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Governors and governors-general

by Gavin McLean

Until 1972 all of New Zealand’s governors and governors-general were British, including an array of minor aristocrats from the 1890s onwards. The first New Zealand resident in the job was Sir Denis Blundell, and since then a more diverse group have been appointed. The earlier ceremonial trappings of ermine robes, plumed helmets, sashes and swords have also been largely relegated to the past.

Governing Britain’s empire

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.

Changing characteristics

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.

    • Quoted in Gavin McLean, The governors: New Zealand’s governors and governors-general. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006, p. 95. Back

Constitutional duties

Governors’ powers

At first New Zealand’s governors had wide powers. From 1856, when New Zealand acquired responsible government, ministers set domestic policy. Governor Thomas Gore Browne (1855–61) blurred that slightly by retaining responsibility for native affairs and internal defence for a few years. Honours, awards, diplomatic relations and external defence remained the prerogative of the imperial government, and governors were expected to refer any legislation likely to contradict British law to the Colonial Office in London. Governors were also the channel for official communications between the New Zealand premier and his British counterpart.

Although governors and premiers sometimes disliked each other, there were few public spats. However, the British government sacked Governor Robert FitzRoy in 1845, and later recalled Sir George Grey after he clashed with politicians and the military and ignored instructions.

The one-cigarette rule

Most weeks the governor-general attends the Executive Council (cabinet plus ministers outside cabinet) to sign legislation. Ministers with relevant business are encouraged to attend. Usually, however, discussion is brief. In the 1970s Sir Denis Blundell was advised that after signing the bills and regulations, he could talk to ministers for as long as it took to smoke a cigarette. After that, he should let them get back to running the country.

Following ministerial advice

A significant constitutional crisis occurred in 1890 when the governor, Lord Onslow, allowed Premier Harry Atkinson (who had just lost the election) to appoint fellow conservatives to the upper house of Parliament, the Legislative Council. From there they savaged the new Liberal government’s reforms. Onslow refused Liberal requests for compensatory appointments. He left early for Britain in 1892, but his successor, Lord Glasgow, held to the same line, forcing the Colonial Office to remind governors to follow ministerial advice in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

Interwar changes

New Zealand became a dominion in 1907. Between the world wars, several dominions forced changes to the responsibilities of the governors-general. In 1926 dominions were declared to be autonomous in domestic and external affairs and equal in status, but bound together by common loyalty to the British Crown. High commissioners picked up the job of representing the British government in dominions. From this time, the main role of most governors-general was to represent the sovereign, not the British government. New Zealand politicians resisted these changes, keeping the governor-general as the main channel for official communications with Britain. This situation continued until early in the Second World War, when the Government House cipher staff (who coded and decoded telegrams and other communications) were finally transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department.

Patriating the office

The office was ‘patriated’ (made an entirely New Zealand one) in 1983 with new ‘letters patent’, issued in the Queen’s name but signed by the New Zealand prime minister, not the monarch. Letters patent set out the governor-general’s powers.

Plumed helmets to politics

In 1996 Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boys, who like many other modern governors-general was a lawyer, clarified how he would use his powers in the case of an unclear electoral result under the mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system. He maintained that politicians must decide who would govern, and only after a public announcement of their decision would he appoint a prime minister. However, in uncertain situations he did expect to consult with party leaders. As he observed, ‘there is still more to the office than the official smile, the genteel wave and the memory of plumed helmets of yesteryear.’1

Powers in the 2000s

In the 2000s the governor-general and the House of Representatives together make up New Zealand’s Parliament (though the word is normally used to refer simply to the House of Representatives). The governor-general summons Parliament and gives the royal assent to (signs into law) bills that have been passed by the House of Representatives.

He or she has the right to be consulted and to encourage or caution ministers, and constitutionally retains some personal discretion. ‘Reserve powers’ allow governors-general to appoint or dismiss a prime minister, to dissolve Parliament, to refuse a prime minister’s request for an election or to refuse to sign legislation. In practice, however, these powers have not been exercised. The modern saying is that ‘the Queen reigns, but the Government rules.’2

    • Michael Hardie Boys, ‘The role of the governor-general under MMP.’ In The constitutional implications of MMP, edited by Alan Simpson. Wellington: School of Political Science and International Relations,Victoria University, 1998, p. 77. Back
    • Catherine Tizard, Cat amongst the pigeons: a memoir. Auckland: Random House, 2010, p. 273. Back

Ceremonial duties

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.

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

Community duties

The community role is by far the most time-consuming part of vice-regal duties. ‘This part of the job is to accentuate the positive,’ Dame Catherine Tizard recalled. ‘Luckily for incumbents, it can also be the most enjoyable.’1

Vice-regal sporting trophies

In the 20th century giving a sporting trophy bought a small piece of immortality. The names of governors and governors-general live on in the rugby shields and cups donated by Lords Ranfurly, Plunket and Bledisloe. Bledisloe, a particularly generous governor-general, also donated the Ahuwhenua Trophies for excellence by Māori farmers (from 1932), with separate trophies for sheep and beef and for dairying from 1954.

Patron of societies

A modern governor-general may be patron of 200 to 300 societies. Some are uniformed organisations, such as sea cadets, scouts, guides and boys’ brigades, and governors-general often wear the uniform of these organisations, although Paul Reeves’s wife, Beverley, reported that while ‘Paul would put on a scout shirt’, he ‘drew the line at wearing shorts’.2

In the past there were also ‘loyal societies’ (patriotic, pro-empire organisations) such as the Victoria League. Until the later 20th century many governors and governors-general were grand masters of the Freemasons. The governor-general has also had a long association with the Order of St John in New Zealand. Patron from 1920, the governor-general held the office of knight commander of the Order from 1944 and prior from 1946.

Most recipients of vice-regal patronage, however, are philanthropic, cultural or sporting organisations. They must be well-established and financially sound.

Founding charities

Some vice-regal couples went beyond conventional passive or formal support and founded or supported new charities. In the early 1900s Lord and Lady Plunket presided over the creation of Dr Frederic Truby King’s Plunket Society. In the early 1960s Lord Cobham led the formation of Outward Bound (an outdoor-pursuits organisation) in New Zealand.

In the 1930s Lord and Lady Bledisloe gave the Treaty House and grounds at Waitangi to the nation. Lord Bledisloe’s successors presided over the increasingly elaborate and often controversial proceedings that took place at the grounds on Waitangi Day (6 February), the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Open house

As well as attending public events, the governor-general hosts many community functions at Government House. In a typical year, over 15,000 people will attend such events.

‘The governor’s lady’

The governor’s spouse took on a demanding unpaid job, since she was expected to accompany her husband in public, to appear fashionable (the lady-in-waiting kept records to ensure that Her Excellency never wore the same outfit to the same organisation twice) and to be patron of many institutions. In Victorian times, Their Excellencies often split up while visiting a centre, the governor attending Masonic or military functions, while his wife visited hospitals or women’s groups.

Some later spouses were more adventurous. In the 1920s Alice Fergusson started the League of Mothers in New Zealand. Forty years later her son’s wife, Laura, learned to fly in New Zealand, and founded the Laura Fergusson Trust to house the disabled. Ladies Liverpool, Galway and Newall were patrons of wartime patriotic societies.

    • Catherine Tizard, Cat amongst the pigeons: a memoir. Auckland: Random House, 2010, p. 275. Back
    • Beverley Reeves, Playing the part: my life as wife of the governor-general. Auckland: Reed, 2007, p. 124. Back

Vice-regal support

Government houses

Governors-general live and work in Government House. Most large colonies provided two, a capital city roost and a country retreat. New Zealand’s, unusually, were both in cities – Wellington and Auckland.

Waiting around

Unless vice-regal children required a governess, the lady-in-waiting was the sole female member of the elite domestic staff. Often a family friend, she accompanied Her Excellency everywhere, holding bouquets as the speeches flowed. The potential for boredom could make ladies-in-waiting go ‘stale’, so governors-general were advised to change them during their term. The title died in the early 1990s, when Dame Catherine Tizard’s appointee became a personal assistant, with Tizard describing her as ‘a woman who was perfectly ready!’1


In 1840 Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson set up Government House at a rented trader’s station in the Bay of Islands. A year later he moved into a prefabricated building in Auckland. This burned down seven years later and was eventually replaced by William Mason’s 1856 wooden building. It still stands, and served governors-general until 1969 when the University of Auckland took it over and Their Excellencies moved into a Mt Eden residence gifted by philanthropists Sir Frank and Lady Mappin.


The governor moved to Wellington permanently in 1865, and the government built a new Government House in 1871 near where the Beehive now stands. In 1907 the government took over this building after fire gutted much of Parliament. Lord Plunket spent the rest of his term in hired premises in Palmerston North, but in 1910 his successor, Lord Islington, moved into the present Government House in Newtown on a site that had previously housed a lunatic asylum.

Upgrading the houses

Both buildings received a major revamp in the early 2000s. In 2004 more than $2 million was spent on extending the Auckland house and upgrading its grounds. In 2008–11 Government House Wellington received a $40 million conservation treatment to repair defects and modernise its services.

In 2013, some of the outbuildings were converted into a visitor centre to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Staff, servants and services

While Crown-colony governors lived modestly, their late-Victorian aristocratic successors reigned over splendid establishments. Many brought out up to 30 staff and servants, all on their payroll.

The New Zealand government provided a couple of orderlies and from 1916 it added an official secretary to provide continuity between governors-general. In the late 1940s it began paying the domestic servants.

For most of the 20th century employees were divided into the official staff (paid for by the government), the personal staff (led by the comptroller of the household, and often friends and relatives of Their Excellencies), and the domestic servants, butlers, footmen, ladies-in-waiting, maids and chauffeurs. The distinction between ‘staff’ and ‘servants’ was important.

Since the 1970s all staff have been public employees. Generic public-sector job titles have replaced traditional ones such as ‘comptroller’ and ‘butler’.

    • Catherine Tizard, Cat amongst the pigeons: a memoir. Auckland: Random House, 2010, p. 225. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Gavin McLean, 'Governors and governors-general', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2021)

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