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Cabinet government

by Chris Eichbaum

What happens in cabinet stays in cabinet – the discussions of that group of government ministers are strictly confidential, so debate can be frank and robust until a decision is reached. Then ministers have to publicly support it. But, under the multi-party governments that MMP has brought with it, some of cabinet’s conventions about collective responsibility have had to change.

What is cabinet?

Cabinet is the group of government ministers that meets regularly to deliberate on major political issues. Cabinet makes most decisions on matters of public policy, and devises and implements the government’s political strategy.

Cabinet meetings

Cabinet typically meets weekly, in the cabinet room on the 10th floor of the Beehive (the building that houses the executive wing of Parliament). The prime minister decides the cabinet agenda. Administrative support is provided by the secretary to the cabinet, and one or two staff of the Cabinet Office take minutes of the meeting and relay any urgent messages. Cabinet ministers are seated around an oval table in order of seniority, with the most junior minister sitting at the end of the table directly opposite the prime minister.

Ministerial authority

A warrant signed by the governor-general gives ministers their authority. Associate ministers and parliamentary under-secretaries do not have the same powers. Instead of a warrant they receive a letter of appointment.

Ministers in cabinet

Ministers in cabinet are the most senior ministers, including the prime minister, deputy prime minister and ministers holding important portfolios such as finance, health and education. For some portfolios there may also be associate ministers.

Ministers outside cabinet

There are also ministers outside cabinet. These ministers do not attend cabinet meetings unless asked to do so by the prime minister, but they have the same overall duties and responsibilities as their senior colleagues inside cabinet.

Parliamentary under-secretaries

Parliamentary under-secretaries are government MPs appointed to assist ministers with their portfolio duties. They do not have the powers of ministers, and are not members of the Executive Council.

Honourable or Right Honourable?

Ministers, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the governor-general, the chief justice and judges are all entitled to be addressed as ‘The Honourable’. Until 2000 senior members of the New Zealand executive and judiciary were entitled to be addressed as ‘The Right Honourable’ as a consequence of being appointed to the UK Privy Council. When appointments to the Privy Council were discontinued, this title fell into disuse. However, in 2010 Queen Elizabeth II approved the use of ‘The Right Honourable’ by current and future prime ministers, governors-general, speakers and chief justices as recognition of their service.

The Executive Council

All ministers are members of the Executive Council, whether or not they are members of cabinet. The Executive Council is the highest formal institution of government in New Zealand, and is the means by which the government provides collective and formal advice to the governor-general. The Executive Council generally meets weekly, following the meeting of cabinet, and is presided over by the governor-general.

The Executive Council implements decisions that require the force of law through regulations made by orders in council. It is the legislative executive, while cabinet is the political executive.

Size of cabinet

Over time, because of the growing complexity of government, the size of cabinet has increased. In the early 1890s for example, there were seven members of cabinet. After the First World War until the mid-1920s cabinets had between nine and 14 members.

In 2017 the Labour-led coalition government had a core cabinet of 20 ministers (four of whom were New Zealand First Party MPs), five Labour Party ministers outside cabinet and three ministers from the Green Party, which had a support and confidence agreement with the Labour Party.

What cabinet discusses

Like other democracies based on the British model, New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements fuse the executive and legislative branches of government. Cabinet joins these two branches of government together. It has a series of executive roles and functions which are distinct from those of the legislature (Parliament). Its members are, however, drawn from the party or parties that have the confidence of the legislature.

Matters that cabinet must consider

Matters that must be submitted to cabinet are:

  • All significant policy issues and controversial matters. What is considered significant and controversial is a matter of political judgment, which in the final instance is decided by the prime minister. The general rule is that ministers should put before their colleagues the sorts of issues on which they themselves would wish to be consulted.
  • Any proposals that will affect the government’s financial position. Budget decisions are among the most important of these, and although the minister of finance has responsibility for the executive phase of the budget process, key decisions are taken by the full cabinet.
  • Proposals that affect New Zealand's constitutional arrangements.
  • Matters concerning the machinery of government (the public service), especially any proposals for changing the structure of the public service.
  • Proposals involving new legislation or regulations. All draft government bills must be submitted to the Cabinet Legislation Committee before they are approved for introduction into Parliament.
  • Government responses to select committee recommendations. Reports on petitions to select committees, or recommendations arising out of inquiries initiated by committees, may require a government response. If so, this will come from cabinet.
  • Matters concerning the portfolio interests of ministers. Some of these policy issues fall cleanly within the portfolio domain of a particular minister, but most do not. Agreement between ministers is generally reached before a matter reaches cabinet. However, occasionally it is not, and policy discussion papers will include ‘split recommendations’ (in which ministers, and their departments and agencies, express different policy preferences). In cases like these cabinet must resolve the matter.
  • All but the most minor appointments to statutory boards and other government bodies. Most governments have a cabinet committee that is responsible for honours and appointments.
  • International treaties and agreements. Any proposal to sign an international treaty, or to take binding treaty action, must be submitted to cabinet for approval.
  • The release of public discussion documents, or reports affecting government policy or government agencies.

Cabinet procedure

The Cabinet manual

Cabinet owes its existence to convention. There is no act of Parliament that establishes cabinet, specifies its composition, or details its powers or any limits on those powers. However, its procedures are described in the Cabinet manual, which is also an authoritative guide to central government decision-making for ministers, their offices and those working within government. It is updated from time to time to document changes in cabinet procedures and constitutional developments. The manual is a primary source of information on New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. It is endorsed at the first cabinet meeting of a new government.

New Zealand leads the way

The formation of a coalition government in Britain in 2010 gave the British Parliament the impetus to complete its own cabinet manual. This was closely modelled on the New Zealand Cabinet manual.

The Cabinet manual is supplemented by the CabGuide, which sets out the processes required for efficient and effective cabinet decision-making. While the manual outlines the constitutional parameters for decision-making, the CabGuide provides advice for those involved in preparing submissions for consideration by cabinet and its committees.


Ministers must consult others before they make a submission to cabinet. At the very least, ministers wishing to put a proposal before cabinet must talk with their ministerial colleagues and with relevant government departments and agencies, and do so sooner rather than later. In practice, wider consultation also takes place, especially if – as is the case for minority governments – the support of other political parties is essential to passing legislation.

Cabinet committees

Typically much of the cabinet agenda consists of reports from cabinet committees. These committees consider issues in greater detail than is possible in cabinet meetings, and they are where the detailed work takes place. Officials from government departments are permitted to be part of the debate, but their level of participation depends on the preference of the prime minister and government of the day.

Reporting on Lake Manapōuri

Minutes of cabinet committee meetings are confidential, but occasionally a cabinet committee report of great general interest may be published. An example is the Report of the Cabinet Committee on Lake Manapouri (1970). Its publication was a response to widespread concerns about the environmental impact of raising the level of Lake Manapōuri for hydroelectric power generation.

Each government has some standing committees that are in existence throughout its term. Their number, structure and function are decided by the prime minister, in consultation with coalition parties or parties with support agreements. Cabinet may also establish ad hoc committees from time to time, as it did in the aftermath of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.

The Cabinet Office regularly issues a circular setting out the current terms of reference and membership of cabinet committees. Each committee has between six and 10 members. The prime minister chairs the influential policy or strategy committee, and is automatically a member of the other committees.

Collective responsibility

Collective responsibility is a cornerstone of cabinet government. It depends on three conditions: unanimity, confidentiality and the confidence of Parliament.


Cabinet is an intensely collective form of government: ministers discuss policy, consider options and jointly take responsibility for all cabinet decisions. Under the convention of collective responsibility, once cabinet reaches a decision, all ministers must support that decision and defend it in public. This applies whether or not ministers were present when the decision was taken, and regardless of their personal views on its merits.

Ministers’ code of conduct

Ministers are bound by a code of conduct to ensure there is no conflict between their public duty and their private interests. In addition, since 1990 a register of ministers’ interests and property assets has been made publicly available. This register lists ministers’ directorships, outside employment, business interests, shares, property and mortgages.


Cabinet discussions are confidential – what is said in cabinet stays in cabinet. It is possible to obtain minutes of cabinet decisions under the Official Information Act 1982, but it is not possible to gain access to a written record of the substance of the debates which informed those decisions. The convention of confidentiality enables ministers to engage in frank, robust policy debates without being constrained – until a decision is reached.


Collectivity is fundamental to the operation of cabinet government. Not only is disunity unpopular with the public, but a cabinet that is visibly and publicly fractured is politically vulnerable. The government of the day stands or falls according to whether or not it has the confidence of Parliament. From a constitutional point of view, the governor-general needs to be confident, when receiving advice from the cabinet, that it is the collective view of that body. When acting on ministerial advice, the governor-general needs to be certain that an individual minister is representing government policy.

Post-MMP developments

The advent of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996 resulted in two significant variations to the principle of collective cabinet responsibility.

The first is the so-called ‘agree to disagree’ provision. This allows a coalition party (but not an individual minister) to nominate a particular issue as a matter of ‘party distinction’, and to publicly disagree with its coalition partner’s stance on the matter. However, it can only do so for the duration of the decision-making process. Once a conclusion has been reached, perhaps by a parliamentary vote or a cabinet decision, all ministers are bound by the outcome.

The second involves the partial application of collective cabinet responsibility. For ministers from coalition parties, collective responsibility applies only to their portfolios. In other matters, the ‘agree to disagree’ provisions apply.

Changes under MMP

Collective cabinet responsibility evolved following New Zealand’s change to a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996 and the demands of multi-party government. The issue of unanimity has been the source of most of the changes in the post-MMP period.

Crash landing

The coalition between National and New Zealand First which began in 1996 was plagued by conflicts and personality differences from the start. It collapsed in 1998 when the New Zealand First members walked out of cabinet in a disagreement over the sale of the government’s share in Wellington airport.

Agreeing to disagree

That some sort of change was needed was demonstrated by the demise of the National–New Zealand First coalition during the National-led government of 1996–99. Having adopted a strict interpretation of collective responsibility, it was unable to accommodate the public expression of significant differences over policy. Accordingly the Labour–Alliance government adjusted the convention in 1999 to allow the establishment of agree-to-disagree procedures.

Partial application of collective responsibility

The Labour-led minority coalition government formed in October 2005 further modified the convention of collective responsibility. That government was built on four separate agreements between political parties.

The two agreements on confidence and supply with the New Zealand First and United Future parties gave the leader of each of these two parties, Winston Peters and Peter Dunne respectively, ministerial positions. While the Cabinet manual provisions relating to collective responsibility applied to each minister, they did so only in respect of their particular portfolio responsibilities. In every other situation the agree-to-disagree provisions of the Cabinet manual applied.

Neither was a member of any cabinet committee – other ministers presented papers on their behalf. The two ministers appeared on the ministerial list as ‘Ministers Outside Cabinet from other Parties with Confidence and Supply Agreements’.

Agreeing to cooperate

The 2005 cooperation agreement between Labour and the Green Party led to some changes in the way cabinet worked. The Greens agreed not to oppose the government on confidence and supply, and in return were able to be involved in policy development and implementation arrangements (including Budget deliberations) in a number of specified policy areas. This meant Green Party representatives were able to attend cabinet committee meetings and participate in discussions.

The pattern established by the 2005–2008 Labour-led government was followed by the National-led administration formed in 2008. In 2017 Labour and New Zealand First formed a minority coalition government that was supported by the Green Party on matters of confidence and supply. The Greens' three ministers were outside cabinet.

Ministers and prime ministers in cabinet


Depending on a party’s protocols, ministers may be elected by the party caucus, chosen by the prime minister, or selected by a mix of both methods. Under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system there are three categories of minister: ministers in the ‘core’ cabinet, ministers outside cabinet, and ministers from support parties.

Prime ministerial control

The prime minister’s control of ministers and cabinet has occasionally been challenged. At the end of 1988, after months of personal and political disagreements, Labour Prime Minister David Lange dismissed his minister of finance, Roger Douglas. However, a few months later the Labour caucus voted Douglas back into cabinet. This precipitated Lange’s resignation.


The prime minister assigns ministers portfolios for policy areas such as finance, health and economic development. Ministers determine government policy and exercise any statutory powers or functions within their portfolios. The prime minister has the power to dismiss or demand the resignation of a minister, and to reshuffle portfolios.

Cabinet rank

Ministers are assigned seniority by the prime minister. Their rank depends on factors such as their length of service, the importance of their portfolio and their personal standing with the prime minister. The minister of finance, who has responsibility for the Treasury, is usually one of the highest-ranked ministers.

Individual ministerial responsibility

Individual ministerial responsibility is a constitutional convention. Members of cabinet are individually responsible in three main ways:

  • they are accountable for decisions that they take in relation to their portfolio responsibilities
  • they are responsible for their own professional and personal conduct
  • they are responsible for decisions and actions (and the consequences that follow) of individuals and organisations for which they have ministerial responsibility, whether or not they were party to or knew of those actions. This is known as vicarious ministerial responsibility.

Breaches of ministerial responsibility

The Cabinet manual provides some guidance, but ultimately it is for the prime minister to decide, in a broader political as well as a constitutional context, whether a breach of individual ministerial responsibility has occurred and, if so, what the consequences should be.

Grounds for resignation or dismissal include misuse or abuse of the financial supports available to a minister, and misleading the prime minister, one’s cabinet or parliamentary colleagues, or Parliament itself. On some occasions ministers who are the subject of an accusation will stand aside until matters have been investigated. If no serious fault on the part of the minister is established, their cabinet position will be restored.

Vicarious responsibility

Vicarious responsibility is the one aspect of individual ministerial responsibility where the consequences of a breach are most debated. In one view, even where a minister is unaware of an action taken by a subordinate, he or she should resign. The contrary view, held by successive New Zealand governments, is that rectification should be placed ahead of resignation.

After the Cave Creek tragedy of 28 April 1995 – when a Department of Conservation viewing platform on the West Coast of the South Island collapsed, killing 14 people and seriously injuring several others – a commission of inquiry found that the department was at fault. The minister of conservation, Denis Marshall, chose not to resign but to stay on to remedy the faults that had contributed to the disaster. Eventually he resigned, not from cabinet, but as minister of conservation. His announcement to Parliament on 30 May 1996 explicitly stated the rectification view: ‘On ministerial responsibility, Ministers should at the very least publicly make themselves accountable and ensure that the errors will not occur again. I believe I have done that. I said in the House last November that I am profoundly sorry. Today I am taking a further step to express my sorrow for what happened that fateful day at Cave Creek.’

    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol. 555, 30 May 1996, p. 12922. Back

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How to cite this page: Chris Eichbaum, 'Cabinet government', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Chris Eichbaum, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012