New Zealand is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The only body which can make laws is the elected House of Representatives.
Losing her head
New Zealand’s early postage stamps carried portraits of the reigning British monarch. The head of Queen Victoria was on the very first stamp, in 1855. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, a new stamp issue with the young monarch’s head appeared. This was the last general issue of stamps to carry the monarch’s portrait. In 1960 a new general stamp issue continued the tradition established with an 1898 ‘pictorial’ issue, featuring New Zealand scenery, history and life. Most stamps, whether general or special issues, now carry images of distinctively New Zealand scenery, art and architecture, sport, and a host of other subjects.
From 1952 until her death in 2022, Queen Elizabeth II was the head of state, or sovereign. On her accession she was proclaimed in New Zealand as ‘Queen of this Realm and all her other Realms’. She reigned as Queen of New Zealand independently of her position as Queen of the United Kingdom. Her successor, King Charles III, reigns on the same basis. His representative in New Zealand, the governor-general, has symbolic and ceremonial roles and is not involved in the day-to-day running of the government, which is the domain of the prime minister.
The Queen’s portrait appeared on New Zealand’s banknotes and coins (though no longer on most issues of postage stamps). The continued use of her image was no longer an indication that New Zealand was in any way politically subservient to the United Kingdom, but the fact that the two countries still share a monarch does reflect their long-standing ties.
In New Zealand sovereignty is exercised by Parliament (both the monarch and the House of Representatives). A bill needs the assent of the King or his representative to become law; it is not sufficient for the House merely to pass a bill. Traditionally this assent is never withheld.
When New Zealanders talk about ‘the Crown’ they are usually referring not to the monarch as a person but to the government as a whole.
The first New Zealand-born governor-general
For many years, the Queen’s representatives in New Zealand were usually members of England’s minor aristocracy. The first New Zealand-born governor-general, Sir Arthur Porritt – an Olympic medallist – was appointed in 1967. Porritt had lived in England since 1923 and he retired to that country when his term was up. But all his successors to the highest office in the land have been New Zealand citizens and New Zealand residents.
Royal powers are exercised by the governor-general, appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the prime minister. The title of the office was changed from governor to governor-general in 1917.
The governor-general’s main function is to ask the leader of the party or group of parties commanding a majority in Parliament (usually after an election) to form a government. He or she gives the royal assent to acts of Parliament and is the titular commander in chief of the armed forces.
The governor-general is required by convention always to follow the advice of ministers who enjoy the support of a majority of the members of the House of Representatives.
The single chamber of the New Zealand Parliament is called the House of Representatives. The nominated Legislative Council, also established by the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act (UK), was abolished in 1950.
The important powers of the House of Representatives are:
- to approve the raising and spending of money by the government
- to pass laws.
The presiding officer of the House of Representatives, the speaker, is elected by the House.
Not according to plan
New Zealand’s Parliament Buildings are an architectural mish-mash. The three main buildings are the 1899 Victorian Gothic Parliamentary Library, the early 20th-century Edwardian Baroque Parliament House (only part of a proposal for an imposing, domed building) and a later 20th-century executive wing, popularly called ‘The Beehive’. The linking of three quite different buildings, and the failure to complete the main building to the original design, reflects the way New Zealand’s system of government has developed – in a casual, haphazard way rather than following a ‘grand scheme’.
The most powerful political body is cabinet. Its members are ministers of the Crown and it is chaired by the prime minister. Cabinet’s power derives solely from conventions. The 1986 Constitution Act spelled out the convention that only members of the House of Representatives can be ministers.
The Executive Council
The Executive Council, presided over by the governor-general, dates from 1840. It is distinct from cabinet. It no longer makes policy decisions, but has formal functions and it makes statutory regulations (under powers delegated by Parliament).