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Government House - Water Colour

Source: George O’Brien, 1871. Alexander Turnbull Library, G674

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The Governor used to govern New Zealand — until elected representatives in Parliament took over. Find out about this fascinating shift in power and how the Governor (now Governor-General) became less powerful.

The Governor in colonial New Zealand

The Governor, who represented Queen Victoria, governed New Zealand from 1840. In that year, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and New Zealand became a British colony.

Changing role of the Governor

In 1854, New Zealand’s first Parliament opened. During the next 2 years, it was unclear how the Governor should hand over power. Until this was clarified, he would not agree to pass power to a Government formed only from members of Parliament. In 1856, Britain confirmed that this should occur. The Governor, however, still controlled military and Māori affairs.

In the early 1860s, the country fell into financial trouble when land wars erupted with Māori — and the Governor and Government clashed. As a result, the Government proposed that New Zealand become ‘self-reliant’ — controlling, and paying for, all its domestic affairs. Britain agreed. The Governor now acted only on the advice of Government.

Role of the Governor-General today

In 1917, the Governor became known as the Governor-General. Today, the role of the Governor-General is largely symbolic, reflecting New Zealand’s continued ties with the Crown. The role includes:

  • appointing the Government
  • calling Parliament together
  • opening Parliament
  • signing bills into law.