The prime minister is the leader of the largest political party among those forming the government.
Historically, prime-ministerial responsibilities included:
In addition, the prime minister has become the main spokesperson for the government both within and outside Parliament.
In 2023, 41 prime ministers had 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.
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.
By 2023 New Zealand had had 41 prime ministers, 38 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 was the first woman to become prime minister following an election 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.
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.
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 2023, when there were 120 seats in Parliament, cabinet had 20 members. In addition, there were five ministers outside cabinet, two co-operation agreement ministers and one parliamentary under-secretary.
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).
From 1840 New Zealand’s governors ruled autocratically (with absolute authority), advised by the Executive Council and Legislative Council and answerable to the authorities in London. In 1854, though the new Parliament was still only there to provide advice to the governor, politicians had already asked for self-governance in domestic matters, rather than having to defer to Britain. That year, while awaiting the reply from London, the acting governor, Colonel Robert Wynyard, appointed politician James FitzGerald to his Executive Council. Thomas Forsaith succeeded FitzGerald in the role. However, neither the ‘FitzGerald ministry’ nor the ‘Forsaith ministry’ lasted long. Their leaders were not true premiers.
The ‘Forsaith Ministry’ was also known as the ‘clean shirt ministry’ because Forsaith raced to change his shirt on being summoned to Government House.
New Zealand’s earliest genuine ministries, formed after Parliament became responsible (fully self-governing for most internal policy) in 1856, were short-lived. The first premier, Henry Sewell, was sworn in on 18 April 1856, but was gone by 20 May. His successor, William Fox, was replaced by Edward Stafford on 2 June. In all there were 24 ministries between 1856 and 1891. To many it is a blur of beards, names and dates, but power was transferred peacefully each time, showing that the fledgling democracy worked.
Cabinet membership was often more stable than the comings and goings of premiers might suggest. Sewell, for example, served in four different ministries. Julius Vogel, as influential in cabinet as he was when premier, sat in most ministries between 1869 and 1876, and returned in the 1880s.
Politicians bandied about labels such as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, but these were often just convenient terms of praise or abuse. For nearly 40 years ministries were cobbled together around personalities, parochialism and policy. However, premiers such as Stafford and Harry Atkinson served terms that were lengthy enough to have a stabilising effect on governments.
Some early colonial premiers were artistically inclined. The young William Fox captured the country’s landscape in beautiful watercolours, while Alfred Domett wrote clunky poetry. Julius Vogel and John Ballance were newspapermen. In retirement Vogel published the futuristic feminist novel Anno domini 2000, or, woman’s destiny.
From 1852 to 1876 New Zealand had provincial governments. One divisive early issue was the relative power of central and provincial government. Stafford campaigned for the abolition of the provinces and was eventually successful, despite the initial opposition of Fox, Vogel and former governor Sir George Grey. Provincial governments were abolished under Vogel’s leadership in 1876.
The government’s relationship with Māori was another explosive issue, with several ministries foundering over the handling of the wars of the early 1860s. By 1864, when Frederick Weld, on behalf of the New Zealand government, pledged to take full responsibility for internal defence, the heaviest fighting was over.
Although some late-19th-century politicians aspired to New Zealand having its own Pacific empire, and others attended Australasian federation discussions in the early 1890s, New Zealand’s foreign policy at this time was set by Britain. Most premiers were preoccupied by internal issues such as land settlement, roads, railways and ports.
The 1890 election introduced government by party for the first time, when new premier John Ballance established the Liberal Federation. Ballance died in 1893 and was succeeded by Richard Seddon (sometimes known as ‘King Dick’), who effortlessly dominated New Zealand politics for the next 13 years. There was little real parliamentary opposition until 1909, when William Massey welded together the Reform Party. Thereafter political power centred on parties and their leaders. Personality became increasingly important for political success. The charismatic Gordon Coates ensured victory for Reform in 1925, and Labour’s Michael Joseph Savage, with his genial, fatherly image, enjoyed mass adulation in the 1930s.
Religion was politically divisive in the early 1900s when Sir Joseph Ward (a Catholic) and William Massey (Protestant) led the major parties, Liberal and Reform. Generally, though, it seldom raised political ripples in New Zealand. Because the Anglican Church is not an established (that is, official state) church in New Zealand, Frederick Weld, a Catholic, could become premier in 1864. Julius Vogel, who was Jewish, became premier in 1873. By contrast, in 2017 Britain had still not had a Catholic or Jewish prime minister. Non-belief was also not a bar to office in New Zealand; colonial premiers Alfred Domett, Robert Stout and John Ballance were freethinkers.
In the early 1890s there were some unexpected challenges to the premiership from Government House. Late in 1890, Governor Onslow unwisely accepted defeated Premier Sir Harry Atkinson’s appointments to the Legislative Council (the upper house of Parliament). The council then proceeded to savage important Liberal bills. Onslow’s successor, Lord Glasgow, refused to allow Premier John Ballance’s request to make enough counter-balancing appointments to safeguard the government’s programme. In 1892 the British government had to remind Glasgow that in self-governing colonies governors were bound to follow ministerial advice on domestic matters.
Although not every 20th-century government would have a big majority, the party system and tight control of party members by whips (MPs who ensure other party members vote in compliance with party policy) helped prime ministers by making confidence votes in the House of Representatives more predictable. Between 1915 and 1919 Reform leader William Massey led an uneasy wartime coalition with the Liberals under Joseph Ward – a first for New Zealand.
One change brought about by the First World War was direct participation in governing the British Empire. Previously, New Zealand prime ministers had attended occasional colonial and imperial conferences, but they otherwise communicated with London through the governor. In 1917, however, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George offered them seats in a new Imperial War Cabinet. In 1919 New Zealand’s new standing was recognised when Massey signed the peace settlement, the Treaty of Versailles. Characteristically, Massey, a devoted imperialist, downplayed the significance of the event.
For a while New Zealand’s prime ministers opposed greater independence from Britain. New Zealand and Australia resisted the structural reforms towards independence pushed by other dominions at the 1926 and 1930 imperial conferences. The 1931 Statute of Westminster confirmed that dominions had exclusive power to make their laws. However, New Zealand did not adopt this statute until 1947, and then only as part of a political manoeuvre to make it constitutionally possible to abolish the Legislative Council. Increasingly, however, New Zealand began to act independently in foreign affairs. During the 1940s the prime minister’s profile rose as the country signed a number of international treaties. Prime Minister Peter Fraser established a New Zealand embassy in the United States and played an important role in setting up the United Nations.
Following the long Labour government between 1935 and 1949 came the lengthy prime ministerial terms of National Party leaders Sidney Holland (1949–57) and Keith Holyoake (1957, 1960–72), broken only briefly by Walter Nash’s Labour government between 1957 and 1960.
Many saw the 1972 election of 49-year-old Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk as a fresh start. The average age of incoming prime ministers between 1912 and 1972 was 61, but after Kirk they were younger, averaging 47 years. Only Robert Muldoon and Bill English (both 54) and Jim Bolger (55) came to office in their 50s. Some young prime ministers were also relative political novices. Neither David Lange (1984–89) nor John Key (2008-16) served long parliamentary apprenticeships. At 37, Jacinda Ardern was New Zealand's youngest prime minister since 1856 when she took office in 2017. She gave birth while in office, one of the few leaders anywhere in the world to have done so. Chris Hipkins, who took over from her as prime minister in January 2023, was not much older at 44, having cut his teeth in the world of student politics at Victoria University of Wellington, and then entered Parliament in 2008, at the same election as Ardern.
Relative youth enabled some leaders to carve out significant post-prime-ministerial careers. Only Robert Muldoon and David Lange remained in Parliament for long after defeat. Geoffrey Palmer worked in academia, business and public life. Jim Bolger and Mike Moore were ambassadors to the United States and Moore was also director general of the World Trade Organisation. Helen Clark was head of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017.
Norman Kirk died in office in 1974 and was succeeded briefly by Bill Rowling. Politically, the period from 1975 to 1999 was dominated by the nine-year term of Muldoon (1975–84), by Lange’s radical fourth Labour government, and by the nine-year National term from 1990 to 1999 under Bolger and Jenny Shipley.
After the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system was introduced in 1996, prime ministers had to learn to manage coalition or minority governments. The art of MMP management was exemplified by Helen Clark’s nine years as prime minister (1999–2008), when her Labour Party remained in power thanks to a range of agreements with five smaller parties. Even when Labour won a majority of seats in the 2020 election, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern included Green Party ministers in her government.
With the emergence of party politics, leaders became more focused on wooing voters. Richard Seddon regularly travelled around the country by train as a way of keeping in touch with the public. Making international contacts in the early 20th century, however, involved time-consuming journeys by sea. As aviation developed from the 1940s, leaders increased their overseas travel.
Whereas prime ministers once led regional and personal factions, increasingly they led political parties and the nation. Leaders had to develop their communication skills to explain government policy and actions and gain popular support.
Radio broadcasting began in New Zealand in the 1920s, but it was not until 1936 that sittings of Parliament were broadcast. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage controlled this medium, deciding which debates would be broadcast and who would be allowed to speak. He used radio talks as a way of appealing directly to the electorate.
Some prime-ministerial nicknames hint at the character or appearance of the leader, while others indicate leadership achievements:
John Ballance – ‘The Rainmaker’
Richard Seddon – ‘King Dick’
William Massey – ‘Farmer Bill’
Keith Holyoake – ‘Kiwi Keith’
Jack Marshall – ‘Gentleman Jack’
Norman Kirk – ‘Big Norm’
Robert Muldoon – ‘Piggy’
Jim Bolger – ‘Spud’, ‘The Great Helmsman’
Helen Clark – ‘Aunty Helen’, ‘H1’
John Key – 'Teflon John'.
Radio continued to be important after the Second World War, but television, which arrived in New Zealand in 1960, had an even greater impact. At first television journalists were reverential towards prime ministers, but over time they became more questioning. Starting with the campaigns of Robert Muldoon and Bill Rowling in the mid-1970s, leaders had to master the medium. Personal appearance became more important, and several leaders, notably David Lange and Helen Clark, had image makeovers. Prime ministers had to learn to get their message across quickly and forcefully, while projecting warmth, ease and a sense of being effortlessly in control. In addition, they had to manage interviewers and handle debates with opponents without alienating a broad television audience. Those skills became more vital as television channels proliferated and later as new internet and social-networking media emerged.
A few modern prime ministers bared their souls in print. Robert Muldoon’s The rise and fall of a young turk (1974) and David Lange’s My life (2005) were both best-selling books. After leaving office Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore published books on constitutional and international issues.
New Zealand’s early leaders had to rent houses when Parliament sat at Auckland. In 1865, when the seat of government moved to Wellington, a small cottage in Tinakori Road, Thorndon, was purchased as a premier’s residence. It was handy to Parliament, but it was a simple structure – until Julius Vogel transformed it into an eight-bedroom mansion dubbed ‘the Casino’ in 1873. However, after Harry Atkinson cut ministerial salaries in the 1880s, premiers settled for smaller, cheaper houses.
The second heyday of the Tinakori Road house was between 1901 and 1928, when Joseph Ward, William Massey and Gordon Coates made it the social heart of political Wellington. Ward called it ‘Awarua House’ after his electorate, while Massey and Coates dubbed it ‘Ariki Toa’ (brave chief). That era ended in the 1930s when George Forbes moved out. Michael Joseph Savage made the break permanent and the building became for many years a school dental clinic. For the next 40 years prime ministers lived in ministerial houses.
In the 1960s the Vogel family gave Vogel House in Lower Hutt to the Crown, and from 1976 it was used as a prime minister’s residence. Robert Muldoon liked it, but David Lange found it too far from Parliament. In 1989 the government decided to restore the Tinakori Road residence. From 1990 prime ministers returned to Premier House in Thorndon, and it became New Zealand’s official prime ministerial residence.
Early premiers had only basic private secretarial support. In 1926 the government formed a very small Prime Minister’s Department (PMD) which grew during the 1940s.
The PMD employed public servants, who were politically neutral. From the 1970s, however, prime ministers also added paid political advisers to their offices. In 1989 a review resolved this uneasy mix by forming two new structures. The Private Office of the Prime Minister supports and advises the prime minister on party political issues. The politically neutral Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) runs the Cabinet Office, supports the governor-general and Government House and coordinates advice from the security units. It also carries out policy and research work.
The names of several early leaders were given to natural features such as glaciers (Fox), mountains and rivers, and small towns (Seddon and Ward). The best more recent ones can hope for is to have streets in subdivisions named after them.
In 1998 a survey of political scientists ranked the top ten leaders. They placed Richard Seddon at the top, followed by Peter Fraser, Michael Joseph Savage, John Ballance, Keith Holyoake, Norman Kirk, William Massey, Julius Vogel, Robert Muldoon and Edward Stafford. ‘Progressives’ only slightly outnumbered ‘conservatives’. More interestingly, the only five who died in office – Ballance, Seddon, Massey, Savage and Kirk – made up half the bunch. A second survey, in 2011, found the five still ranked in the top ten, along with Fraser, Holyoake, Vogel and two newcomers to the list: Jim Bolger and Helen Clark.
Wellington has had just four official statues of leaders. The ones in the grounds of Parliament honour Liberal premiers John Ballance and Richard Seddon. Photographers adore Seddon’s statue, which stands directly in front of Parliament. Fewer snap John Ballance’s, which is in front of the Parliamentary Library. A contemporary grumbled that it was so unflattering that it ‘adds a new terror to Death’.1 Keith Holyoake’s statue stood in front of an office block in Molesworth Street, while Peter Fraser is still shown dashing from the old Government Buildings (now the Victoria University school of law) on his way to Parliament.
Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, cares for three mausoleums in which prime ministers are interred – the Seddon and Massey memorials in Wellington and the Savage memorial in Auckland.
Bassett, Michael. Tomorrow comes the song: a life of Peter Fraser. Auckland: Penguin, 2000.
Grant, Ian F. Public lives: New Zealand’s premiers and prime ministers 1856–2003. Wellington: New Zealand Cartoon Archive, 2003.
Gustafson, Barry. His way: a biography of Robert Muldoon. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000.
Gustafson, Barry. Kiwi Keith: a biography of Keith Holyoake. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007.
Gustafson, Barry. Michael Joseph Savage. Wellington: Reed, 1968.
Johansson, Jon. Two titans: Muldoon, Lange and leadership. Wellington: Dunmore Publishing, 2005.
Johansson, Jon. The politics of possibility: leadership in changing times. Wellington: Dunmore, 2009.
Sinclair, Keith. Walter Nash. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1976.