Story: Governors and governors general
Until 1972 all of New Zealand’s governors and governors general were British, including an array of minor aristocrats from the 1890s onwards. The first New Zealand resident in the job was Sir Denis Blundell, and since then a more diverse group have been appointed. The earlier ceremonial trappings of ermine robes, plumed helmets, sashes and swords have also been largely relegated to the past.
Full story by Gavin McLean
Main image: Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright and former governor general Dame Cath Tizard, 2002
The Short Story
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Governing in Britain’s empire
New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy. Laws are passed by Parliament, with the consent of the Queen’s representative – the governor general.
The first governor was appointed in 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. In 1917 the title was changed to governor general.
Changes over time
The first governors were junior British naval and army officers. From the 1860s most were professionals who had governed other British colonies, and from the 1890s they were minor aristocrats. In 1972 the first New Zealand resident, Denis Blundell, became governor general.
By 2012 New Zealand had had 16 governors and 20 governors general. Of the 36, 34 were men – the first woman was Cath Tizard, in 1990. The first Māori governor general was Paul Reeves, in 1985, and the first Asian was Anand Satyanand, in 2006.
Early governors had wide powers, but from 1856 Parliament had power within New Zealand. Governors referred laws that might contradict British law to the Colonial Office in London. The governor general was the main channel for official communications with Britain until around 1940.
In the 2000s the governor general and the House of Representatives together comprise Parliament. The governor general summons Parliament, and signs into law bills passed by the House.
Duties for governors general included visiting communities around New Zealand. For many years they wore fancy ceremonial uniforms, including robes, sashes and feathered helmets, but from the 1960s this was less common. Governors general laid foundation stones for buildings, launched ships, presented prizes and bestowed honours. From the 1990s they represented New Zealand at overseas events.
Governors general are patrons of many societies, including charities and cultural and sporting organisations. Some set up charities themselves. They also host community events.
In Wellington and Auckland there are Government Houses, where the governor general lives and works. The first governor was based in the Bay of Islands in 1840, but the post moved to Auckland in 1841 and to Wellington in 1865.