Story: Self-government and independence

Page 7. Towards a republic?

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Following the 1947 adoption of the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand citizenship came into existence under the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948. Some ambiguity remained: holders of New Zealand citizenship remained ‘British subjects’ and in the title of the act ‘British Nationality’ came first and ‘New Zealand Citizenship’ came second. In subsequent years three further steps were taken to confirm New Zealand’s sovereignty.

Two national anthems

New Zealand’s unique position in having two national anthems suggests continuing ambivalence about independence from Britain. The first is ‘God save the King’ (the same as Britain’s). The second is ‘God defend New Zealand’. The latter was penned by Thomas Bracken and put to music by J. J. Woods in the 1870s. But it was not until 1977 that it became a second national anthem.

Monarch of New Zealand

The British Royal Titles Act 1953 enabled each Dominion to have their own title for the monarch. In New Zealand, Queen Elizabeth II became queen of ‘the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and her other realms’. In 1974 the reference to Britain was dropped and the title became simply monarch ‘of New Zealand and her other Realms.’ John Marshall, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, when supporting the 1974 bill in Parliament, said Britain’s recent entry into the ‘European Economic Community served to highlight the separate and independent status of New Zealand’.1

Full legal independence

Full legal independence was achieved when Parliament legislated to define its own authority in the Constitution Act 1986. This also repealed the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, the 1947 amendment act and the Statute of Westminster. The General Assembly, first authorised in 1852, was now titled ‘Parliament’, consisting of the governor-general and House of Representatives – as in the 1852 act, but now authorised by the new statute.

Symbolic inkpot

Not all symbolic links with the Privy Council were severed with the creation of the Supreme Court. When the new court building opened in January 2010, it housed a piece of ‘queen’s silver’ – a 17th century inkpot – given by the Privy Council. It was displayed alongside an old waka huia (treasure box) provided by the national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa.

Creation of Supreme Court

A logical judicial landmark was passed when the Judicial Committee of Britain’s Privy Council ceased to be New Zealand’s final court of appeal. The Supreme Court Act 2003 created a new final appeals court: the Supreme Court. It meant that last appeals would be heard by New Zealand judges in a measure designed, according to Attorney-General Margaret Wilson, ‘to recognise that New Zealand is an independent nation with its own history and tradition … At long last New Zealand will be in control of its own legal destiny.’2.The move was not welcomed by all. Some Māori saw the Privy Council as a more direct extension of Crown authority and a guarantor of the Treaty of Waitangi. A few business leaders thought that the council provided a valuable benchmark for New Zealand common law decisions.


In the first decade of the 21st century New Zealand’s executive, legislature and judiciary all stood separate from the UK. Of the imperial legacy only the shared monarch remained as head of state. Even so, New Zealand retained strong symbolic links with Britain: ‘God save the Queen’ remained an official national anthem along with ‘God defend New Zealand’, the Union Jack featured in a corner of the national flag, and the queen’s image was on the $20 note and all coins.

In the early 21st century the idea of New Zealand becoming a republic still seemed some way off. Many saw it as a logical next step if the nation was to be completely independent. On 26 September 2007, the centennial of the first Dominion Day, Prime Minister Helen Clark opened a celebratory seminar she had convened in Parliament’s former Legislative Council chamber by suggesting that a century on they might be marking ‘Republic Day’.

  1. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 1974, 389 (4 Feb.) pp. 1–3 Back
  2. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 2003, 612 (7 Oct), p. 8900. Back
How to cite this page:

W. David McIntyre, 'Self-government and independence - Towards a republic?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by W. David McIntyre, published 20 Jun 2012