Legislative process

New Zealand Legislative Council

The Legislative Council of New Zealand was the upper house of the New Zealand Parliament from 1853 until 1951. Unlike the lower house, the New Zealand House of Representatives, the Legislative Council was appointed rather than elected.


The Legislative Council was intended to act as a revising chamber, scrutinizing and amending bills which had been passed by the House of Representatives. It could not initiate bills, and was prohibited from amending money bills (pieces of legislation relating to finance and expenditure). The model for the Legislative Council's role was the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.


Appointment and tenure

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 provided for councillors to be appointed for life terms by the Governor. As the power of the Governor over New Zealand politics gradually decreased, it became the convention that appointments were made on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, essentially meaning that councillors were selected by the government of the day.

However, the life term of councillors meant that the Legislative Council always lagged behind the House of Representatives — Prime Ministers were frequently hampered in their activities by a Legislative Council appointed by their predecessors. In 1891, life membership was replaced by a seven-year term by the new Liberal Party government of John Ballance. Part of the Liberal Party's motivation was probably ideological, but part was undoubtedly political — Ballance's conservative predecessor, Harry Atkinson, had stacked the council with conservatives shortly before leaving office. Ballance had considerable difficulty in achieving his reform of the Council, with major clashes occurring between him and the Governor — Ballance's victory is seen as establishing an important precedent in the relationship between Governor and Prime Minister.

The structure of the Legislative Council was therefore similar to that of the Canadian Senate, which continues as an appointed upper house, although senators are appointed to life terms, and must retire at the age of 75.

Number of members

It was specified in the Constitution Act 1852 that the Council would consist of at least ten members. Although not actually a part of the Act, instructions were issued that the number of members should not exceed fifteen. One member was to be selected as Speaker of the Legislative Council, corresponding roughly to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives. A quorum of five members was established. The first appointments to the Legislative Council were made in 1853, when thirteen members took their seats. Gradually, the maximum number of members was raised, and the limit was eventually abolished. The Council would eventually reach a peak of fifty-four members.

Extent of representation

The Legislative Council was generally less representative of the New Zealand public than was the House of Representatives. Women were not eligible to serve as councillors until 1941, and only five women were ever appointed. The first took their seats in 1946. Māori were slightly better represented — the first Māori councillors were appointed in 1872, not long after the creation of the Māori seats in the House, and a convention was established that there should always be Māori representation on the Council.

Proposals for election

A number of proposals were made that the Legislative Council should be elected, not appointed. When responsible government had been granted at the beginning of the 2nd Parliament, the Governor, Thomas Gore Browne, was given sufficient authority to make the Legislative Council elective, but no action was taken. In 1914, a reform proposal to introduce a 42 or 43 member council elected by proportional representation for six years was introduced by the Liberals, for the Council was made, but postponed due to World War I. In 1920 it was no longer favoured by the Reform government then in power. But the 1914 Act "remained like a sword of Damocles suspended above the nominated upper house, available at will or whim to any succeeding government" (Jackson).


By the middle of the 20th century, the Legislative Council was increasingly being looked on as ineffectual and making little difference to the legislative process. The Legislative Council rarely criticised bills sent to it by the House, and many believed that it was now obsolete. Some favoured its reform, while others favoured its abolition, like the leader of the National Party, Sidney Holland who introduced a Private Member's Bill to abolish it.

In 1950, the National Party, now in government, passed the Legislative Council Abolition Act. To assist its passage into law, Holland appointed twenty members known as the 'suicide squad', to vote for their own abolition, just as the Australian state of Queensland had done to abolish its upper house in 1922. They included former MPs Harold Dickie and Garnet Mackley.

To encourage co-operation from other members, Holland also promised to use the money saved through abolition to set up a fund for retired members. A Statutes Revision Committee (now defunct) was established to carry out some of the scrutiny that the Legislative Council had been intended for. Although abolition was intended as an interim measure, no serious attempts were made to introduce a new second chamber, and Parliament has been unicameral since.

Unicameralists in New Zealand, like former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, argued that the country is a small and relatively homogeneous unitary state, and hence does not need the same arrangements as federal countries like Australia, although many smaller countries have retained bicameral systems. In addition, other political reforms in New Zealand such as the strengthening of the Select Committee system and the introduction of proportional representation are seen to provide adequate checks and balances.

Support for bicameralism is not completely absent, however, and there have been occasional proposals for a new upper house. The most recent was Jim Bolger's 1990 proposal for an elected Senate, an idea advanced partly as an alternative to New Zealand's electoral reform process.

Today, the Legislative Council Chamber is still used for the Speech from the Throne, as following the British tradition, the Sovereign may not enter the elected House. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod summons the House of Representatives to attend the State Opening of Parliament in the Legislative Council Chamber, where the Speech is read usually by the Governor-General. It is also used for some Select Committee meetings, as well as meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other official functions


  • The New Zealand Legislative Council: A Study of the Establishment, Failure and Abolition of an Upper House by W. K. Jackson (1972, University of Otago Press, Dunedin)
  • The Upper House in colonial New Zealand: A study of the Legislative Council of New Zealand in the period 1854 - 1887 by A. H. McLintock & G. A. Wood (1987, Government Printer, Wellington)

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