Independence of New Zealand

The independence of New Zealand is a matter of continued academic and social debate. New Zealand has no fixed date of independence; instead, independence came about as a result of New Zealand's evolving constitutional status. New Zealand evolved as one of the British Dominions, colonies within the British Empire which gradually established progressively greater degrees of self-rule. They were always anomalous in international terms, and the attempt to define a "date of independence" in the sense that one can be given for most ex-colonies is not really meaningful. However, a consideration of possible dates can help understanding of the processes of change.


The principles behind the independence of New Zealand began before New Zealand even became a British colony in 1840. There had been minor rebellions in Canada, and in order to avoid making the mistakes which had led to the American revolution, Lord Durham was commissioned to make a report on the government of colonies which contained a substantial British population. The principles of self government within the Empire were laid down in the Durham Report and first put into operation in Nova Scotia in 1848. Canada, New Zealand, and the Australian colonies very soon followed suit. The British Parliament passed the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 to grant the colony's settlers the right to self-governance, only 12 years (in 1853) after the founding of the colony. New Zealand was therefore to all intents and purposes independent in domestic matters from its earliest days as a British colony.

The first major step towards nationhood on the international stage came in 1919 when New Zealand was given a seat in the newly founded League of Nations. In 1926 the Balfour Declaration declared Britain's Dominions as "equal in status", followed by the creation of the legal basis of independence, established by the Statute of Westminster 1931 which came about mainly at the behest of nationalist elements in South Africa and the Irish Free State. However, Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland were hostile towards this development, and the statute was not adopted in New Zealand until 1947. Irrespective of any legal developments, some New Zealanders still perceived themselves as a distinctive outlying branch of the United Kingdom until at least the 1970s. This attitude began to change when the United Kingdom joined the European Community in 1973 and abrogated its preferential trade agreements with New Zealand, and gradual nationality and societial changes further eroded the relationship. Thus, New Zealand has no single date of official independence. The concept of a national Independence Day does not exist in New Zealand.


Māori Declaration of Independence (1835)

On 28 October 1835, the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand was signed by the United Tribes of New Zealand, a loose confederation of Māori tribes from the far north of New Zealand organised by British resident James Busby. This document recognised Māori independence, and most pakeha academics agree this declaration was abrogated five years later by the Treaty of Waitangi, which ceded the independence (recognised by King William IV of the United Kingdom) of Māori to the British Crown.

Colonisation: The Treaty of Waitangi

Irishman, Captain William Hobson was New Zealand's first British-appointed Governor (originally Lieutenant-Governor) 1840–1842.

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840 marked the beginning of organised British colonisation of New Zealand. New Zealand was originally a sub-colony of the Colony of New South Wales, but in 1841 it was created as the Colony of New Zealand. Waitangi Day is thus celebrated as New Zealand's national day. Some constitutional lawyers, such as Moana Jackson, have argued that the Treaty did not cede total sovereignty of New Zealand to the British Crown, and argue that the Treaty intended to protect tino rangatiratanga or the absolute independence of Māori. Others dispute this, pointing to the use of the term kawanatanga (governorship) in the Treaty deducts from rangatiratanga, equating the term to Māori control of Māori assets.

New Zealand became a self-governing colony in 1853 following the passage of the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, which established responsible government in the colony. The New Zealand Parliament was bound by a number of Acts of the British Parliament, such as the Colonial Laws Validity Act and the Colonial Navy Defence Act 1865 which led to the creation of the Flag of New Zealand in 1869. New Zealand participated in the 1891 National Australian Convention in Sydney to consider the Federation of the Australian and New Zealand colonies. The Convention agreed to four principles including the creation of a Federated army and navy. Interest in the proposed Australian Federation faded and New Zealand did not send a delegation to the 1897 National Australian Convention.[1]


Lord Plunket declaring New Zealand a Dominion, 26 September 1907

In 1901 New Zealand did not ratify the Australian Constitution, and did not partake in the Federation of Australia. Prime Minister Joseph Ward determined that New Zealand should become a dominion, and parliament passed a resolution to that effect.[2] On 26 September 1907 the United Kingdom granted New Zealand (along with Newfoundland, which later became a part of Canada) "Dominion" status within the British Empire. New Zealand became known as the Dominion of New Zealand. The date was declared Dominion Day, but never reached any popularity as a day of independence. As a potential national day, Dominion Day never possessed any emotional appeal, although the term "Dominion" was popular. The Dominion newspaper began on Dominion Day, 1907. To regard it as a national independence day is incorrect, the change to dominion status was seen as "purely cosmetic."[2]

Despite this new status, there was some apprehension in 1919 when Prime Minister Bill Massey signed the Treaty of Versailles (giving New Zealand membership of the League of Nations), which indicated that New Zealand did have a degree of control over its foreign affairs. Massey was unequivocally an Imperialist, and fervently supported the British Empire.

In 1926, the Balfour Declaration declared that the British Dominions were equal, which had the effect of granting New Zealand control over its own foreign policy and military. The legislation required to effect this change, the Statute of Westminster 1931 was not adopted by New Zealand until some 16 years later. By 1939, the Governor-General ceased to be Britain's High Commissioner to New Zealand, instead an independent officer was appointed.

Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations

New Zealand signed the Treaty of Versailles and joined the League of Nations on 10 January 1920. Under International Law only a sovereign state can sign an international treaty – although New Zealand and the other Dominions signed as part of a "British Empire Delegation", and their names were indented in a list following that of Britain. The significance of the indentation was perhaps deliberately left unclear. The Treaty of Versailles offered membership to any "fully self-governing State, Dominion, or Colony" (Art. 1).

At the 1921 Imperial Conference British Prime Minister Lloyd George said: In recognition of their service and achievements during the war, the British Dominions have now been accepted fully into the comity of the nations of the whole world. They are signatories to the Treaty of Versailles and all other treaties of peace. They are members of the Assembly of the League of Nations, and their representatives have already attended meetings of the League. In other words, they have achieved full national status and they now stand beside the United Kingdom as equal partners in the dignities and responsibilities of the British Commonwealth. If there are any means by which that status can be rendered even more clear to their own communities and to the world at large, we shall be glad to have them put forward.

1926 Imperial Conference

King George V with his prime ministers at the Imperial Conference of 1926[† 1]

The Balfour Declaration (not to be confused with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 on Palestine) stated that "They [the Dominions] are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations." This was given legal effect by the Statute of Westminster 1931, which took effect when a given Dominion adopted it. The New Zealand government saw little urgency in the Act and delayed ratification, but for practical purposes 1926 had removed doubts about functional independence. At the opening of the 1930 Imperial Conference which drafted the Statute of Westminster, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, George Forbes stated: "New Zealand has not, in any great measure, been concerned with the recent development in the constitutional relations between the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. We have felt that at all times within recent years we have had ample scope for our national aspirations and ample freedom to carry out in their entirety such measures as have seemed to us desirable."[3]

While in 1914 Britain had decided on war for the whole Empire, in 1939 the Dominions made their own decisions. On 3 September 1939 New Zealand declared war on Germany. Declaration of war is normally regarded as an indication of sovereignty.

Statute of Westminster and Realm

At the outset of the Second World War, then Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, who had been critical of the British policy of appeasement, famously declared "Where [Britain] stands, we stand". Savage's successor, Peter Fraser, did not withdraw New Zealand troops from the Middle East in 1942 (unlike Australia), based on an assessment of New Zealand interests.[4]

In the 1944 Speech from the Throne the Governor-General announced the Fraser government's intention to adopt the Statute of Westminster.[5] However, there was a strong outcry by the opposition that this would weaken the British Empire in a time of need.[5] In 1946, Fraser instructed Government departments not to use the term "Dominion" any longer. Ironically, the failure of a private members bill to abolish the upper house by future Prime Minister Sidney Holland led to the adoption of the Statute of Westminster on 25 November 1947 with the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1947. This Act allowed passing of the New Zealand Constitution Amendment (Request and Consent) Act 1947, which granted the New Zealand Parliament full legislative powers, extra-territorial control of the New Zealand military forces and legally separated the New Zealand Crown from the British Crown. Thus, the New Zealand Monarchy is legally speaking independent of the British Monarchy.

An old New Zealand passport, 1949, bearing the title "British Passport" with "Dominion of New Zealand" underneath.

In 1948, the New Zealand Parliament passed the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948, altering the New Zealand nationality law. From 1 January 1949 all New Zealanders became New Zealand citizens. However, New Zealanders remained British subjects under New Zealand nationality law. Prior to this Act, migrants to New Zealand were classed as either "British" (mainly from the United Kingdom itself, but also other Commonwealth countries such as Australia, South Africa and India) or "Non-British".[6]

At a meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers in 1952 following the death of King George VI, it was agreed that the new Queen Elizabeth could have a royal style and title that was different in each dominion, but with an element common to all the dominions. New Zealand was thus an independent Commonwealth realm. In 1953 the New Zealand Parliament passed the Royal Style and Titles Act 1953, which formally recognised Queen Elizabeth II as the Queen of the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

In 1967, the first New Zealand-born Governor-General was appointed to the office, Lord Poritt (although Bernard Freyberg had previously been appointed in 1946; Freyberg had been born in the United Kingdom, but had lived in New Zealand from a young age). Porritt had also been resident in the United Kingdom for most of his life. The result was a greater focus on new overseas markets for New Zealand goods, mainly in the Asia-Pacific regions.

Some historians argue that a more significant move towards independence in a practical rather than legal sense came in 1973, when Britain joined the European Economic Community. The move, although anticipated, caused major economic structural adjustment issues, as the vast majority of New Zealand's exports went to Britain at that time.

The election of the nationalist Third Labour Government of Norman Kirk in 1972 brought further changes. Kirk's government introduced the Constitution Amendment Act 1973, which altered the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 so that the New Zealand Parliament could legislate extra-territorially. In Re Ashman the Supreme Court (since renamed the High Court, not to be confused with the contemporary Supreme Court) held that as a result of the 1973 Act, New Zealand had formally severed the New Zealand Crown from the British Crown.[7] The third Labour government also passed the Royal Titles Act 1974, changing the Queen's style and titles to be solely Queen of New Zealand. The nationality listed in New Zealand passports for the passport holder was changed in 1973 from "British Subject and New Zealand Citizen" to simply "New Zealand citizen".[8]

The Letters Patent of 1983 declared New Zealand as the "Realm of New Zealand", and updated the previous Letters Patent of 1917. The final practical constitutional link to Britain of New Zealand's Parliament was removed in 1986 by the Constitution Act 1986. This Act removed the residual power of the United Kingdom Parliament to legislate for New Zealand at its request and consent. The Imperial Laws Application Act 1988 clarified the application of British laws in New Zealand.

In 1996, New Zealand created its own Knighthood and Honours system. The Honours retained the Victoria Cross but ceased appointments to British Imperial Honours. The Queen's Honours were retained due to their nature as a personal gift and honour from the sovereign.

The fifth Labour government, led by Helen Clark, abolished appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and created the Supreme Court of New Zealand, a move further separating New Zealand from the United Kingdom, though there was provision for cases commenced before then to remain subject to the right of appeal.

Independence in the New Zealand flag debate

Current flag of New Zealand.

Although the current New Zealand flag remains a popular symbol of New Zealand, there are proposals from time to time for the New Zealand flag to be changed. Proponents of a new flag argued "[t]he current New Zealand Flag is too colonial and gives the impression that New Zealand is still a British colony and not an independent nation."[9]

Two referendums were held on the flag in 2015 and 2016, with a 56% majority voting to keep the current flag.

Independence in the republic debate

The British Monarchy still enjoys majority support for retention as the ceremonial and symbolic Head of State of New Zealand. Some New Zealanders see the monarchy of New Zealand to be a final hurdle to full independence.[10] In 1994, National Prime Minister Jim Bolger initiated a debate on the possibility of New Zealand becoming a republic. Bolger argued New Zealand needed to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region, and noted that such a move would be part of a desire to be "independent New Zealanders". Bolger later argued that he did not believe the "Queen of England" [sic] should be New Zealand's head of state. Bolger's republicanism met little public enthusiasm, however, and three of his own ministers disowned the policy.

Unlike Australia, where republican sentiment has been relatively strong, there has been little agitation for a New Zealand republic. Neither National or Labour, the two major political parties currently in parliament have a stated policy of creating a republic, although Peter Dunne's United Future does and some Members of Parliament have publicly expressed their personal support for a republic. Presently, Prime Minister John Key has said he is "not convinced [a republic] will be a big issue in the short term,"[11] but does believe that a republic is "inevitable."[12] There are two special-interest groups representing both sides of the debate in New Zealand and arguing the issue in the media from time to time: Monarchy New Zealand and New Zealand Republic.

The New Zealand public are generally in favour of the retention of the monarchy, with recent polls showing it to have between 50 and 60% support.[13] Polls indicate that many New Zealanders see the monarchy as being of little day-to-day relevance; a One News Colmar Brunton poll in 2002 found that 58% of the population believed the monarchy has little or no relevance to their lives.[14] National Business Review poll in 2004 found 57% of respondents believed New Zealand would become a republic "in the future".[15]

However, the institution still enjoys the support of many New Zealanders, particularly those born before the Second World War. Others show a majority of younger New Zealanders support a republic.[16] Support for becoming a republic is still the view of around a third to 40% of the population.[16] On 21 April 2008, the republican movement released a poll of New Zealanders showing 43% support the monarchy should Prince Charles become King of New Zealand, and 41% support a republic under the same scenario.[17] A poll by the New Zealand Herald in January 2010, before a visit by Prince William to the country found 33.3% wanted the Prince of Wales to be the next monarch, with 30.2% favouring Prince William. 29.4% of respondents preferred a republic in the event the Queen died or abdicated.[18]

On 14 October 2009, a bill put forward in parliament by Keith Locke to bring about a referendum on the monarchy was drawn from the ballot of members' bills and introduced into the House of Representatives.[19] It was presumed that this bill would be binding in New Zealand only, having no effect in the Cook Islands or Niue.[20] The bill was defeated on 21 April 2010 with a vote of 68–53 with one abstention.[21]

See also




  1. Neville Meaney, The Search for Security in the Pacific, 1901-1914, Sydney University Press, 1976.
  2. 1 2 "Dominion Day - From colony to dominion". 20 December 2012. Retrieved 10 March 2013.
  3. Harshan Kumarasingham (2010). Onward with Executive Power - Lessons from New Zealand 1947 - 1957. Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. ISBN 978-1-877347-37-5.
  4. Why they came: US forces in New Zealand
  5. 1 2 Michael Bassett (2001). Tomorrow Comes the Song A Life of Peter Fraser. Penguin Books.
  6. The New Zealand Historical Atlas, Plate 24 Keeping the Dominion British
  7. "Re Ashman, 2 NZLR 224". 1976.
  8. Walrond, Carl (2007-04-13), "Kiwis overseas - Staying in Britain", Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,, retrieved 2010-01-05
  9. John Moody. "Past Attempts to Change New Zealand's Flag" (PDF). The XIX International Congress of Vexillology.
  10. "Anna Davidson, Speech to Youth Parliament, 1999".
  11. "Strong backing for MMP referendum". TVNZ. 23 June 2008. Retrieved 13 July 2008.
  12. Smith, Peter (1 September 2008), "Key knocking on door of government", Financial Times, retrieved 4 September 2008
  13. NZES data, 1990 - 2008, New Zealand Election Study, retrieved 31 January 2010
  14. "NZ premier denies royal snub". BBC. 23 February 2002. Retrieved 16 June 2008.
  15. "New Zealanders Resigned to Their Fate". National Business Review. 17 August 2004.
  16. 1 2 Kiwis Divided Over Monarchy (PDF), Research NZ, 23 December 2008, retrieved 31 January 2010
  17. "Opinion divided on NZ becoming republic". TV3. 21 April 2008. Retrieved 21 April 2008.
  18. Kara Segedin (19 January 2010). "Charles and William evens for throne". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
  19. House of Representatives (15 October 2009), Order Paper, 71, Queen's Printer for New Zealand
  20. Townend, Andrew (2003). "The Strange Death of the Realm of New Zealand: The Implications of a New Zealand Republic for the Cook Islands and Niue". Victoria University of Wellington Law Review. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington (34). Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  21. "Head of State Referenda Bill — First Reading". Hansard. 21 April 2010.

External links

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