Constitution Act 1986

New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 Constitution Act, 1982 Australia Act 1986

Constitution Act 1986
Coat of arms of New Zealand.svg
New Zealand Parliament
Commenced1 January 1987
Amended by
1987, 1999, 2005
Related legislation
New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, the Electoral Act 1993
Status: Current legislation

The Constitution Act 1986[1] is an Act of the New Zealand Parliament that forms a major part of the constitution of New Zealand. It lays down the framework defining fundamental political principles of governance, and establishes the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state. It outlines the roles and duties of the Monarch, the Governor-General, ministers and judges. The Act repealed and replaced the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 and the Statute of Westminster, and removed the ability of the British Parliament to pass laws for New Zealand with the consent of the New Zealand Parliament.


1984 constitutional crisis

After the 1984 election there was an awkward transfer of power from the outgoing Third National government to the new Fourth Labour government in the midst of a financial crisis. Outgoing Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon was unwilling initially to accept instructions from incoming Prime Minister David Lange to devalue the currency. Ministers hurriedly constructed an argument to convince Muldoon to comply, drawing on the ethos of past transitions, as there was no convention.[2] Eventually he relented, but only after his own party caucus had threatened to replace him. A press statement was made on 17 June outlining the behaviour of outgoing governments, which was dubbed the "caretaker convention".[3]

An Officials Committee on Constitutional Reform was established by the Labour Government to review New Zealand's constitutional law, and the Constitution Act resulted from two reports by this Committee. The issue of the transfer of power from outgoing to incoming governments (and hence prime ministers) was not resolved by this Act, however, and the transfer of executive powers remains a matter of unwritten constitutional conventions.

Committee's report

The Officials Committee on Constitutional Reform reported back to Parliament during February 1986.[4] The Committee recommended that New Zealand adopt an Act to restate various constitutional provisions in a single enactment that would replace the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, thus "patriating" the Constitution Act to New Zealand.

The recommendation followed events in Canada and Australia, which had recently patriated their own constitutions. The Canadian Parliament began the process by passing the Constitution Act, 1982, and the British Parliament had renounced its right to pass legislation on behalf of Canada in the Canada Act 1982. The Australian Parliament passed the Australia Act 1986 in 1985, and the British Parliament would pass its own Act in February 1986. This left New Zealand as the only original Dominion from 1931 that still had residual constitutional links to the United Kingdom.

Parliamentary process

A Bill was introduced into Parliament during mid-1986, and was passed unanimously with the support of both the Labour and National parties on 13 December 1986. The act came into force on 1 January 1987. Amendments were passed during 1987 and 1999.


The Act repealed the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, renamed the General Assembly as the "Parliament of New Zealand" and ended the right of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for New Zealand.

Key provisions

The Act consists of four main parts:

Part I: The sovereign

Part II: The Executive

Part III: The Legislature

The House of Representatives


Parliament and public finance

Part IV: The Judiciary


Only section 17 of the Act, which says that the term of Parliament is "three years from the day fixed for the return of the writs issued for the last preceding general election of members of the House of Representatives, and no longer", is entrenched, by section 268 of the Electoral Act 1993. This provision requires that any amendment to section 17 can be made only by a majority of three-quarters of all votes cast in Parliament, or by a referendum. However, section 268 of the Electoral Act 1993 itself is not entrenched, which means that Parliament could repeal the section and then amend section 17 of the Act. Thus, the provision is said to only be "singly entrenched". Some academics, including Sir Geoffrey Palmer,[5] argue that the whole of the Constitution Act should be entrenched.

United Kingdom

The Act replaced the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, repealed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1947 and removed the ability of the United Kingdom to pass laws for New Zealand with the consent of New Zealand's Parliament.

Unlike Canada and Australia, New Zealand was able to patriate its constitution without British approval. The British Parliament had already passed the New Zealand Constitution Amendment Act 1947, as requested by the New Zealand Parliament in the New Zealand Constitution Amendment (Request and Consent) Act 1947. The British Act allowed the Parliament of New Zealand to amend any part of the 1852 Act, including the abolition of the Legislative Council in 1951. However, a number of sections of that Act had remained unamendable by the Parliament of New Zealand, including provisions establishing the Parliament itself.)

See also

Comparable acts


  1. ^ "Constitution Act 1986". Retrieved 5 May 2020.
  2. ^ McLay, Jim (2012). "1984 and all that" (PDF). New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law. 10: 267–287.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Reports of the Officials Committee on Constitutional Reform. Wellington: Department of Justice. February 1986.
  5. ^ Bridled Power by Sir Geoffrey and Matthew Palmer, Oxford University Press, 2001, page 22