Story: Governors and governors-general

Page 2. Changing characteristics

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Gender and nationality

In 2016 there had been 16 resident governors and 21 governors-general – 37 in total. Government House used to be a male bastion. Thirty-four of its residents were men. In 1990 Dame Catherine Tizard became the first female governor-general, and in 2000 Dame Silvia Cartwright became the second.

Most have been British. In 1972 Sir Denis Blundell became the first New Zealand resident appointed to the post. Politicians left the door open for members of the royal family to serve, but all subsequent governors-general have been New Zealanders.

‘The family racket’

Sir Bernard Fergusson (governor-general, 1962–67) referred to governing New Zealand as ‘the family racket’. His grandfather, Sir James Fergusson, held the post in 1873–74 and his father, Sir Charles Fergusson, from 1924 to 1930. The family connection with the post went deeper than that because his mother was the daughter of Lord Glasgow, governor from 1892 to 1897. Her interest in Māori language and culture in the 1890s ensured that Sir Bernard was fairly proficient in Māori.

Types of governor

In the Crown-colony era (1840–53), before the establishment of the New Zealand Parliament, the governors were junior naval and army officers. They had almost total executive power, and their exercise of it often drew criticism from settlers.

From the 1860s to the end of the 1890s, most were professional administrators. More senior than the Crown-colony crew, they worked their way around the empire, starting with small Crown colonies and finishing in big self-governing ones, which included New Zealand and (before 1901) the separate Australian colonies. In Australasia, New Zealand was the third-most desirable posting, after Victoria and New South Wales. Overall, only India and Canada rated higher than these colonies.

Unhappiest governor

Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon was New Zealand’s unhappiest governor. He preferred Crown colonies, admitting that his skills were ‘of a despotic and not of a constitutional ruler’, but came to Wellington for the sake of his family. It was a mistake. He hated the city, and complained that the job meant ‘performing the functions of a [rubber] stamp’ along with ‘presiding at charity dinners and entertaining large parties of stupid people.’1 Gordon’s frequent threats to resign earned him the nickname ‘Abdicator’ from politicians. He also questioned the government’s Māori policy in Taranaki. Few people lamented his early departure in June 1882.

The 1890s brought another change. As pride in the British Empire reached new heights, London sent out minor aristocrats to reign more ceremonially from the empire’s government houses. After the First World War, these minor bluebloods often also had a military connection. Unlike the earlier professional governors, they usually served only once.

The final change came with the appointment of middle-class New Zealanders from 1972 on.

Representing New Zealanders

The appointment of New Zealanders to the office of governor-general changed perceptions of it. There was a new expectation that the governor-general would be representative of New Zealanders generally, and this influenced the appointment process. Sir Paul Reeves (1985–90) was the first Māori governor-general, and Sir Anand Satyanand (2006–11) the first Asian governor-general.

Life after office

After their terms finished the British soldiers and aristocrats went ‘home’ to Britain, taking with them their staff and furniture. Convention required them to stay away, or at least let their successor establish his profile before visiting New Zealand again. Put out to pasture with a retirement honour, many served as lord lieutenant (honorary head) of their county.

After New Zealanders began to be appointed, the government had to pay vice-regal pensions and help younger governors-general find suitable retirement duties. Sir Paul Reeves and Dame Silvia Cartwright both went on to do significant international work. In 1990 Reeves became the Anglican communion’s representative to the United Nations, and in 2006 Cartwright was appointed to the United Nations tribunal trying former Cambodian leaders for war crimes.

  1. Quoted in Gavin McLean, The governors: New Zealand’s governors and governors-general. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006, p. 95. Back
How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Governors and governors-general - Changing characteristics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 August 2022)

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