health and recreation, the majority of the public act as bystanders to the political process (Reynolds, 1996, p.1). Pluralism assumes that all people have interests and these interests are best met through the political system (Mulgan, 2004, p.16). An underlying value is that individuals are the best judge of their needs and wants. According to pluralism, resources are spread widely throughout society and almost every citizen has access to some form of resource. Access to resource creates power because resources help to further the interests of the group. No one group is all powerful; every group is strong in some areas and weak in others. Pluralists stress the importance of diversity in society and see it as a positive part of social life.

Critics have sometimes characterised pluralism as believing there to be no inequalities in society and that all groups have access to the same political influence (Mulgan, 2004, p.10). In fact, most pluralists would agree that some there is some disparity regarding the degree to which the politicians respond to pressure from different groups.

In 1993 New Zealand’s voting system was changed from a traditional first-pass-the-post (FPP) system to Member Mixed Proportional (MMP) representation. During the 1970s and 1980s the public began to lose trust in confidence in the electoral system, fuelled by the 1978 and 1981 elections where Labour won more votes than the National Party however National secured more seats in Parliament and remained in government. The extent of the major economic reforms of the 1980s and the consequent social and economic changes made many people uncomfortable and this furthered public desire for electoral change (Buckle, 2009, p. 12). Support for smaller alternative parties such as Social Credit increased however this did little to relieve frustrations under the FPP system. In the 1978 election Social Credit won 16% of the vote but gained only one seat in Parliament (Elections New Zealand, 2010). Critics of FPP argued that the current electoral system created a Parliament which was not representative of what the public wanted. Richard Mulgan criticised FPP as the reason New...
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