Cabinet is at the heart of New Zealand’s system of collective government. Cabinet ministers meet regularly to agree on policy and priorities which they then stand together to defend in Parliament. This system has endured since 1856 when New Zealand achieved responsible government.
Like any collective grouping, cabinet needs administrative support, and the position of cabinet secretary has existed since the 19th century. The role of the secretary was to ensure that the agenda papers were available for ministers and that cabinet’s decisions were conveyed to the public service.
For nearly a century cabinet met without any officials present. The prime minister would annotate his copy of the agenda papers to indicate cabinet’s decision – a process that restricted the ability to record complex decisions. On 29 January 1948 the cabinet secretary was admitted to cabinet meetings and a systematic record became possible.
The secretary now heads the Cabinet Office, which is within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The office is largely a secretariat of about 20 public servants, supporting the work of cabinet and its committees.
Every year the Cabinet Office assembles over 2,000 papers from across the public service. Copies are distributed to ministers for weekly cabinet and cabinet committee meetings.
At those meetings Cabinet Office secretaries record the decisions which are then printed on green paper and issued as cabinet minutes. Those minutes are the definitive record of cabinet’s deliberations and they serve to direct the work of the public service. A ‘cabinet green’ represents unquestioned authority for public servants.
Most people working in the three central agencies of the government have little or no contact with people outside the state sector. Those in the Cabinet Office work so close to power that the need for discretion is increased; they are invisible as far as most New Zealanders are concerned. The Honours Unit is an exception to this. While working on the New Year and Queen’s Birthday honours lists, they are in direct touch with people from all over New Zealand.
The cabinet secretary also holds the position of clerk of the Executive Council. The council is the official source of advice for the governor-general, and includes all ministers. At the Executive Council the governor-general meets with ministers to formalise cabinet’s decisions in matters such as confirming appointments or making regulations.
The official secretary, the governor-general’s principal public servant and the other staff at Government House are also the responsibility of the cabinet secretary.
The secretary of the cabinet provides advice to the prime minister on constitutional matters affecting executive government. He or she also advises on matters of ethics and probity concerning ministers, and supports the governor-general during elections, transitions and government formation.
The legislation coordinator, who coordinates the government’s legislation programme, is also located in the Cabinet Office. He or she assists the government to develop, monitor and adjust the legislation programme.