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Premiers and Prime Ministers

Page 2 – Political origins

Since 1856 New Zealand has had 41 prime ministers, although not all of them were known by that title. The first ones were called ‘colonial secretaries’ (then the main ministerial portfolio). William Fox and Frederick Whitaker had a real mouthful: ‘attorney-general with the first seat in the Ministry’. ‘Premier’ became more common from the mid-1860s. In the early 1900s the terms were standardised throughout the British Empire: prime ministers led self-governing countries while premiers led states or Crown colonies.

Our British heritage

One of the main tasks of the prime minister is to chair Cabinet, a body that evolved in Britain over the last 400 years. By the end of the 17th century it was an inner circle of the Privy Council. Cabinet originally waited on the monarch, until the time of George I, when it met separately.

Term of abuse?

'Prime minister', not recognised by royal warrant until 1905, was once a term of abuse. Robert Walpole (1676-1745), Britain’s first PM, refused to use it and called himself the First Lord of the Treasury. His successors still bear that title, but these days 'prime minister' comes first.

The King chose the ministers and met them individually in his 'closet'. He expected them to stick to the business of their own departments but they got round that by concocting a 'party line' which they delivered one by one.

Initially the King set the Cabinet agenda but by the early 1800s ministers had gained control of it. To avoid being played off against one another, they offered collective advice.

Our modern Cabinets are much bigger than their Victorian predecessors. Since the Second World War, Cabinets have usually exceeded 20 members, including parliamentary under-secretaries and ministers outside Cabinet. One thing has not changed – the finance minister is always very influential.

The prime minister here becomes like a president and the finance minister is really a prime minister – it's the French system without the elegance.

Mike Moore (Prime Minister, 4 Sep – 2 Nov 1990)

Responsible government

New Zealand entered the British Empire in 1840 as a Crown colony ruled personally by the governor. The first elections, held in 1853, created 'representative' government – that is, politicians could advise the governor, but he and his officials had the final say. In 1854, James Fitzgerald and Thomas Forsaith led two very brief unofficial 'ministries', but the governor still held the real power. He did not surrender this to the politicians until 1856, when the colony gained 'responsible' government. Responsible government, or self-government within empire, was remarkably new and New Zealand was an early beneficiary. Canada and Nova Scotia had gained it as recently as 1848, and New South Wales and Victoria in 1855, the year the Colonial Office approved it for New Zealand.

London kept control of imperial defence, treaty-making and other roles. But under responsible government, ministers – elected politicians – now advised the sovereign's representative, who was obliged to follow that advice in all but the most extreme circumstances.

How to cite this page

Political origins, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated