Ask many New Zealanders about our constitution and they’ll say we don’t have one.
That’s because we don’t have a grand, overarching document like the Constitution of the USA.
But we do have a constitution. The difference is that ours, as in many countries with a heritage of British-style government, is spread about in a range of Acts of Parliament, legal documents (‘Letters Patent’), decisions of the Courts and generally accepted practices or ‘conventions’.
Put together, they define what the major institutions of government are, what powers they have and how they can use them. That’s a constitution.
A parliamentary democracy with a Queen
Many countries these days have a President. That can be a powerful role, as it is in the USA or South Africa, or it can be a more ceremonial role, as it is in Germany or Israel.
Other countries, like the UK and Malaysia have a King or Queen, whose role is also mainly ceremonial.
New Zealand’s constitutional set-up is more like that of the UK and is similar to what you’ll find in both Australia and Canada.
Day-to-day political power is the responsibility of our democratically elected parliament, called the House of Representatives. The person who leads the political party or group of parties (called a coalition) with a majority of seats in the House becomes the Prime Minister. There are other Ministers who form a cabinet and are in charge of various government departments. Only Members of Parliament can be Ministers.
While the Prime Minister is the most important person in day to day national government, sitting above him or her on the constitutional hierarchy is New Zealand’s monarch - our Head of State.
Currently, this is Queen Elizabeth II. She has responsibility for several realms - including of course the UK - and in her absence, she is represented here by a Governor-General.
The Queen appoints the Governor-General on the advice of New Zealand's Prime Minister, usually for a term of five years.
Governors-General (yes, that’s the correct way to say it) used to be chosen from members of the British aristocracy, preferably but not always those with some connection to New Zealand. Since the 1970s however, the role has been held by distinguished New Zealanders.
The current Governor General is Dame Patsy Reddy. Dame Patsy's previous career was in law, business, and the public sector. She is the third woman to be appointed to the position of Governor-General.
Checks and balances
New Zealand's Head of State is non-partisan and doesn’t get involved in the business of government.
Taxes, borrowing and expenditure of the national budget must be approved by Parliament - which is why the government of the day must have a majority of elected representatives.
Parliament must be re-elected every three years at least. A Prime Minister may call for an earlier election for political reasons or if he or she loses their majority. It is theoretically possible that the Governor-General, acting for the Queen, may call for fresh elections if no party or coalition can govern effectively, although hasn’t yet been tested.
In any situation the Monarch or Governor-General must always act on the advice of the Prime Minister or Ministers who have the necessary support of elected representatives in Parliament.
Judges in New Zealand are appointed by the Government. However, they act independently and apply the law impartially. To help ensure this independence, judges of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court are protected from being removed from office or having their salaries cut.
In certain circumstances, Courts may strike down laws that the Government has made. They are certainly active in protecting the rights of individuals against the powers of the state.
Certain limits on government action are imposed by the Treaty of Waitangi.
There are other important organisations and officials who have various degrees of independence to scrutinise what government is doing, including the Ombudsman and the Auditor-General.
This is a very simplified overview. For more information see the website of the Governor-General.
The Governor-General’s site also includes a detailed essay by one of our most distinguished constitutional experts, Rt Hon Sir Kenneth Keith, ONZ.