Story: Constitution

Page 8. The rise and bridling of executive power

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The executive branch

The executive branch of government, led by cabinet, executes or administers the law. It is the branch of government which does things, rather than passing or interpreting legislation (as Parliament and the courts do). The executive branch of government has always been strong in New Zealand, from the time when the governor was the only government.

Parliament took power from the executive in the 1850s. New Zealand’s cultural tendency to authoritarian government was evident in the 19th century, exemplified when Richard Seddon, popularly known as King Dick, was premier from 1893 to 1906. But, in the 20th-century, executive administrations came to dominate Parliament and were able to control the power of parliamentary sovereignty.

Executive paradise

The existence of a stable two-party system from the 1930s to the 1990s meant that a single political party always had majority support in the small House of Representatives. A handful of ministers could dominate cabinet, cabinet could dominate the government caucus, and the government caucus could dominate the House of Representatives.

Early examples of Parliament delegating huge power to the executive were:

  • the Public Safety Conservation Act 1932, which gave cabinet the power to proclaim a state of emergency and make any regulations necessary to prohibit any acts which would be ‘injurious to the public safety’. It was first utilised at the outbreak of war in 1939, and was used aggressively during the 1951 waterfront industrial dispute. The act was repealed in 1987
  • the Economic Stabilisation Act 1948, which gave cabinet the power to make regulations as appeared ‘necessary or expedient’ for the purpose of promoting the economic stability of New Zealand. This power was used to institute a nationwide freeze on wages and prices from 1982 to 1984. The act was repealed in 1987.

The nation seemed relatively comfortable with the extent of executive power in New Zealand for most of this period, but abuses during Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s 1975–84 administration led to a reaction.

Constitutional crisis

Immediately after the 1984 election the in-coming Labour government wanted to devalue the New Zealand currency on the advice of Treasury and the Reserve Bank – New Zealand was in the midst of a currency crisis at the time. However, the out-going prime minister, Robert Muldoon, was reluctant to act. This caused a constitutional crisis because Muldoon initially refused to act according to constitutional convention. Muldoon eventually agreed to devaluation. Government caretaker conventions were clarified in the wake of this incident.

Bridling executive power

In the 1980s and early 1990s a series of measures limited the scope of executive power:

  • the Official Information Act 1982 required the release of official information by the executive, in whatever document, unless there was good reason to withhold it
  • the recognition and reinterpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi in legislation from 1987 enabled enforcement of aspects of the treaty through the Waitangi Tribunal and the courts
  • the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 provided a means of upholding civil and political rights against the government through the courts
  • the Public Finance Act 1989 and the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1994 imposed financial disciplines on the accounting and reporting of public expenditure by the executive
  • an amendment to the Human Rights Act 1993 enabled legal claims to be brought that legislation was inconsistent with the right to freedom from discrimination.

Finally, and most significantly, the adoption of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, following a referendum in 1993, ended the reign of single-party majority governments in New Zealand. Since then parties have had to negotiate with other parties to form a government and to pass each piece of legislation.

How to cite this page:

Matthew Palmer, 'Constitution - The rise and bridling of executive power', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/constitution/page-8 (accessed 11 December 2018)

Story by Matthew Palmer, published 20 Jun 2012