New Zealand needs a new written Constitution


The New Zealand Constitution, like that of the United Kingdom, is not written down in one place. In a forthcoming book former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dr Andrew Butler will argue that this is not good enough and propose their own draft Constitution. In this post Sir Geoffrey Palmer explains why he believes that a single written Constitution for New Zealand is needed and elaborates on some of the detail of what he and Dr Butler are proposing.

The existing New Zealand Constitution derives from the Westminster model. In 1852 the Imperial Parliament enacted the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852. Five years later responsible government was conceded. The 1852 Act lasted until 1986 when New Zealand enacted the Constitution Act 1986. By that time it was reduced to a rump of its former self, with only 12 provisions and these offered few clues on how the New Zealand government actually worked. Nevertheless, over the years on a couple of occasions statutory enactments were held in the courts to be inconsistent with the 1852 Act. The 1986 Act was followed by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 that had some influence on the architecture of the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Act 1998. Despite these efforts, most of the New Zealand Constitution, like that of the United Kingdom, is not written down in one place the way most constitutions are.

There have been significant constitutional reforms in New Zealand, beginning with the establishment of the Office of Ombudsman in 1962. Since then the following developments have occurred:

  • The Official Information Act 1982
  • The Constitution Act 1986, which you may think sounds like a Constitution. It sets out the main features of the system. But it is skeletal and does not look like a written Constitution as that term is generally understood
  • The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990
  • Various parliamentary reforms
  • The introduction of the Mixed-member proportional system of electing members of parliament based on the German model
  • Development of measures to recognise the Treaty of Waitangi between Māori and the Crown and to provide for redress of grievances suffered by New Zealand’s indigenous people.

New Zealanders think little about their constitutional arrangements and hardly ever discuss them. There is good reason for this. They cannot find their Constitution. It is not in one place. It is obscure in many respects. The current New Zealand Constitution consists of a hodge-podge of rules, some legally binding, others not. It is formed by a jumble of statutes, some New Zealand ones and some very old English ones; a plethora of obscure conventions, letters patent and manuals, and a raft of decisions of the courts.

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