At first New Zealand’s governors had wide powers. From 1856, when New Zealand acquired responsible government, ministers set domestic policy. Governor Thomas Gore Browne (1855–61) blurred that slightly by retaining responsibility for native affairs and internal defence for a few years. Honours, awards, diplomatic relations and external defence remained the prerogative of the imperial government, and governors were expected to refer any legislation likely to contradict British law to the Colonial Office in London. Governors were also the channel for official communications between the New Zealand premier and his British counterpart.
Although governors and premiers sometimes disliked each other, there were few public spats. However, the British government sacked Governor Robert FitzRoy in 1845, and later recalled Sir George Grey after he clashed with politicians and the military and ignored instructions.
The one-cigarette rule
Most weeks the governor-general attends the Executive Council (cabinet plus ministers outside cabinet) to sign legislation. Ministers with relevant business are encouraged to attend. Usually, however, discussion is brief. In the 1970s Sir Denis Blundell was advised that after signing the bills and regulations, he could talk to ministers for as long as it took to smoke a cigarette. After that, he should let them get back to running the country.
Following ministerial advice
A significant constitutional crisis occurred in 1890 when the governor, Lord Onslow, allowed Premier Harry Atkinson (who had just lost the election) to appoint fellow conservatives to the upper house of Parliament, the Legislative Council. From there they savaged the new Liberal government’s reforms. Onslow refused Liberal requests for compensatory appointments. He left early for Britain in 1892, but his successor, Lord Glasgow, held to the same line, forcing the Colonial Office to remind governors to follow ministerial advice in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
New Zealand became a dominion in 1907. Between the world wars, several dominions forced changes to the responsibilities of the governors-general. In 1926 dominions were declared to be autonomous in domestic and external affairs and equal in status, but bound together by common loyalty to the British Crown. High commissioners picked up the job of representing the British government in dominions. From this time, the main role of most governors-general was to represent the sovereign, not the British government. New Zealand politicians resisted these changes, keeping the governor-general as the main channel for official communications with Britain. This situation continued until early in the Second World War, when the Government House cipher staff (who coded and decoded telegrams and other communications) were finally transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department.
Patriating the office
The office was ‘patriated’ (made an entirely New Zealand one) in 1983 with new ‘letters patent’, issued in the Queen’s name but signed by the New Zealand prime minister, not the monarch. Letters patent set out the governor-general’s powers.
Plumed helmets to politics
In 1996 Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boys, who like many other modern governors-general was a lawyer, clarified how he would use his powers in the case of an unclear electoral result under the mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system. He maintained that politicians must decide who would govern, and only after a public announcement of their decision would he appoint a prime minister. However, in uncertain situations he did expect to consult with party leaders. As he observed, ‘there is still more to the office than the official smile, the genteel wave and the memory of plumed helmets of yesteryear.’1
Powers in the 2000s
In the 2000s the governor-general and the House of Representatives together make up New Zealand’s Parliament (though the word is normally used to refer simply to the House of Representatives). The governor-general summons Parliament and gives the royal assent to (signs into law) bills that have been passed by the House of Representatives.
He or she has the right to be consulted and to encourage or caution ministers, and constitutionally retains some personal discretion. ‘Reserve powers’ allow governors-general to appoint or dismiss a prime minister, to dissolve Parliament, to refuse a prime minister’s request for an election or to refuse to sign legislation. In practice, however, these powers have not been exercised. The modern saying is that ‘the Queen reigns, but the Government rules.’2