The Independent State of New Zealand Act 2019

It’s been 70 years since the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 came into force. The Act itself was passed by Ireland’s parliament in 1948, but came into force on Good Friday 1949. As far as legislation goes, it was actually a fairly short one. This is useful for New Zealand as far as examples of constitutional change goes.

Essentially, the Act repealed an earlier Act setting our the external relation powers of the Irish state, stated that Ireland was now described as the “Republic of Ireland” and stated the President of Ireland would excercise external authority on the advice of the Irish Government.

The greater impact was in making the President the head of state unambiguosly, and ending the Republic of Ireland’s membership of the then British Commonwealth. At that stage, republics were not able to be members of the Commonwealth. In fact, the Act and the break-up of the British Raj led to the membership rules and the name of the Commonwealth changing. From 1949 on, republics have been allowed to be members of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Is it time for an “Independent State of New Zealand Act 2019”? It’s been long established by constitutional law experts that our Parliament could simply pass an Act abolishing the monarchy and replacing it with our own head of state. It’s also been long accepted that to do so without a public referendum would not be ideal, or acceptable.

The important thing to note with the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 is that it was the last in a line of enactments that brought about the change. Ireland adopted a new Constitution in 1937 by referendum, which had established the President of Ireland. The first president was elected in 1938, although there is still some debate as to whether at that stage the President of Ireland was the actual head of state, as the King was “King of Ireland” and handled all external relations.

The lesson for New Zealand - and certainly our constitutional history - is that change is incremental and often not a big bang.