Story: Cabinet government

Page 1. What is cabinet?

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Cabinet is the group of government ministers that meets regularly to deliberate on major political issues. Cabinet makes most decisions on matters of public policy, and devises and implements the government’s political strategy.

Cabinet meetings

Cabinet typically meets weekly, in the cabinet room on the 10th floor of the Beehive (the building that houses the executive wing of Parliament). The prime minister decides the cabinet agenda. Administrative support is provided by the secretary to the cabinet, and one or two staff of the Cabinet Office take minutes of the meeting and relay any urgent messages. Cabinet ministers are seated around an oval table in order of seniority, with the most junior minister sitting at the end of the table directly opposite the prime minister.

Ministerial authority

A warrant signed by the governor-general gives ministers their authority. Associate ministers and parliamentary under-secretaries do not have the same powers. Instead of a warrant they receive a letter of appointment.

Ministers in cabinet

Ministers in cabinet are the most senior ministers, including the prime minister, deputy prime minister and ministers holding important portfolios such as finance, health and education. For some portfolios there may also be associate ministers.

Ministers outside cabinet

There are also ministers outside cabinet. These ministers do not attend cabinet meetings unless asked to do so by the prime minister, but they have the same overall duties and responsibilities as their senior colleagues inside cabinet.

Parliamentary under-secretaries

Parliamentary under-secretaries are government MPs appointed to assist ministers with their portfolio duties. They do not have the powers of ministers, and are not members of the Executive Council.

Honourable or Right Honourable?

Ministers, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the governor-general, the chief justice and judges are all entitled to be addressed as ‘The Honourable’. Until 2000 senior members of the New Zealand executive and judiciary were entitled to be addressed as ‘The Right Honourable’ as a consequence of being appointed to the UK Privy Council. When appointments to the Privy Council were discontinued, this title fell into disuse. However, in 2010 Queen Elizabeth II approved the use of ‘The Right Honourable’ by current and future prime ministers, governors-general, speakers and chief justices as recognition of their service.

The Executive Council

All ministers are members of the Executive Council, whether or not they are members of cabinet. The Executive Council is the highest formal institution of government in New Zealand, and is the means by which the government provides collective and formal advice to the governor-general. The Executive Council generally meets weekly, following the meeting of cabinet, and is presided over by the governor-general.

The Executive Council implements decisions that require the force of law through regulations made by orders in council. It is the legislative executive, while cabinet is the political executive.

Size of cabinet

Over time, because of the growing complexity of government, the size of cabinet has increased. In the early 1890s for example, there were seven members of cabinet. After the First World War until the mid-1920s cabinets had between nine and 14 members.

In 2017 the Labour-led coalition government had a core cabinet of 20 ministers (four of whom were New Zealand First Party MPs), five Labour Party ministers outside cabinet and three ministers from the Green Party, which had a support and confidence agreement with the Labour Party.

How to cite this page:

Chris Eichbaum, 'Cabinet government - What is cabinet?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/cabinet-government/page-1 (accessed 18 November 2018)

Story by Chris Eichbaum, published 20 Jun 2012