GOVERNMENT – PARLIAMENT
Abolition of the Legislative Council
The Legislative Council Abolition Bill, introduced in August 1947 by the Leader of the Opposition, was defeated on second reading after doubts had been raised by the Attorney-General as to the competence of the New Zealand Parliament to give effect to such legislation. An Imperial Act of 1857 had given Parliament power to alter, suspend, or repeal any part of the Constitution Act except certain enumerated sections, one of which provided for a bicameral Parliament. The Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865 had given colonies in general the right to make laws altering their constitutions, provided such legislation was passed in the manner prescribed by law then in force in the colony. The question raised by the Attorney-General in 1947 was whether the Colonial Laws Validity Act gave New Zealand power to alter the sections of the Constitution entrenched by the Act of 1857. To resolve these doubts and to avoid any future questions about the legislative competence of Parliament the Government introduced, in September 1947, the Statute of Westminster Adoption Bill and the New Zealand Constitution Amendment (Request and Consent) Bill. Adoption of the Statute of Westminster, though it had no effect on New Zealand's competence to amend the entrenched clauses of the Constitution Act, did remove limitations on her power to legislate with extra-territorial effect and to make laws repugnant to British statutes. An Act of the Imperial Parliament was necessary to give New Zealand full power to amend the constitution, and the New Zealand Constitution Amendment (Request and Consent) Act requested and gave advance consent to such an Act. All the legislation involved was passed in 1947.
Following the defeat of the Opposition's Legislative Council Abolition Bill in the House, a Joint Constitutional Reform Committee was set up to consider the whole question of a second chamber. The Committee, after taking an enormous amount of conflicting evidence, was unable to agree on any recommendation. The Leader of the Opposition introduced another Legislative Council Abolition Bill in 1949, but it was opposed by the Labour Government and allowed to lapse. Evidently a severe strain might have been placed on party unity in a Legislative Council with a Labour majority asked to sign its own death warrant. In the election campaign of 1949 the National Party pledged itself to the abolition of the Council. National won the election and, a few days before Parliament met, announced 26 new appointments to the Council. The new councillors were quickly nicknamed the “suicide squad” by the Opposition. They all voted for the Abolition Bill which was introduced shortly after Parliament met. It had passed the House stages with only token opposition from Labour. It was passed by the Council with a majority of 10 votes.
The National Party had promised in the election campaign to consider, if it became the Government, alternative ways to safeguard the country from hasty legislation. A Constitutional Reform Committee was therefore set up to consider the question. The report was presented and considered in 1952. It recommended that a senate be created and empowered to delay legislation for two months. A total of 32 senators were to be nominated by the party leaders in the House in proportion to political strength. Senators were to hold their seats for the same period as members of the House of Representatives, except that they would continue to function as senators until the next senate had been appointed. They were to be eligible for reappointment. The Government took no action on the report.
The issue was forced on the Parliament elected in 1960. They inherited a petition, presented to the previous Parliament shortly before it was adjourned, praying for a written constitution for New Zealand and a second chamber of Parliament. The Petitions Committee held public hearings and reported that it had no recommendation to make. Members of the Committee from both sides of the House expressed their opposition to bicameralism in the debate on the report.
Neither of the two main parties in New Zealand now advocates the creation of a second chamber. Unicameralism, though it has not been without its critics, has produced only formal, politically insignificant, changes in the governmental process. While it cannot be said with any certainty that New Zealand will not revert to bicameralism, at present it seems highly improbable.