New Zealand became a British colony in the wake of the UK’s Reform Act 1832 – a big step towards democracy in Britain – and successor acts in 1835 and 1836. The settlements established by the New Zealand Company between 1840 and 1850 were loud in their demands for democratic representation. The first New Zealand Constitution Act was passed in 1846, partly in response to the settlers’ demands for representation. The act was suspended in 1848, partly because of concerns about representation, including the lack of Māori representation.
The first parliamentary election was held in 1853, and Parliament first sat in 1854. Its first two years of life were dominated by politicians’ ultimately successful demand that the governor be advised by ministers responsible to, and with the confidence of, the House of Representatives. The first significant exercise of Parliament’s power – to amend its own Constitution Act, in 1858 – related to electoral legislation.
The importance of voting continued to be emphasised in 19th-century New Zealand by the:
- extension of voting to holders of miner’s rights (licences) in 1860
- extension of voting to Māori men over 21 in 1867
- extension of voting to all males over 21 in 1879
- abolition of plural voting (where a person could vote in all electorates in which they owned or leased property) in 1889
- extension of voting to all adult women in 1893 – New Zealand was the first country in the world to do this.
The most significant constitutional change in 20th-century New Zealand was the introduction of proportional representation – the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in 1996. This changed constitutional dynamics by requiring political parties to negotiate with each other to form a government and to pass legislation, as it became very difficult for one party to gain a majority of seats in Parliament.
Continuing reliance on representative democracy has gone hand in hand with faith in the power of an elected Parliament to rule New Zealand.
Parliament has consistently asserted its power against other contenders, such as:
- the UK, with New Zealand’s acquisition of the power to amend its own constitution in 1857, its rejection of joining Australia in 1900, acquisition of dominion status in 1907 and the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1947, which confirmed that the New Zealand Parliament alone made New Zealand laws
- Māori, with the wars, confiscation legislation and native land legislation of the 1860s
- the provincial governments, with their abolition in 1876
- the appointed upper house, the Legislative Council, which was abolished by act of Parliament in 1950
- the judiciary, with rejection of a 1985 white paper proposal to give the judiciary the power to strike down Parliament’s legislation.
Rights from God
In 1985 a white paper examined the proposed introduction of a bill of rights into New Zealand law. The parliamentary select committee dealing with the paper received 431 submissions, some of which contained unusual suggestions. Twenty-five of them stated that God should be acknowledged as the ultimate source of rights.
Westminster constitutional theory (based on the Westminster system of democratic parliamentary government in the UK) confers ‘sovereignty’ on Parliament – the power to make or unmake any law whatever. With one house of Parliament, no federalism (separate states), and no ability of the judiciary to strike down legislation, parliamentary sovereignty is stronger in New Zealand than in any other Westminster democracy. However, while Parliament is sovereign in New Zealand, for most of the 20th century its power was, in reality, exercised by the executive branch of government – the cabinet.