History of the Governor-General

Page 2 – Modern duties

The governor-general's duties are divided into three functions: ceremonial, community and constitutional.

Ceremonial

The governor-general takes part in public ceremonies as the individual who represents the state. Important ceremonies include opening new sessions of Parliament, holding honours investitures, welcoming visiting heads of state, receiving the credentials of foreign diplomats and attending Waitangi Day and Anzac Day commemorations.

Community

This function grew considerably over the 20th century. The modern governor-general is usually patron of nearly 200 charitable, service, sporting and cultural organisations. Viceregal sponsorship or patronage signals that an organisation is worthy of wide support. Many of the governor-general's community functions also have a ceremonial dimension: laying foundation stones, opening buildings, addressing conferences and launching special events and appeals.

The community role consumes far more time than ceremonial or constitutional duties. In a typical year, over 15,000 people will attend functions at Government House, and the governor-general participates in 400–500 public events.

Constitutional

The purpose of the constitutional role is to maintain the legitimacy and continuity of government. The New Zealand constitution is a mix of legislation and conventions (binding understandings or customs that guide conduct and relationships).

Executive Council

The sovereign and the House of Representatives together make up the Parliament of New Zealand. The governor-general signs into law (gives royal assent) bills that have been passed by the House.

The Constitution Act empowers the governor-general to summon and dissolve Parliament. The governor-general also presides at meetings of the Executive Council (council members are Ministers of the Crown) and signs regulations (as Orders in Council) that implement government decisions that need legal force.

Meetings are typically brief. In Governor-General Sir Denis Blundell's day (1972–7), the 'one cigarette rule' applied: after formal business he could quiz ministers for as long as it took to smoke a cigarette.

'Proceedings do not occupy more than ten minutes,' Governor Sir Arthur Gordon (1880–2) complained. 'After the Council, the Premier frequently (but not always), comes to my room, for five minutes, and asks me, (in a way which always irresistibly reminds me of the Lieutenant of the Tower asking a state prisoner whether he can in any way oblige him), whether there is anything I want done in the house, or garden'.

By convention, the governor-general must act on the advice of ministers who have the support of the House. They, in turn, must keep the governor-general informed about government business. He or she may encourage, warn and offer suggestions.

The reserve powers (or the personal prerogative, as the governor-general's personal discretion is called) are confined to appointing or dismissing a prime minister, refusing a request to dissolve Parliament, forcing a dissolution of Parliament or refusing the royal assent to a bill where to grant it would be unlawful or would irreparably impair representative democracy. Listed that way, they sound impressive, but their exercise is, in all but exceptional circumstances, dictated by constitutional convention. On all other occasions, the non-partisan governor-general follows the advice of Cabinet ministers – politicians elected by the people.

How to cite this page

'Modern duties', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/history-of-the-governor-general/modern-duties, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Jul-2014