New Zealand #10 – Over the Southern Alps & Wellington
New Zealand #10 – Over the Southern Alps & Wellington
In this segment we fly from Queenstown northward along the eastern flank of the Southern Alps and on to Wellington where we learn about how the government operates.
Our flight along the Eastern side of the Southern Alps from Queenstown to Wellington
We’ve talked about the Southern Alps in a few previous sections of this series. But as those of us on the left side of the plane were afforded grand aerial view of almost the entire length of the range as we flew to Wellington, I thought I’d give some more information (and show off some photos taken through the airplane window).
The Southern Alps mountain range extends along much of the South Island’s western edge. The highest peaks and steepest slopes tend to be on the western side of the range. The term "Southern Alps" generally refers to the entire range with other names given to many smaller sections. As one should be able to deduce, the range forms the main divide of the South Island. The Western side of the range is quite rugged and only sparsely populated. Most of the settlements and farming are done to the east of the range. The entire range is around 300 miles (500 km) long with the tallest peak being Mount Cook near Akaroa at 12, 218 ft (3,000 m).
The Southern Alps are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and lie along a plate boundary where the Pacific Plate (to the southeast) is pushing westward and smacks against the Indo-Australian Plate (to the northwest) which is moving to the other way. Over the last 45 million years, the plate collision has pushed up 12 mi (20 km) thickness of rocks on the Pacific Plate, although much of this has since eroded away.
This uplift has been most rapid during the last 5 million years, and even today the mountains continue to be pushed up causing earthquakes on the Alpine Fault and other nearby faults. Despite the substantial uplift, most of the relative motion along the Alpine Fault is transverse, not vertical.
Over the centuries, much of the topography of the range has come from glaciers which have come and gone several times with the cycle of ice ages. As such, the mountains are strewn with glacial valleys and lakes. According to an inventory conducted in the late 1970s, the Southern Alps contained over 3,000 glaciers larger than one hectare (2.47 acre), the longest of which – the Tasman Glacier – is 18 miles long (29 km).
The Southern Alps were named by Captain Cook in March 1770, who remarked on their "prodigious height". They had previously been noted by Abel Tasman in 1642, whose description of the South Island's west coast is often translated as "a land uplifted high".
Kawarau River near Frankton (just after takeoff from Queenstown)
Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown)
Southern Alps near Cardrona
Southern Alps, Lake Wanaka, Albert Town Area
Southern Alps near Cardrona
Southern Alps, Lake Pukaki, Twizel Area
Southern Alps Mt. Aspring National Park Area (Mt. Aspring?)
Southern Alps, Lake Coleridge & Rakaia River
We spent 3 days in Wellington and surrounding area. This map contains the routes we explored over all three days.
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand so much of our activities here was learning about how the government operates and seeing their equivalent of the capital building, the west wing and the Supreme Court. Of course they have different names for some of these which we’ll get to.
When we did go sightseeing outside of government buildings it was many times pouring rain and to be honest, compared to what we had been seeing, the sights in and around Wellington paled in comparison. In other words I don’t have many pictures to show you.
Wellington is at the southernmost tip of the North Island. Originally the capital was in Auckland which is more in the northern part of the North Island but due to the difficulty of people in the South Island to get there; in 1865 they moved it to Wellington which was more centrally located. With a population of 405 thousand it is the 2nd largest city in New Zealand after Auckland.
The strip of water that separates the North and South Islands is called Cooks Straight, named after the explorer Captain Cook. This straight is the only break in a more than 800 mile long North/South oriented range of mountains. And, as we all know, most winds around the world tend to flow west to east. But in this case those winds are blocked by those mountains – except at Cooks Straight which acts like a giant funnel as all this air that can’t get over the mountains rushes through this gap. And, Wellington is right on the shore of this straight and as such is the windiest city in the world. The average wind speed here is 16 mph which doesn’t sound like much but that includes calm days in the average. In one particularly windy year the wind topped “Gale-Force” on each of 233 days. The strongest wind gust clocked in at 154 mph. With all that wind it is no surprise that Wellington gets pretty much 100% of its electrical power from nearby wind farms (with hydro power as a backup for calm days)
In downtown there is a modern art sculpture that is actually a wind gauge called a Zephyrometer. It is basically a long thin needle on a pivot with a weight at the bottom. When it’s calm it points straight up. When it is windy it points at various angles all the way to horizontal depending on the wind speed. Our guide said that it is not uncommon to see it parallel with the ground. Although it was overcast on most of our days in Wellington (and rainy on some) the wind did not really show itself so the needle stayed pointed up.
Wellington Zephyrometer (wind speed modern art)
Wellington on the Southwest side of a large bay but it was originally on the other side of the bay where Lower Hutt is now along the Hutt River. When established they laid out the city similar to London on both sides of the river. However, due to the frequent flooding at that site, they decided to move Wellington to the other side of the bay.
Back in early Maori times, what is now the Miramar Peninsula was an island. However over the course of several earthquakes, culminating with one in 1855 the seabed between Miramar and the mainland rose enough to form a dry land isthmus. Thus Miramar Island became Miramar Peninsula. That mostly flat Isthmus, called the Rongotai Isthmus, is now suburbs and is also where the airport is located.
Other than that flat isthmus, Wellington is quite hilly. Many say it is similar to San Francisco in many regards. It is built around an inner harbor, it is very hilly with many steep slopes now covered with Victorian era houses interspersed with modern monstrosities and it rarely gets below freezing with minor frost on the tops of the higher hills. Wellington also has cable cars. However, these are privately owned and are used for access to homes built into the sides of the steep hills. It is not uncommon for these mini cable cars to be the only access to the home on the hill.
The city is clustered along the edge of a large bay which they call Wellington Harbor and was, of course, a major shipping port in its day. Now, the bay front is more for tourists than for cargo ships with many of the old warehouses converted to shopping and tourist attractions.
Wellington from the top of Mt. Victoria
Mostly Victorians with more modern structures splattered in-between
Wellington after sunset from hotel room
Old St. Paul’s Church
Old St. Paul’s Church
Funicular from downtown Wellington up to top of Botanical Gardens
Solace in the Wind
What do you get when you retire in New Zealand
The official retirement age is 65 however the conservative party is pushing to raise this to 67. And, similar to the USA, after retirement you get a weekly benefit similar to Social Security from the government. After taxes, in New Zealand dollars, a single person gets $345/wk ($1,495/Mo), a married couple gets $576/wk ($2,496/mo), and a married couple where only one is 65 or older gets $546/wk ($2,366/mo). Like the US, this is not enough to live on. Many employers also provide employee savings plans, like our 401k’s many with matching. In order to qualify for SS benefits you must have been a NZ resident for 10 years of which in at least 5 you were under 50 years old.
But, in NZ most SS payments go farther, most retirees have paid off their house so don’t have a mortgage, and they all get free healthcare. Prescriptions drugs cost a maximum of $4 for a 30 day supply and pretty much all drugs are included. In addition most have savings and investments to supplement their SS payments. In practice between 10% and 20% of those over 65 continue to work either full or part time and this does not impact what they get from SS. However, if you do work past the age of 65, your SS income is added to your work income when calculating your tax bracket. If you have an “elder card” (meaning you are over 65) most merchants give discounts.
Like the US there are retirement homes at various levels but unlike the US the Gov’t heavily subsidizes payments for these based on need. If you have <= $100k in savings, the government pays the full elder home fee (but then you don’t get your SS checks)
New Zealand Government
As our guide mentioned the word “politics” is derived from the Greek word “poly” meaning “many” and the word “ticks” meaning “blood sucking parasite”. And, New Zealand is no exception – at least according to folks that live there. But compared to many other countries it really isn’t so bad. As Ronald Reagan said, “Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards. If you disgrace yourself you can always write a book”.
In many ways the government of New Zealand is similarities to that of the USA. Both stemmed from new world frontier roots, had a series of land wars with the indigenous population, are stable democracies with many shared values, have smooth transitions of power after democratic elections, are English speaking with large minority communities that are not necessarily English speaking and both are largely free market capitalistic economies.
But, in many ways the two are different. European colonization in NZ was by treaty rather than warfare, no slavery ever existed, no segregation laws, independence from GB has been an evolutionary process over a period of 174 years rather than through a revolutionary war, native populations assimilated rather than isolated in reservations. The indigenous Maori people have guaranteed representation in parliament and their native language is an official language of the country. But, New Zealand has no formal constitution and they drive on wrong side of road.
The story of the NZ government is one of a long evolution of increasing autonomy from Great Britton up to the present day when except for a few ceremonial remnants it’s pretty much an independent country. The first real step on this evolution toward independence was in 1856 when they first got “responsible government” and then in 1954 had their first representative parliament. Along the way New Zealand almost merged with Australia on several occasions such as in 1840 where there was a trial merge that lasted all of 15 months. Another was in 1901, when the various autonomous sections of Australia merged into a single country they included New Zealand as one of those being merged in. However NZ declined the offer.
So, a few factoids’. New Zealand has not written constitution. But, then again, neither does Great Briton or Israel. Instead it has a set of unwritten conventions and precedents. There are some written documents such as the Treaty of Wiatangi that are in written form but are un-codified (i.e. unofficial) and there is no formal process to make changes to those documents. This has some interesting ramifications. As there is no constitution, when laws are implemented there is no concept of “is this constitutional or not” and in courts the constitutionality argument doesn’t exist. But interestingly enough the form of government is called a “Constitutional Monarchy” – just without a constitution. ‘
The head of state is the person who is the King or Queen of England, but not in his/her role as the King/Queen of England. This is a second role as King/Queen of New Zealand. But, today this is pretty much just a ceremonial title.
Like the US there are 3 branches of government. There is the Parliament based on voting, the Executive appointed by ruling party, and the Judiciary where judges are appointed by the Executive branch. So, the people elect the parliament which appoints the executive who in turn appoints the high court judges. But the judges have no say over what is or isn’t a valid law so in terms of politics, they really don’t count. In other words basically no separation of power.
So, who runs the country? Well there is a Parliament so let’s start there. Elections for Parliament are held every three years but early elections can be called at any time thus re-setting the 3 year cycle. Every seat in parliament is up for grabs in each such election. Most of the bills in parliament are “Government” bills, meaning they were proposed by the Prime Minister, however there are also a few “Member” bills proposed by members of parliament. The Governor general (appointed by the King/Queen of England) – not the Prime Minister - signs bills to make them take effect after they pass Parliament but this is a rubber stamp sort of thing. It is unheard of for a bill to not be signed. Very different from our presidential veto concept.
When Parliament is in session the first hour of each day is reserved for a Q&A session with the Prime Minister which is sort of a micro state of the union sort of thing, but with much more yelling. Of course the PM is always from the same party as the majority so that has an influence as well.
There is no “upper house” like our Senate or England’s House of Lords. There used to be, but as it was appointed by the ruling party (Prime Minister) with each new administration it was a rubber stamp body that always went along with whatever the ruling party wanted. So, it was pretty much useless. In 1950 the PM stacked this house with members who promised that their first and only action would be to vote to dissolve the upper house and put themselves out of a job. And, indeed this is what happened.
Since 1996 the parliament has run under a system they call MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) that was modeled on Germany’s system and so far they have had 7 elections under this system. The MMP system was designed to make it tough for one party to rule the roost without the help of other parties.
So, let’s see how this MMP works. Parliament has 120 MP’s (Member of Parliament) of which today there are 121 (the extra one is due to something called “overhang”). Of those 120 (or more it seems) seats, 70 are elected – one from each district – like the House of Representatives in the USA. These 70 are called “Electoral Seats” as their occupants are elected. But due to the 1867 Maori Representation Act the Maori are guaranteed at least 7 of those 70 Electoral seats. To make this work the country is divided into 63 general districts and each district elects one MP. Then the entire country is also divided into 7 Maori Districts (which overlap the 63 general districts) for the Maori seats. If you are a Maori you choose whether to register and vote in your general district or to register and vote in your Maori district. Of course this doesn’t mean that a Maori can’t run for one of the 67 general seats and this happens regularly. So, the Maori are guaranteed 10% of the seats (7 of 70 elected seats) which is less than their 15% share of the population at large. However at this time they hold 22 (of 121) seats which is 18% and than their share of the general population. So, it seems the plan works.
The remaining 50 seats are called “List Seats” and they are not elected. Rather, they are appointed by the parties. Now, bear with me here. During an election, each citizen gets two votes. One vote is for a person to fill an Electoral Seat in parliament (either a general seat or a Maori seat). The other vote is for a party. There is no restriction so you can mix and match your two votes as you desire and apparently this is quite often done. The party vote determines how many total seats each party can hold. So, if your party got 25% of the party votes, your party gets to have 25% of the seats in parliament. As such, if your party is entitled to more seats than were filled by elected MP’s, you fill the rest from “The List”. Each party produces and publishes such a list ahead of each election and the appointees from the list must be selected in a top down fashion (if someone on the list also won an Electoral seat they are skipped). I suppose that is where this “overhang” thing comes up. Let’s say your party was entitled to 5 total seats but 6 of the elected MP’s are from your party you get to keep the extra seat. The List MP’s represent the party and not a specific district.
This MMP system was voted in by referendum in 1992 from a handful of different proposals. Then in 2011 it was reaffirmed with a 58% majority vote. Prior to MMP, New Zealand was pretty much a 2 party system with an occasional 3rd party person being elected. With MMP, there are now 7 parties with decent representation. Today, 33% of parliament are female, 20% minority (which is a higher percentage than the population at large), 5 Asian MP’s and 8 Pacific Island MP’s.
How elections are managed is also quite different from what we experience in the USA. First of all campaigning is only allowed for 3 month leading up to Election Day, and no campaigning of any kind is allowed on Election Day itself. Each political party is given a fixed amount of money to spend on TV ads and they are forbidden to spend more than that ($3m divided up among the parties). There is an additional limit of $4m they can spend on other campaign costs per party such as staffing, research and polling. This extra (non TV) funding comes from donors however an electorate candidate is limited to spending $25,700. Anonymous donors can donate up to $1,500 and if they give more they must be identified by name and no overseas donation can exceed $1,500. In other words, for the most part they’ve gotten the money out of politics and have curtailed the 18 months of media blasting we have in the US paid for by corporations and the top 1%.
The 2nd branch of Government is the Executive which is made up basically of an PM (Prime Minister) and a set of ministers. The PM is chosen by whichever party has the most members in Parliament thus avoiding the problem we have in the US where the President is from one party and the congress is from another. Of course as recent events bear out, we also have a problem where the president and the congress are all from the same party so I guess it really doesn’t matter much in some cases. However, historically (notwithstanding the last 7-8 years) when we have a mixed administration each side must work with the other side to get anything done creating a balance of power which for the most part is missing between branches of government in New Zealand. Rather the balance of power is within the parliament as no one party is likely to ever have a true majority so must cooperate with other parties to get anything done.
But, back to the Executive, in addition to the PM, there are 21 ministers in charge of various things similar to our cabinet. But, the PM is more like a moderator than a leader in that (s)he too is considered a minister. The ministers all must be chosen from elected members of parliament (not the list members chosen by the parties). So, the cabinet is immune from being stacked with business cronies or political donors which must be heaven compared to the current situation in the US.
One of the most interesting things about the executive branch is the building they work in called The Bee Hive which is quite striking.
Now we come to the third branch of government – the Judiciary. There are 5 levels to the court system: Tribunals for minor matters; District Court for family, youth and employment issues as well as minor felonies; High Court for more serious crimes, usually over $200,000 or murder; the Appeals Court which picks and chooses which cases to take from a list of requests and the Supreme Court.
Prior to 2004 the court of last resort was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, based in London. So arguing a case meant a trip half way around the world. But in 2004 New Zealand was permitted to replace the London court with a local Supreme Court. Today the Supreme Court has 5 judges who are appointed by the PM. When it was created in 2004, the Chief Justice I believe was appointed by the Prime Minister and the remaining 4 members were the most senior judges from the NZ Court of Appeal’s at the time. If at any time one of the judges can’t participate for whatever reason, a temporary judge is appointed to take their place. As I understand the court is allowed to have up to 6 judges though. If one of the judges is going to retire or otherwise have reason to leave the court, his/her replacement can be appointed before the first one actually leaves for an overlap period.
Unless they resign earlier, once a Supreme Court judge is appointed they remain on the bench till they turn 70 at which time they are required to retire. At the current time, 3 of the 5 judges, including the Chief Justice are women.
This court hears about 500 cases a year which is around one third of the requests. But remember these are not cases concerning constitutionality as there is no constitution. Rather they are just the last court of appeal for the most thorny, notorious, or significant cases coming up from the lower courts.
The Supreme Court building was completed in 2010. The court room itself is quite impressive. It is an egg shaped room sitting inside a rectangular building. The chamber is covered in Silver Beech using a diamond pattern reminiscent of the native Kauri cone. It is flooded with natural light from a large oval skylight. In order to convey the idea that the Supreme Court is open, above board and accessible the outside walls of the first floor are all glass and from the busy downtown street the building sits on, you can look straight into the court chamber and see the judges sitting in their seats.
Supreme Court from spectator’s seats
Supreme court Chamber
Supreme Court from Chief Justice’s seat looking all the way out to a downtown street
Giving women the vote in New Zealand is a point of national pride as it was the first country in the world to do so. This occurred in 1893 but it wasn’t until 1919 that they could run for seats in Parliament where they now hold 31% of the seats. But, as in most other places it was a long, hard fought battle. In the case of New Zealand this fight was led by Kate Shepard and a band of loyal followers. There are monuments, statues and museums dedicated to Kate and women getting the vote throughout the country. In fact, she adorns the NZ $10 note. Here in Wellington, at a busy downtown intersection that sits between the Executive and Parliament buildings on one block and the Supreme Court building across the intersection the pedestrian “walk” light is a silhouette of Kate Shepard.
Today the idea that women could not or should not vote is completely foreign to New Zealanders. In the early 21st century women have held each of the country’s key constitutional positions and in 2005-2006, pretty much all top posts were women (PM, Governor General, head of State, Speaker of the house & Chief Justice) – 3 are still held by women including chief justice
Kate Shepard “Walk” (March?) light in middle of the government section of town
On our tour around the perimeter of Miramar Peninsula we stopped at one of the Wahine disaster memorials, this one in Churchill Park. The Wahine was a ferry carrying people and goods between Lyttelton (Christchurch) across Cook’s straight to Wellington. On April 10th, 1968 it crashed as it came into Wellington Harbor with a loss of 51 people (out of 733 on board) two more died later of injuries sustained in the wreck. This was New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster.
As the Wahine approached Wellington around dawn there was a 50 knot (57 mph) wind blowing. But as other ships had made it into port in higher winds the captain gave it a go rather than waiting out the storm. But, luck was not with him. Just as the ship entered the narrows leading into the harbor the wind suddenly increased to over 100 knots (115 mph) and this blew the radar antennae down just as a huge wave slammed into the ship, throwing many of those on board off their feet and knocking the ship sideways to the wind. Now side on to the towering waves, the vessel was pushed towards the notorious Barrett Reef on the western side of the harbor entrance.
For 30 minutes the Wahine tried to power itself out of this mess and head back out to sea but with poor visibility and no radar the captain wasn’t quite sure where he was other than he was heading for the rocks. So, unaware of his location or even which way he was pointed, the captain ordered full astern and backed the ship right onto Barrett Reef. The starboard propeller was knocked off, and the port engine failed shortly thereafter.
With all the noise form the storm and the waves battering the hull many of the passengers were unaware of what was happening. With the ship's engines no longer working the captain ordered all watertight doors closed and both anchors dropped. Passengers were now informed that the ferry had run aground on the reef. The signal station at nearby Beacon Hill was notified of the accident as the crew prepared life-saving equipment. There was flooding in four compartments and on the vehicle deck. The Wahine dragged its anchors and gradually drifted further up the harbor. Despite being close to shore, the weather made it impossible for rescuers to reach the ship from land.
By 11:50 am a tug from Wellington had made it to the site and secured a line to the Wahine to tow it to safety, but the line quickly gave way. Other attempts to get a line on failed. Would-be rescuers stood helplessly on the beach at Seatoun as the Wahine succumbed to one of the worst storms recorded in New Zealand history.
They managed to get 4 fully loaded lifeboats into the water, one of which capsized almost immediately. With such a wind the other 3 lifeboats had no choice but to be blown in whichever direction the wind wanted to take them. All 3 made it to shore but landed in far flung places.
The people left on board either fell or had to jump into the rough water. Many of them were blown across the harbor towards Eastbourne Beach, an area with difficult access and rescue teams found the road to Eastbourne blocked. Eventually 200 survivors struggled through the surf to safety on this coast, but it was here that most of the 51 fatalities occurred. A number of people who reached shore alive did not receive medical attention quickly enough to prevent death from exposure. Others were drowned or killed when thrown against rocks. No people were left on board.
This wreck made news worldwide as it seemed impossible that so many lives could be lost so close to shore. Shipwrecks were commonplace in the 19th century, but this was the 1960s – how could a large, modern vessel founder almost within sight of New Zealand’s capital city? Although the actual wreck was caused by the weather, blame was also passed out to errors in judgment aboard the vessel as well as land based.
The little park we stopped at was a launching point for rescue attempts. It has one of the anchor chains and some funnels from the ship as a memorial to the disaster.
While we were in Wellington, we did spend some time not learning about the government. On one day we spent a cold, rainy morning in a nature preserve called Zealandia. It is the world’s first fully-fenced urban eco-sanctuary, with an extraordinary 500-year vision to restore a Wellington valley’s forest and freshwater ecosystems as closely as possible to their pre-human state. The 556 acre preserve is a groundbreaking conservation project that has reintroduced 18 species of native wildlife back into the area, 6 of which were previously absent from mainland of New Zealand for over 100 years.
As I’ve talked about before, prior to the arrival of humans New Zealand was “bird land”, isolated and unique. Without any mammalian predators an ecosystem of remarkable flora and fauna had evolved – the likes of which could be found nowhere else in the world. Sadly, over the last 700 years, that paradise was almost destroyed by humans and the mammals they introduced who just love eating birds that have lost the ability to fly and eggs laid on the ground not worrying about predators.
Zealandia is where they pioneered different kinds of fencing to keep predators (including house cats) out which is not as easy as it seems. What can’t climb over digs under or just jumps over most fencing. So they had to figure out how to keep things from burrowing under the fence, how to thwart those that want to climb it and how high to make so things can’t jump over it. The next problem was how to keep critters from climbing trees and using overhanging branches to defeat the fence –so how far away from the fence must they clear trees away. The one problem they haven’t quite solved yet are local birds that catch mice and rats outside the preserve, then fly into the preserve where the hapless rodent manages to escape. For this problem they closely monitor for signs of rodents and then set traps.
I only have a couple of sharable photos from our visit there as it was pouring rain, windy and cold and most of my shots were just not that good. However, this park looks like a really nice place to spend a day if the weather is good as it has many walking and hiking – excuse me – tramping trails and tons of wildlife to see.
Water drain tower in dammed pond
Pukeko (New Zealand Swamp Hen) looking for a hand out
I hope you enjoyed reading this final episode of our New Zealand trip. Stay tuned for more blogs – our next one (already late) is a trip we took to British Columbia and Alberta Canada along with Glacier National Park in Montana.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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(Info from Wikipedia, Road Scholar Lectures, and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way and attraction websites)
Keywords: blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblognz, nz elections, nz executive branch, nz government, nz mmp, nz parliament, nz supreme court, queenstown, southern alps, wahine disaster, wellington, zealandia
Hi Dan, great chronical and photos of NZ! We did a Road Scholar tour in 2018, saw lots of the same things, and had a wonderful time. Thanks for bringing back those memories - you had better luck taking photos of the plane window than I usually do!
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