Story: Capital city

Page 4. Wellington, capital city

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As New Zealand has no formal written constitution, Wellington’s status as the capital city is not given distinctive protection in a supreme national statute. There is, however, no serious movement to shift the capital (despite some complaints about Wellington’s weather). While Auckland has become a significantly larger city, with approximately one-quarter of New Zealand’s population in the 2000s, there have been no efforts to return the capital to that city, which was content to be the country’s economic capital – the focal point of immigration and economic growth – and a recreational ‘city of sails’.

Wellington City Council

While Wellington’s position as the capital city is not mentioned in the New Zealand Constitution Act 1986, the city’s status and its architectural and historic features are acknowledged in the City of Wellington’s district plan, which sets aside a parliamentary precinct heritage area for the part of the city containing parliamentary buildings and grounds, as well as other government buildings and monuments.

The capital city gains economic benefits through the employment of public servants and central-government investment in major public institutions and infrastructure. While the value of Wellington property is substantially affected by its hosting the national capital, Wellington City Council is unable to collect revenue from some of the city’s most valuable real estate. The Local Government (Rating) Act 2002 provides for an exemption from local property tax (rates) for ‘land on which any vice-regal [governor-general’s] residence or Parliament building is situated’. While the Crown provides revenue to New Zealand’s local authorities, the Local Government Rates Inquiry Panel in 2007 concluded that in some circumstances Crown contributions in lieu of rates might be worth considering.

National institutions

Wellington’s position as the New Zealand capital contributes to decisions about the location of monuments or institutions considered to be of national importance. As a result, resources are sometimes directed towards Wellington rather than other parts of the country. For instance, the decision in 1992 to establish a new national museum led to the construction of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which opened on the Wellington waterfront in 1998.

The city is also the home of other national cultural institutions, such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. In 2004 the remains of an unknown New Zealand soldier from a First World War European cemetery were returned to New Zealand and interred in a new monument, the tomb of the unknown warrior, adjacent to the national war memorial carillon in Wellington. In 2015 the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park was opened at this site. The Queen Elizabeth II Pukeahu Education Centre opened within the park in 2016.

Capital university

At least one educational institution – Victoria University – markets itself explicitly on its position in the New Zealand capital. Its website describes the university as ‘situated in the capital city’, and thus able to ‘take advantage of connections’ with, among others, ‘government, the judiciary, public and private research organisations, cultural organisations and resources … and the international community through the diplomatic corps’.1 Massey University, which has its main campus in Palmerston North, has also established a Wellington campus.

The public service

As a capital city, Wellington has distinctive features, with many people employed in the public service and many office buildings being leased by government departments and other elements of the wider bureaucracy. The city has a more political atmosphere than others, with residents more likely to be involved in the government and possibly more interested in politics. There is also something of an international flavour to the city, with diplomatic missions – both offices and residences – being situated in the capital (as is New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade).

The ‘coolest little capital’

As New Zealand’s capital, in the early 2000s Wellington was the North Island’s second-largest city, with its own attractions. It is the world’s southernmost national capital, and in 2011 was described by international travel publisher Lonely Planet as the ‘coolest little capital in the world’.2

  1. ‘About Victoria.’ (last accessed 13 September 2011). Back
  2. Quoted in ‘Lonely Planet acclaim for the “coolest little capital in the world”.’ (last accessed 13 September 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Stephen Levine, 'Capital city - Wellington, capital city', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 May 2024)

Story by Stephen Levine, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Aug 2016