The sovereign monarch is the head of state of New Zealand. She or he 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, who 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 taking significant actions or making policy decisions which will 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.
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% of voters at a referendum. They are contained in the Electoral Act 1993 (and 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 for the population of general electorates
- the minimum voting age of 18
- the method of secret voting.
The Electoral Act 1993 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 21st century.
Parliament consists of the House of Representatives and the sovereign. Parliament has the supreme power to make or unmake law, including:
- primary legislation and regulations
- legislation that turns international obligations into New Zealand law
- appropriations (parliamentary votes of money) that authorise expenditure, taxation or borrowing.
Parliament also makes and unmakes governments.
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 (a minister) 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 (an official) 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 with regard to 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.