Story: Governors and governors-general

Page 1. Governing Britain’s empire

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Representing the monarch

New Zealand, once a British colony, is a constitutional monarchy. This system developed in 18th- and 19th-century Britain, when the monarch, who previously had the power to make legislation, became a politically neutral head of state. Under constitutional monarchy, Parliament and ministers were responsible for passing legislation, with the assent of the King or Queen. In New Zealand in the early 2000s, the governor-general is the representative of Queen Elizabeth II.

Number two

New South Wales Governor George Gipps was New Zealand’s first governor – but he never set foot in the country. Gipps delegated his powers to Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson. Early orders of succession provided for a lieutenant-governor in such situations, or between appointments. For a while the role was taken by the governors of the provinces of New Ulster (the upper two-thirds of the North Island) and New Munster (the lower North Island and the South Island), but it was usually taken by the colony’s senior military officer. After British troops left in 1869, the chief justice took over as ‘administrator of the government’ between governors or in their absence. If the chief justice was unavailable, another senior judge stepped up.

An evolving office

New Zealand’s first governor was appointed in 1840, the year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and Māori chiefs, and Britain declared sovereignty over the country. Early governors ruled personally, with the advice of appointed local advisers. They had greater powers over New Zealand than the monarch in Britain. After New Zealand was granted responsible government in 1856, Parliament exercised power on a day-to-day basis on matters of internal policy, with governors increasingly taking the role of a constitutional monarch within a democracy.

From governor to governor-general

After the creation of larger federations such as Canada (1867) and Australia (1901), the title ‘governor-general’ was introduced to distinguish the Crown’s senior representative from state or provincial governors. It was then extended to dominions. New Zealand has had governors-general since 1917. The change was purely titular – it conferred no new powers.

The boss of Ross

Governors-general of New Zealand remain governors in one sense – since 1923 all have also held the title of governor of the Ross Dependency in Antarctica.


Vice-regal duties are traditionally divided into ‘the three C’s’ – constitutional (performing duties relating to Parliament and legislation), ceremonial (carrying out functions and ceremonies on behalf of the monarch) and community (being a figurehead and providing support for community organisations).

Making appointments

British politicians selected New Zealand’s governors until after the Second World War. The secretary of state for the colonies drew up a shortlist for the monarch. The candidates were then approached in order of preference. Because the New Zealand government paid very poorly, governors had to cover some of their own costs, and candidates sometimes declined because of the expense. Once a candidate accepted, the serving governor was cabled the name of his successor.

In the 20th century the British government began sharing the shortlist with the New Zealand prime minister. In 1945 Peter Fraser became the first local prime minister to nominate a governor-general – Sir Bernard Freyberg, the British-born but New Zealand-raised leader of New Zealand forces in the Second World War. A decade later the New Zealand government was initiating the entire process.

Criticism of the appointment of serving cabinet minister Sir Keith Holyoake in 1977 led to further changes. Prime ministers began to consult the leader of the opposition and sought to avoid politically divisive candidates.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Governors and governors-general - Governing Britain’s empire', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2022)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 28 Sep 2016