Independence, not now

New Zealand was the last of the “British Dominions” to adopt the Statute of Westminster, in 1947. The reasons why still echo to this day, and speak to our insecurities and particular circumstances post World War II. The adoption of the Statute two years after the end of the war was legally a constitutional tidy-up, yet is seen as a step towards independence, and initated the split of the British Crown, which declared sovereignty over New Zealand in 1840, to the “New Zealand Crown” created following a series of constitutional actions that started with the Statute of Westminster’s adoption.

The Statute of Westminster was passed by the UK’s parliament in 1931, following a successful campaign by the Irish Free State, Canada and South Africa for more control over their own internal and international affairs. A growth in post World War I patriotism, as well as the practical realities of government in each ot those countries led to first the Balfour Declaration of 1926 which declared the self-governing “dominions” as:

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.

The Statute of Westminster simply put into law what was already in practice, and as a result it applied to the Irish Free State, Canada and South Africa immediately. New Zealand, along with Australia, actively and successfully lobbied for the Statute not to apply to unless specifically adopted into our law. Section 10 of the Statute of Westminster made it clear that it did not apply to Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland (now a province of Canada) unless each parliament adopted it.

This was part of New Zealand’s overall campaign to express our reluctance and even regret over the existence of the Statute of Westminster. Far from accepting the legislation as a constitutional tidy-up, New Zealand’s Prime Minister described the 1926 declaration as a “poisonous document” and then complained of "damned Statute of Westminster propaganda." The Statute languished for seventeen years when, in the twilight of the Peter Fraser-led First Labour Government it was adopted, essentially because it was simply a tidy-up.

Fraser’s government had signalled its intention to introduce legislation to adopt the Statute in 1944 (following Australia’s lead again, Australia having adopted the Statute in 1942), but the outcry over alleged disloyalty to Britain became so loud that the plan was quietly killed. Instead, it was the opposition National Party that forced Fraser’s hand.

The future of the Legislative Council - New Zealand’s old upper house - had been up in the air since of party government in 1891. Back then, the newly-formed Liberal Party clashed with the Governor over appointments to the Legislative Council that had been stacked against the incoming government. By the 1940s it had become redundant and the newly-formed National Party campaigned for its abolition and eventual replacement.

Ever since democratic government was established in New Zealand by the 1852 Constitution Act - an Act of Britain’s parliament - a number of changes had been made by New Zealand’s parliament to our constitutional structure, especially regarding how MPs were elected. However, certain provisions were restricted to only allow Britain’s parliament to amend them - including the Legislative Council. To gain the power to abolish the Legislative Council, we had to adopt the Statute of Westminster.

So once again, constitutional change in New Zealand came about due to practical constitutional factors. The Statute of Westminster was adopted in 1947 by New Zealand for this reason - not because of any desire for independence. In fact, the exact opposite. Fraser made it clear that the adoption of the Statute of Westminster would not create any division from the United Kingdom. Other speakers in the adopting debate were at pains to stress their loyalty to Britain.

This debate still echos through New Zealand to this day. Time and time again, constitutional change has occured simply for pratical reasons, usually prompted by outside factors. The most recent example of this was the New Zealand Supreme Court’s creation. The United Kingdom created its own Supreme Court and moved its best judges from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. New Zealand, which had debated abolishing appeals to the Privy Council for years (in fact it was mentioned in the Statute of Westminster debate), finally did so for practical reasons, although at the time very little attention was given to this.

The First Labour Government came to an end after its defeat at the 1949 general election. The Legislative Council did not last much longer - finally abolished in 1951. New Zealand remained staunchly loyal to the United Kingdom, despite the “winds of change” blowing throughout the former British Empire. The echos of the Statute of Westminster debate are still very much with us.