Story: Premiers and prime ministers

Page 1. The role of prime minister

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The prime minister is the leader of the largest political party among those forming the government.

Historically, prime-ministerial responsibilities included:

  • providing advice to the sovereign, or the sovereign’s representative (the governor-general)
  • appointing ministers and chairing the cabinet (the regular meeting of ministers).

In addition, the prime minister has become the main spokesperson for the government both within and outside Parliament.

The title

Forty prime ministers have led New Zealand since the country was granted internal self-government by Britain in 1856. However, not all used the title of ‘prime minister’. Early on ‘colonial secretary’ was used. From the 1860s ‘premier’ grew more common, alternating informally with ‘prime minister’ by the century’s end. Since 1906 every leader has been sworn in as prime minister. This title is reserved for self-governing dominions, whereas Crown colonies and state governments have premiers.

New Zealand’s British inheritance

Although British monarchs had long used favourites and first or chief ministers to conduct government business, the title ‘prime minister’ was not officially recognised in Britain until 1905. In fact, it was once a term of abuse. To ministers who reported directly to the monarch on departmental business, the idea of anyone being ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) was insulting. But, as the power of the monarch declined and that of cabinet increased, the need for one minister to lead the others became accepted.

It helped to be a (foreign) bloke

By 2017 New Zealand had had 40 prime ministers, 37 of them men. In 1997 New Zealand gained its first woman prime minister when a National Party caucus coup passed power to Jenny Shipley. Two years later Helen Clark became the first elected female prime minister after she led the Labour Party to victory at the polls. Early prime ministers were born overseas. It was not until 1925 that the first New Zealand-born prime minister, Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell, took office.

Unelected leaders

Until 1 January 1951 New Zealand had an upper house, the Legislative Council. Premiers and prime ministers were usually from the House of Representatives (the lower house), but they governed from the council on five occasions: Frederick Whitaker (1863–64 and 1882–83), George Waterhouse (1872–73), Daniel Pollen (1875–76) and Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell (1925). As legislative councillors were political appointees on life or seven-year terms, these were the only unelected politicians to lead the country.

Managing cabinets

Early colonial cabinets (whose members were known as ministers) were intimate, often between five and 10 strong. As the size of cabinet grew, so did the job of managing the ministers. Richard Seddon, premier from 1893 to 1906, was a notorious micro-manager, which led to deterioration in the quality of his cabinets.

Some prime ministers were very successful at the management role and as a result held power for long periods. Sidney Holland and Keith Holyoake stepped down under internal pressure only after lengthy terms: 1949–57 for Holland and 1960–72 for Holyoake. Jim Bolger (1990–97) and Robert Muldoon (1975–84) were also effective at controlling ministers, but Bolger ultimately fell to a caucus coup – a fate Muldoon only narrowly avoided in 1980. David Lange (1984–89) was a prime minister who was successful with voters but less successful at managing his cabinet ministers.

Increases in the size of cabinet in the 20th century meant that in an 80- or 84-seat Parliament almost half of a governing party’s MPs might be ministers or parliamentary under-secretaries. In 2017, when there were 120 seats in Parliament, cabinet had 20 members. In addition, there were five ministers outside cabinet, three support-party ministers and three parliamentary under-secretaries.

Portfolios

As well as chairing cabinet, most 19th-century premiers were responsible for the important colonial secretary or revenue portfolios. By the 20th century the finance portfolio was considered too burdensome to combine with the role of prime minister. Muldoon, who was minister of finance as well as prime minister, was criticised for concentrating too much power in his own hands.

From 1925 to around 1970 prime ministers usually also held the post of minister of external or foreign affairs. Sidney Holland, prime minister from 1949 to 1957, was a rare exception. In 1954, after relinquishing the finance job, he was one of the few leaders of the time not to take on another portfolio.

Later leaders took on portfolios to highlight the importance of certain policy areas: Lange (education, in his second term), Helen Clark (arts, culture and heritage), John Key (tourism), and Jacinda Ardern (arts, culture and heritage, and child poverty reduction).

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Premiers and prime ministers - The role of prime minister', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/premiers-and-prime-ministers/page-1 (accessed 21 June 2018)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Dec 2016