The sovereign monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state of New Zealand. She is represented in New Zealand by the governor-general, who is appointed on the advice of the prime minister. The sovereign, or the governor-general, exercises almost all their powers on the basis of advice from the prime minister and the other ministers. Ministers must be members of Parliament.
A government must have the confidence of a majority of the members of the House of Representatives in order to advise the governor-general and sovereign. If a government loses that confidence it must operate as a ‘caretaker government’ until a new government is formed. A caretaker government should avoid significant actions or policy decisions which have a long-term effect.
Elections must be held at least every three years and ‘snap elections’ (elections called earlier than expected) may be called. Since 1996 elections have been run on the basis of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system.
Official information is available to the public unless there is good reason why it should be withheld. This regime is policed by the ombudsman. The news media and commentators on the internet are able to disseminate and analyse news of political events, and policy and legal issues.
Only six provisions in New Zealand law are constitutionally entrenched, meaning they can only be changed by a vote of more than 75% of the House of Representatives or more than 50% at a referendum. They are contained in the Electoral Act 1993 (an one in the Constitution Act 1986) and relate to:
- the term of Parliament
- the Representation Commission (a committee that determines electoral boundaries)
- the division of New Zealand into general electorates
- the 5% margin of adjustment of the size of general electorates
- the minimum voting age of 18
- the method of secret voting.
The Electoral Act 1993 is the only New Zealand statute which entrenches provisions of New Zealand law. The division of New Zealand into general electorates is entrenched but the Māori electorates are not. Entrenching the Māori seats was a policy of the Māori Party in the early 2000s.
Parliament consists of the House of Representatives and the sovereign. Parliament has the supreme power to make or unmake any law whatever, including:
- any primary legislation and regulations
- legislation that turns international obligations into New Zealand law
- appropriations (parliamentary votes of money) that authorise expenditure, taxation law or borrowing.
Parliament also makes and unmakes governments themselves.
The House of Representatives has control of, and enforces, its own procedures, though in so doing it should observe the rights and freedoms in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. The attorney general must draw the attention of the House of Representatives to provisions of draft legislation that may unjustifiably override those rights and freedoms.
The remuneration (pay) of members of Parliament is determined independently by the Remuneration Authority.
The executive branch of government ‘executes’ laws and policies. It is headed by cabinet, which collectively directs the powers of individual ministers to instruct politically neutral public servants. Cabinet directs the armed forces and police, except in relation to specific operational matters, and conducts foreign relations, including having the power to enter into international obligations. The solicitor general supervises indictable (serious) prosecutions.
The government’s powers are limited only by the need to retain the confidence of the House of Representatives and the need to act within the law, including the law of parliamentary appropriations of public money for expenditure.
The government is the primary initiator of proposals to Parliament for public expenditure or for changes to the law.