Kōrero: Armed forces

Whārangi 3. Governance of the New Zealand armed forces

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Defence Act 1990

The Defence Act 1990 gives the legal basis for the armed forces and their activities. The act affirms both the Crown’s prerogative to raise and maintain armed forces and the principle of ministerial authority over the armed forces. The act establishes the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and defines the respective roles of, and relationships between, the minister of defence, the chief of defence force and the secretary of defence.

Purposes of the armed forces

Under the Defence Act 1990, the armed forces are raised and maintained for the following purposes:

  • defending New Zealand and any area which New Zealand is responsible for defending
  • protecting the interests of New Zealand anywhere in the world
  • contributing forces under security treaties and other collective arrangements
  • contributing forces to the United Nations (UN), or in association with other organisations or states in accordance with the UN Charter
  • assisting civil powers during emergencies in New Zealand or elsewhere
  • providing any public service.

Constitutional authority

The governor-general is commander-in-chief of New Zealand and presides over the executive council. As such, he or she is constitutionally the supreme authority in defence matters in New Zealand. The governor-general exercises powers only on the advice of the minister of defence and all other ministers of the Crown.

Change of hats

In August 2011 Jerry Mateparae, the former chief of defence force, was sworn in as New Zealand’s governor-general. This harked back to the 19th century, when governors were mainly military men.

Political authority

The minister of defence has the power of control, but not of command, of the NZDF. Command is exercised through the chief of defence force.

There are checks and balances with respect to political authority. The minister may authorise in writing the use of the armed forces to provide public services in connection with industrial disputes. The minister must inform Parliament of that authorisation.

Assistance by the military to non-military authorities to aid law enforcement must be authorised by the prime minister, or next-most senior minister, acting on information supplied by the commissioner of police or deputy. Any assistance provided by the armed forces remains under the control of the police, and the authorising minister must inform Parliament of the authorisation.

Military authority

Higher command and control of the armed forces is exercised by the chief of defence force through chiefs of staff of each of the three forces, from Headquarters NZDF, which is located in the same building as the policy- and procurement-focused Ministry of Defence. Operational control of all operational forces is vested in the commander joint forces. Chiefs of staff for each service are responsible for employing, training and ensuring the military readiness of staff, but have no operational role.

Bureaucratic authority

The Defence Act 1990 established a Ministry of Defence headed by the secretary of defence (chief executive). The ministry is responsible for the formulation of defence policy, major equipment procurement, and the audit and assessment of Defence Force functions, duties and projects.

UFO files

Members of the public can access the Ministry of Defence Unidentified Aerial Sightings – or, as they are more commonly referred to, Unidentified Flying Objects or UFOs – files. The first batch of files, which date back to the 1950s, was released in 2010. The files contain eye-witness accounts of alleged UFO sightings, many complete with sketches. They are available for public viewing at the Defence Force Library at Defence House in Wellington.

Relationship between the NZDF and Ministry of Defence

The chief of defence force and secretary of defence have both separate and shared responsibilities. The shared responsibilities require the secretary to formulate advice in consultation with the chief of defence force and from time to time undertake a defence assessment, including a review of different options for achieving the government’s policy goals. In practice, the two officials and their respective organisations work closely together over the full spectrum of defence policy and operational issues.


In the early 2000s the armed forces were funded at around or just below 1% of New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP). This was $2,911 million in 2011–12 – around 3% of government spending. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, defence spending has declined from between 1.5 and 1.6% of GDP to the current levels.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jim Rolfe, 'Armed forces - Governance of the New Zealand armed forces', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/armed-forces/page-3 (accessed 19 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jim Rolfe, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Apr 2020