New Zealand should adopt Australian rules and make it illegal not to vote, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says.

Palmer, who ran the country as head of the Labour Party from 1989 to 1990, told Radio NZ's Guyon Espiner that voter apathy had led to Trumpery and Brexit.

"Democratic government around the western world is in some sort of crisis," Palmer said in the hour-long interview, which is part of new RNZ series The 9th Floor.

"Look at the level of voting in the 2016 New Zealand municipal elections - hardly anyone votes. And yet we've got a supercity in Auckland with enormous powers - why would they not vote?

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"It's quite hard to understand. Are they turned off by it? Do they think it doesn't matter?"

Voting in both local government and parliamentary elections should be enforced, Palmer said.

"If you are going to live in a democracy which is supposed to be conducted by the people for the people, then the people should have some duties. They should participate and they should vote."

Palmer told Espiner he had found being the leader of the country "a nuisance". He was in charge for just 13 months.

The wide-ranging conversation was the first of five episodes of The 9th Floor, referencing the spot the Prime Minister's office occupies in the Beehive.

Guyon Espiner interviews five former Prime Ministers in 5-part Radio NZ series The 9th Floor. Image/RNZ
Guyon Espiner interviews five former Prime Ministers in 5-part Radio NZ series The 9th Floor. Image/RNZ

In upcoming episodes, released weekly, Espiner interviews four more former prime ministers: Mike Moore (1990), Jim Bolger (1990-1997), Dame Jenny Shipley (1997-1999), and Helen Clark (1999-2008).

John Key resigned on the day of Bolger's interview, but declined to take part in the series at the time.