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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



The Position of the Governor

Just as the disposal of public land was a central issue of the relations between central and provincial governments, so the purchase of Maori land was the main factor determining relations between the colonial government and the British Government. Governor Gore Browne had reserved dealings with the Maoris as an “imperial subject” and in practice these dealings concerned the purchase of Maori land for later disposal to the settlers. The details of the story are confusing, but the basic issues were straightforward enough. The British Government was not confident that Maori interests would be respected if they were passed over to the responsibility of the self-governing settlers. On the other hand, the settler government could not for long agree that the acquisition of land for further settlement was a matter beyond their competence. When conflict of interest led to the Maori wars, the settlers were ready enough to seek the protection of the British Government and its imperial forces. There could be only one outcome: that Maori policy should become a matter falling clearly within the area of local responsibility and that the local Government should maintain its own internal security. It was predictable, too, if not so inevitable, that settler responsibility for Maori policy should usher in a period during which the Maori was effectively separated from much of his land. Some steps in the story are particularly significant: in 1862 the Crown monopoly of the purchase of Maori land was abolished; in the same year the establishment of a Land Court and the individualisation of Maori land titles provided a formal cover for blandishments of the land trader; in 1863 the General Assembly accepted responsibility for administering Maori affairs; in 1863, too, Grey initiated the policy of punishing the rebels by confiscating their land; and in 1865 a mass exodus of British troops began, the last regiment being withdrawn in 1870.

It had been clear during the crisis that a colonial Governor had two, often conflicting, responsibilities. He was the formal representative of the Crown, who might be expected to act on the advice of his New Zealand ministers; he was also an agent of the Imperial Government who was concerned to implement the views of that Government. The Colonial Office relinquished its control over Maori policy by requiring the Governor to act on advice within this sphere and in so doing recognised that it would no longer interfere in domestic questions. But there were still “domestic” areas in which the Governor could with some validity claim that he was not bound by the advice of New Zealand ministers. Thus the Crown was the “fountain of mercy” and its representative had, in his own discretion, exercised the power of pardon. In the 1870s the Canadians had successfully insisted that this was a power to be exercised on the advice of Canadian ministers, and in 1891 Prime Minister John Ballance was able to persuade his Governor that he should accept his Executive Council's advice to commute. It was Ballance, too, who successfully obtained a Colonial Office direction that the Governor, Lord Glasgow, was to accept Ballance's advice that 12 new appointments were to be made to the Legislative Council in order to ensure a Liberal majority in the Council.

The Governor still acted as agent for the United Kingdom Government in matters of external affairs, and it was not until the Imperial Conference of 1926 that it was recognised that the interests of the United Kingdom Government might more appropriately be represented in the Dominions by a High Commissioner, and the Governor-General left to represent the Crown. In this respect, as in others connected with the implementation of the resolutions of the 1926 Conference, New Zealand was slow to act, and it was not until 1939 that the first United Kingdom High Commissioner arrived in Wellington.

Today, the Governor-General occupies much the same constitutional position as does the Queen in the United Kingdom. He is required to act on the advice of ministers, although there is an uncertain area of discretion – seldom likely to be exercised – affecting the dissolution of Parliament and the choice of a Prime Minister.