Story: Governors and governors-general

Page 4. Ceremonial duties

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Vice-regal visits

New Zealand communities expected to be visited by governors-general. In the 20th century a five-year timetable developed as follows:

  • years one and two: official first visits to all cities, boroughs and neighbouring localities
  • year three: extended residence in Christchurch
  • year four: extended residence in Dunedin; Pacific tour during the Parliamentary recess
  • year five: official farewell visits

The order of the Christchurch and Dunedin visits varied, as did the Pacific cruise. In addition, governors-general went into extended residence at Auckland every summer, visiting Waitangi and attending the anniversary-day regatta. Until the interwar years they often enjoyed a summer cruise to the subantarctic islands and to the Fiordland sounds in the government steamer. Since the 1960s they have usually also flown to the Ross Dependency in Antarctica.

Christmas trees and chook feathers

As governors personified the splendour of the sovereign, they had to look the part. From the late Victorian era they resembled ‘walking Christmas trees of stars and collars, medals and sashes, ermine robes and coronets.’1 Twentieth-century governors-general wore a vice-regal uniform of jackets, trousers with a broad red side stripe and plumed (‘chook-feather’) helmets. Swords, sashes and medals completed the effect. The plumed helmet was consigned to history in 1972 when Sir Denis Blundell decided that ‘I’d feel an awful joe under one of those hats.’2

Ceremonial dress

For decades governors and governors-general were careful to wear full uniform during their first visit to a place. While the press went to town on Their Excellencies’ attire and the magnificence of their carriages or limousines, the parades, the speeches and the inspections also allowed local elites to dress up and put on a show. This began to die out during the 1960s.


Many community duties also involved ceremonies – laying foundation stones, launching ships, cutting ribbons, presenting prizes and speaking at public events.

Credentials ceremonies were also important, allowing foreign envoys to present their letters of credence which, once accepted, entitled them to formally assume their diplomatic status.

Investiture ceremonies to confer New Zealand honours were sometimes held at marae, town halls or private residences, but most occurred at Government House.

Constitutional ceremonies

Certain ceremonies are closely related to the governor-general’s core constitutional duties. The most important of these include signing warrants for new cabinet ministers (usually referred to as ‘swearing-in’) and the highly ceremonial state openings of Parliament.

Military ceremonies

The governor-general’s ceremonial role as commander-in-chief of the New Zealand armed forces is reinforced by the aides-de-camp who accompany Their Excellencies in public, by visits to ships and bases, and by the presentation of standards. Governors-general preside over Anzac Day and Armistice Day ceremonies, and since the early 1990s have sometimes spent 25 April (Anzac Day) at Gallipoli, Turkey.

Ambassadorial role

In an important change of the 1990s governors-general acquired a new ambassadorial role. They began to represent New Zealand overseas at funerals, royal marriages and war commemorations as well as leading trade and cultural delegations. Host nations accorded them head-of-state status.

At home, governors-general also welcomed visiting heads of state and in some cases hosted them at Government House.

  1. David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: how the British saw their empire. London: Allen Lane, 2001, p. 95. Back
  2. Quoted in Gavin McLean, The governors: New Zealand’s governors and governors-general. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006, p. 292. Back
How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Governors and governors-general - Ceremonial duties', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 August 2022)

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