Queen Elizabeth II

Page 2 – Constitutional and public ceremonial roles

On 11 February 1952, New Zealand’s governor-general, Lord Freyberg, stood on the steps of Parliament Buildings flanked by dignitaries and publicly proclaimed ‘the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary’ to be ‘Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the grace of God, Queen of this Realm and of all her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, defender of the faith.’ She had succeeded her father, King George VI, when he died on 6 February.

While the language of the proclamation may sound old-fashioned, much had changed over the preceding half-century. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, New Zealand was a self-governing colony (although the governor could refer legislation to London for a final decision if he thought it breached imperial interests). The colony became a dominion in 1907, and in 1947 it ratified the Statute of Westminster, making the country – soon to be called a ‘realm’ – fully independent.

Under the concept of the ‘divisible Crown’, the Queen was the head of state of 15 realms. She reigned as Queen of New Zealand independently of her position as Queen of the United Kingdom. The Sovereign and the House of Representatives together make up the Parliament of New Zealand. As a constitutional monarch, the Queen (usually through her representative, the governor-general) acted entirely on the advice of the elected government. In other words, the monarch reigns, while the government rules.

In Britain, the Queen met visiting New Zealand prime ministers and governors-general designate. As prime minister, John Marshall found that the Queen was ‘well informed and keenly interested in our position.’ Marshall noted that the Queen talked knowledgeably about New Zealand without displaying political partisanship. But these discussions could be meaty. In 1994, for example, she had a 45-minute meeting with Prime Minister Jim Bolger, who ‘talked in detail about the reasons why I believed New Zealand becoming a republic was inevitable.’

The Queen honoured special achievements by New Zealanders through the New Zealand Royal Honours system and sent messages to New Zealand in times of triumph and tragedy. She also maintained links with New Zealand military units. Many New Zealanders watched or listened to her Christmas broadcast, a tradition initiated by George V in 1932.

Although the Queen conferred royal honours on the advice of the prime minister, she could independently bestow certain honours on New Zealanders for personal service to the monarchy.

On occasions when the Queen was in New Zealand, she formally opened Parliament and read the Speech from the Throne (ordinarily delivered by the governor-general on the second sitting day of a parliamentary term). The speech explains the reasons for summoning Parliament and announces, in broad terms, the government’s policy and legislative proposals on the principal issues of the day. Before New Zealand discontinued appointments to the Privy Council, she also presided over local meetings of that body.


Because the Queen lived outside New Zealand, she was represented by the governor-general.

On the advice of the New Zealand prime minister, the Queen appointed governors-general, who had essentially the same powers as her, for a five-year term. All governors-general appointed since 1972 have been New Zealand residents. Prior to this they were all British residents. 

Although most communication between governor-general and monarch is through official channels, the governor-general usually maintained the custom of writing her a regular personal letter.

Two heads of state in the same place?

During the Queen’s reign, the concept of ‘the divisible Crown’ was applied domestically. During earlier royal tours, the governor-general met the distinguished visitors at selected official occasions and hosted them at Government House, but was otherwise expected to keep a low profile – ‘disappear to the South Island’, Government House officials suggested. As late as 1986, Prime Minister David Lange advised Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves of Te Ātiawa, the first governor-general of Māori descent (and a former Anglican archbishop), to be ‘a bit like the Holy Ghost, Your Excellency’ while the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited.

This practice changed shortly afterwards. ‘In previous times, it had been expected that the resident Governor-General would dematerialise when the Queen was in the country’, Reeves’ successor, Dame Catherine Tizard, recalled. ‘There could be only one New Zealand Head of State at a time! Fortunately for me, that bit of stuffy protocol was quietly dropped, so I didn’t have to clear out every time she came to stay, though I did move down the hall to let her have the main suite…. Bills were still signed, engagements kept, correspondence dealt with.’

How to cite this page

'Constitutional and public ceremonial roles', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/queen-elizabeth/constitutional-roles, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-May-2023