Story: Governors and governors-general

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.

Story by Gavin McLean
Main image: Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright and former governor-general Dame Catherine Tizard, 2002

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Governing in Britain’s empire

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy. Laws are passed by Parliament, with the consent of the monarch’s representative – the governor-general.

The first governor was appointed in 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. In 1917 the title was changed to governor-general.

Changes over time

The first governors were junior British naval and army officers. From the 1860s most were professionals who had governed other British colonies, and from the 1890s they were minor aristocrats. In 1972 the first New Zealand resident, Denis Blundell, became governor-general.

By 2016 New Zealand had had 16 governors and 21 governors-general. Of the 37, 34 were men – the first woman was Catherine Tizard, in 1990. The first Māori governor-general was Paul Reeves, in 1985, and the first Asian was Anand Satyanand, in 2006.

Constitutional duties

Early governors had wide powers, but from 1856 Parliament had power within New Zealand. Governors referred laws that might contradict British law to the Colonial Office in London. The governor-general was the main channel for official communications with Britain until around 1940.

In the 2000s the governor-general and the House of Representatives together comprise Parliament. The governor-general summons Parliament, and signs into law bills passed by the House.

Ceremonial duties

Duties for governors-general included visiting communities around New Zealand. For many years they wore fancy ceremonial uniforms, including robes, sashes and feathered helmets, but from the 1960s this was less common. Governors-general laid foundation stones for buildings, launched ships, presented prizes and bestowed honours. From the 1990s they represented New Zealand at overseas events.

Community duties

Governors-general are patrons of many societies, including charities and cultural and sporting organisations. Some set up charities themselves. They also host community events.

Government House

In Wellington and Auckland there are Government Houses, where the governor-general lives and works. The first governor was based in the Bay of Islands in 1840, but the post moved to Auckland in 1841 and to Wellington in 1865.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Governors and governors-general', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 20 June 2012, reviewed & revised 28 September 2016