The Glossary contains explanations for many words and phrases that you will discover within the site, and may hear during conversations. If you find any words or phrases that you are unsure about, that aren't listed here, we'll endeavour to add them to this Glossary.

Glossary of Constitutional Terms



Act of Parliament

A law made by Parliament and given assent by the Governor-General.

Ad hoc

For a particular purpose only, e.g. an ad hoc select committee to deal with a specific issue.


Agree and act in accordance with a policy or law, e.g. New Zealand adopted Magna Carta through the Imperial Laws Application Act 1988.


Allocation of public money to a specific purpose.


Final step in Parliament’s process of making law which is carried out by the Governor-General. Also known as royal assent.


The Attorney-General is a member of the Government. He or she is the senior law officer of the Crown, with principal responsibility for the Government’s administration of the law.


Two Houses of Parliament, e.g. Britain’s House of Commons and House of Lords.


Laws that are introduced to Parliament but have not yet become Acts.

Binding referendum

Opportunity for the public to decide on a particular issue, e.g. the MMP referendum at the 2011 General Election.

Branches of state

(see also institutions of state)

The different bodies that make up the state. In New Zealand this includes the head of state, the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.


Rule made by a local body or council which applies in that region.


Collective group of decision makers within the Government, made up of the Prime Minister and Ministers.

Citizens-initiated referendum

Opportunity for the public to vote on specific issues. Requires 10% of enrolled voters to sign the petition calling for a vote. The results are not generally binding on the Government.

Civil & political rights

The rights of citizens to freedom and equality. These rights include freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and the right to vote and take part in political life. Central to the proper functioning of a democratic society.

Common law

Collection of decisions from the Courts that develop the law. Creates precedents that other decisions must follow.


The set of rules about how we are governed and how we live together as a country.

Constitutional conventions

Practices that develop over time in order to fill certain gaps in constitutional arrangements, but are not always written down in the law, e.g. that the head of state only acts on advice from Ministers.

Constitutional monarchy

The monarch is the head of state but only acts on the advice of Ministers and cannot make law without Parliament.

Crown, the

In New Zealand, a term often used to symbolise the state as a whole.

Declaration of inconsistency

Formal power allowing a Judge to say that one piece of legislation is inconsistent with another.

Dissolution of Parliament

The end of the Parliamentary term before a General Election. The Governor-General is formally responsible for dissolving Parliament, on advice from the Prime Minister.

Entrenched legislation

Laws which are more difficult to change than others. This could mean a large majority in the legislature or direct public participation to enact change e.g. a 75% majority in Parliament or more than 50% of voters in a referendum.

Executive, the

One of three branches of state and includes the Prime Minister and Ministers. Sets New Zealand’s policy direction, proposes laws to Parliament by introducing Bills and implements the laws Parliament passes.

Federal countries

Rather than having provincial governments which effectively administer services for the central government, the provincial governments have similar lawmaking powers, e.g. Australia. Boundaries of legal authority between central government and regions or provinces are generally constitutionally defined.

Fixed election date

Where the date of the General Election is fixed in law, meaning that an early election cannot be called.

General Election

Voters’ opportunity to elect members of Parliament. In New Zealand one must be held every three years, but can be held earlier.


The body or system through which a country is governed. In New Zealand, government consists of the Prime Minister and Ministers. They set New Zealand’s policy direction, propose laws to Parliament by introducing Bills and implement the laws Parliament passes.


Representative of the head of state.

Head of state

The chief public representative of a country, though their functions will differ between countries. New Zealand’s head of state is the Queen.

House of Representatives

The single legislative chamber in New Zealand consisting of a minimum of 120 democratically elected members of Parliament.

Institutions of the state

(see also branches of state)

The different bodies that make up the state. In New Zealand this includes the head of state, the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.

Judicial review

A review that takes place in the High Court as to whether a decision made by a public authority has been made properly. In jurisdictions with supreme law, judges may also review legislation and strike it down if it is inconsistent with supreme law provisions.

Judiciary, the

A collective term for the Judges who work in the Courts.


The limits within which legal authority exists. May refer to territory which the state controls or to the matters which the Courts have the ability to make decisions on.


The study, philosophy and theory of the law.


The limits on whether something can or cannot be decided on by the Courts.


Guardianship of the land and resources based on Māori cultural practices and traditional knowledge.


Laws that have been passed by Parliament or under the authority of Parliament. The main sorts of legislation are Acts and regulations. Can also describe laws that Parliament is still considering.

Legislature, the

An assembly with the power to make laws for the country, e.g. New Zealand’s legislature is Parliament which consists of the House of Representatives plus the monarch.

Magna Carta

A charter forced upon King John of England in the 13th century that placed limits on the power of the ruler, for example that no freeman could be imprisoned and punished without trial by their peers.

Māori wards

If there is voter support, a local authority can divide its region into one or more areas called Māori wards. Māori then have an option to vote for Māori council members representing a ward.

Official information

Information held by institutions and officers of the state as well as local authorities. Can be requested by members of the public through the Official Information Act 1982.


In New Zealand, Parliament consists of the House of Representatives (members of Parliament) and the monarch. Parliament makes laws and monitors the Government.

Parliamentary supremacy/parliamentary sovereignty

The term used to explain that Parliament is the most powerful law-making authority in the state. Parliament can make laws about anything and can revoke and replace existing law.

Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi

Expressions of the intent of the Treaty of Waitangi, often seen as underlying mutual obligations between the parties – Māori and the Crown. Defined by the Waitangi Tribunal and the Courts.

Proportional representation

Parties are represented in Parliament at a level roughly equivalent to their popular vote in an election.


Full exclusive undisturbed possession (Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, Schedule 1)


Detailed laws that Parliament empowers the Government to make. They can be scrutinised by Parliament and reviewed by the Courts.

Responsible government

Government’s actions are scrutinised and debated by Parliament to hold them to account. This is essential for democratic legitimacy.

Rule of law

Fundamental principle that all members of society, including the government, obey the law.

Semi-fixed election date

Where the date of the General Election is established in law, but there are some exceptions allowing for early elections, e.g. in the case of a Government losing a vote of confidence.

Separation of powers

The division of power between the main decision making institutions. In New Zealand this is Parliament, the Executive and the Courts. Each has separate and independent powers which are vital to the functioning of responsible government.

Social, economic and cultural rights

Rights that give people social and economic security, e.g. rights to an adequate standard of living, to work, to social security, to health, and to education. Generally require the state to act to provide the basis for these rights.

Sovereign, the

A person, collection of people or institution of state possessing the supreme public power. In New Zealand the sovereign is formally the Queen, although Parliament exercises power on her behalf.


Supreme and independent authority to govern held by a state, e.g. New Zealand is a sovereign state. Can also refer to the supreme authority within a state, e.g. the sovereignty of Parliament in New Zealand.

Standing Orders of the House

The rules by which Parliament conducts itself day-to-day. For instance, the Standing Orders govern the select committee procedure and the hours that it sits.

State, the

The combination of the Legislature (Parliament), the Government (Prime Minister, Ministers and Government Departments) and the Courts.


Usually refers to a law passed by Parliament.

Striking down legislation

Ability for the Courts to invalidate legislation that is inconsistent with supreme law.

Subordinate legislation

More detailed laws that are made by public bodies other than Parliament, e.g. regulations made by the Executive. These can be scrutinized by Parliament and reviewed by the Courts.

Sunset clause

An expiry date on legislation or parts of legislation.

Supply and Confidence

Government needs Parliament’s permission to spend money. Requires the confidence and support of a majority in Parliament. Without that support, government would be unstable.

Supreme law

A law that has a higher legal status than other laws, meaning that Parliament must only pass laws that comply with the supreme law. The Courts would be able to strike down inconsistent law. New Zealand has no supreme law.

Tangata whenua

People of the land.

Term of Parliament

The length of time that Parliament sits before a General Election must be held. In New Zealand the term of Parliament is a maximum of three years.

Territorial authorities

Local government bodies, e.g. local councils.

Tikanga Māori

Māori customs and traditions.


Legislation or government action that is inconsistent with constitutional principles.


One House of Parliament, e.g. New Zealand’s House of Representatives.

Unitary state

There are no separate states within a country which can make laws for themselves. This is the opposite of a federal system. New Zealand is a unitary state.

Unwritten constitution

A constitution which is not in a single document. Lots of different elements set the constitutional rules, e.g. different statutes, court decisions, conventions and international treaties.

Vote of no confidence

Where a majority of MPs in Parliament vote that they no longer support the Government.

Westminster system

Democratic system of government named after the United Kingdom’s Palace of Westminster. Some aspects include that the head of state and head of government are separate, Parliament is elected, Ministers must be MPs, and the concentration of Executive power in the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Written constitution

Usually refers to a single document called “the Constitution” which sets the rules for how government operates and how people live together as a country, e.g. the Constitution of the United States.