Ask New Zealanders about our constitution and many may say "we do not have one".
We do not have a grand, overarching constitutional document like the Constitution of the USA. But we do have a constitution - it is just made up of different tools of power.
As in many countries with a heritage of British-style government, our constitution is spread across a range of formal documents, decisions and conventions. These include:
- Acts of Parliament
- legal documents (‘Letters Patent’)
- decisions of the Courts
- generally accepted practices or ‘conventions’.
Put together, these define what the major institutions of government are, what powers they have and how they can use them.
New Zealand is a parliamentary democracy
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 setup is more like that of the UK and similar to what you will find in Australia and Canada.
House of Representatives
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 (coalition) with a majority of seats in the House becomes the Prime Minister.
- Other Ministers form a Cabinet and are in charge of various government departments. Only Members of Parliament can be Ministers.
Head of State
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, the british Queen or King. So right now, Queen Elizabeth II is our Head of State.
As the Queen has responsibility for several realms and resides in the UK, she is represented here by a Governor-General.
- The Queen appoints the Governor-General, on the advice of New Zealand's Prime Minister and usually for a term of five years.
- Since the 1970s, the role of Governor-General 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 of New Zealand.
The Constitution Act 1986
Our key constitutional document is the Constitution Act 1986 (the Act). The Act is the principal formal statement of New Zealand's constitutional arrangements.
- The Act recognises that the Queen is the Head of State of New Zealand, and that the Governor-General appointed by her is her representative in New Zealand. Each can, in general, exercise all the powers of the other.
- The Act also deals with the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
Checks and balances
New Zealand's Head of State is non-partisan and does not get involved in the business of government.
Various other checks and balances are in place to ensure New Zealand works as a fair and free democracy.
Parliament must approve all taxes, borrowing and expenditure of the national budget. This 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.
- The Governor-General, acting for the Queen, may call for fresh elections if no party or coalition can govern effectively. However, no Governor-General has ever had to test this power.
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 (declare unenforceable) laws that the Government has made.
Our judiciary is active in protecting the rights of individuals against the powers of the state.
Other limits placed on the government
The Treaty of Waitangi imposes certain limits on government action. For example, the law may sometimes accord a special recognition to Māori rights and interests such as those covered by Article 2 of the Treaty.
Some important organisations and officials have various degrees of independence to scrutinise what government is doing. These include the Ombudsman and the Auditor-General.
This is a very simplified overview. For more information see the website of the Governor-General.