History of the Governor-General

Page 6 – Regalised

The constitutional arrangements of the British Empire changed greatly between the creation of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917 and the passing of the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

By summoning dominion prime ministers to London to take part in a new Imperial War Cabinet, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George broke the old viceregal monopoly of official intergovernmental communications.

Then, in 1926 the Imperial Conference devised the Balfour formula of dominion status. This defined the Commonwealth as 'autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations'.

This regalised the post. Instead of being servants of the British government, governors-general became, as constitutional theorist Arthur Berriedale Keith observed, 'the representative of the Crown, holding in all essential respects the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the Dominion as is held by His Majesty the King in Great Britain'.

In December 1931 the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster. This gave effect to resolutions passed by the imperial conferences of 1926 and 1930, most notably repealing the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865. After the Statute of Westminster was passed, the British government could no longer make ordinary law for the dominions, other than at their request and with their consent.

The statute applied to Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa. New Zealand, Australia and Newfoundland resisted change and ensured that the statute would apply to them after they had ratified it. New Zealand took its time, waiting until 25 November 1947 to pass the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act.

In fact, little changed. New Zealand politicians did not want to have greater independence forced on them. Prime Minister Gordon Coates, who led the New Zealand delegation to the 1926 conference, called the Balfour Declaration a 'poisonous document' that would weaken the ties of empire. His successors kept Government House as the official communications channel until 1941.

Though Prime Minister Peter Fraser suggested, in 1945, the appointment of Sir Bernard Freyberg (1946–52), the British-born commander of New Zealand's main fighting force, governments waited until the 1950s to begin nominating governors-general. A New Zealand resident was not appointed until 1972.