Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) Casting light on New Zealand’s constitution

New book explains how our constitution works in practice.

New Zealand’s “anachronistic” and unwritten constitution is under the spotlight in a new book co-written by Dr Dean Knight, associate professor at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Te Kauhanganui Tātai Ture—Faculty of Law.

The Constitution of New Zealand: A Contextual Analysis is written jointly by Dr Knight and Justice Matthew Palmer, former dean of the Faculty of Law and now a High Court judge. It forms part of a series produced by Bloomsbury Publishing about constitutional systems of the world.

Dr Knight says New Zealand’s constitution stands out as one of the few that remains largely unwritten.

“Explaining our constitution needs a different and more contextual approach. Its piecemeal nature means it can only really be understood by looking at how it works in reality.

“It’s also important for our constitutional eco-system to be brought to life in a vivid and accessible way so that as many New Zealanders as possible understand it.”

Aotearoa New Zealand’s constitution is characterised by a “charming set of anachronistic contrasts”, the book explains.

“It is ‘unwritten’ but much found in various written sources. It is built on a network of Westminster constitutional conventions but generously tailored to local conditions. It is proudly independent, yet perhaps a purer Westminster model than its British parent.

“Flexible and vulnerable, while oddly enduring, it looks to the centralised authority that comes with a strong executive, strict parliamentary sovereignty, and a unitary state.

“However, its populace insists on egalitarian values and representative democracy, with elections fiercely conducted nowadays under a system of proportional representation.

“The interests of indigenous Māori are protected largely through democratic majority rule. It has a reputation for upholding the rule of law, yet few institutional safeguards to ensure compliance.”

Dr Knight says the book adopts a distinctive analytical approach through its focus on a lived, rather than textual, constitution.  

Our concern was a constitution that lives: the people who exercise and check constitutional power; the chorus of voices that create harmony and friction within the system; the attitudes that sustain and disrupt collective action by our governors; the way power is exercised in reality, compared to the formality of where and how it is reposed.

“As much as we could, we tried to reveal the constitutional culture that constrains power, overhear the constitutional dialogue between the branches of government, and expose the constitutional masquerade where there is a gap between legal form and practical reality.”

The book was launched on 15 November at the Wharewaka Function Centre in Wellington by Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro.
Dame Cindy said it was “fascinating and instructive” to see the country’s constitutional arrangements described and analysed.

“There is so much more that needs to be done to help New Zealanders understand these matters.

Our constitutional arrangements may be a black box to many, but they do affect the lives of every person living in our country and, given some of the challenges we have seen democracies facing across the globe, we must do even more to preserve those elements which make us stronger.

“In New Zealand, our constitutional evolution has reflected key cultural values commonly ascribed to New Zealanders: egalitarianism, faith in authority, fairness and pragmatism,” she said.