The Politics of Equality New Zealand's Adventures in Democracy

By Nicholls, Kate | New Zealand Sociology, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Equality New Zealand's Adventures in Democracy


Nicholls, Kate, New Zealand Sociology


Leslie Lipson (2011) The Politics of Equality New Zealand's Adventures in Democracy. Wellington: Victoria University Press.

Reviewed by Kate Nicholls

Professor Leslie Lipson passed away in 2000 after spending three decades at the University of California, Berkeley. A native of London, he received his Bachelors and Masters degrees at Oxford University before completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago. From the 1950s he became widely known throughout the American political science community as the author of a number of books on democracy and political ethics, including the extensively used 1954 textbook, The Great Issues of Politics, as well as a social activist and public intellectual. A little lesser-known fact is that prior to making his mark in the United States, Lipson spent eight years as the foundation Professor of Political Science at the Victoria University of Wellington, then a branch of the University of New Zealand. In 1948, based on his observations, experiences, and detailed historical research, The Politics of Equality: New Zealand's Adventures in Democracy was first published. Victoria University Press has recently seen fit to reissue this quite lengthy volume given that it has been out of print for several decades. Including a new preface to Lipson's work by Jon Johansson of the same institution, the book chronicles New Zealand's political development up to the late 1940s.

The Politics of Equality is divided into two parts, the first detailing the initial stages of institutional formation in New Zealand from 1840-1890, and the second entitled "Democracy in Operation, 1891-1941". With individual chapters in each section describing how major political institutions such as the electoral and party systems, bureaucracy, legislature, and executive operate in a distinctly New Zealand manner, the book, in part, reads as an early textbook in New Zealand politics. Subsequent texts in the field later adopted a similar format though with additional chapters on political culture, interest groups, and other related themes. This clearly identifies the work as one of an earlier age in the discipline of political science in which formal, legally circumscribed institutions were the main focus, predating the behavioural revolution of the 1950s and the later rise of the "new" institutionalism that gave us the theoretical tools to try to understand how social forces interact with such formal institutions.

The re-edition and distribution of Lipson's book is thus likely to be of main interest to those seeking a deeper knowledge of New Zealand's political history. The first part of the book, while a prelude to what comes later, is in many ways the most interesting component, since it stresses the contingent basis on which New Zealand's political institutions developed. The story Lipson tells us here is one in which the establishment of the basic rules of the political game was a highly contested process featuring provincial-centre rivalries, attempts to balance provinces against one other, a highly fluid and sometimes volatile factional rather than party basis to parliamentary politics, an initially dubiously democratic electoral system, and a rapid turnover of cabinet ministers that could hardly make for stable policy-making. The first section thus provides a corrective to histories of New Zealand politics that essentially "begin" in the Liberal era, forgetting that much happened in New Zealand to shape the political system between 1840 and 1890 when a true party system emerged. The second part of the book tells a story that is perhaps more familiar to local observers, exhaustively detailing the institutional configuration of New Zealand politics that, aside from the abolishment of the upper house of parliament in 1950 that Lipson seems to foreshadow, essentially stayed in place until the introduction of MMP in 1996.

Beyond this historical overview, the main theoretical contribution that Lipson sought to make surrounded the idea that New Zealand is (or was) a country that prizes "equalitarianism" over liberty, by which he makes both explicit and implicit contrast throughout the book to the United States in particular. …

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