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Elizabeth II and our Elections

Published date: 20 May 2020

For the last 67 years, a global icon has played an important but mostly unnoticed role in our Parliament. In an election year, what duties does the Queen of New Zealand have?

With a busy schedule and a home roughly 18,000 kilometres away, it is hard for Queen Elizabeth II to regularly visit New Zealand, let alone have major day-to-day responsibilities in our Parliament. But as our Sovereign Head of State, her roles in New Zealand’s democracy – constitutional, ceremonial, and community – are quite important. When the Queen is not physically present in New Zealand, these roles are carried out by her representative, the Governor-General.

Queen sitting on throne in chamber, handed a document by man Enlarge image

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opening a session of the New Zealand Parliament on 12 January 1954 in the Legislative Council Chamber, Parliament House. She is accepting a vellum copy of her speech from the throne from Sir Sidney Holland (Prime Minister, 1949-1957). Photograph partially colourised by the photographer.

Source: Parliamentary Collection, Morris Hill photograph

Our Head of State

The Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, is New Zealand’s ‘head of government’. As the leader of the Labour Party – the largest party in the coalition Government formed after the 2017 election – the Prime Minister has authority to lead the Government while answering to Parliament.

Parliament consists of the “Sovereign” and the House of Representatives. New Zealand’s Constitution Act states that the Sovereign is also New Zealand’s “Head of State”. Currently this person is Elizabeth II, who is not only Queen of the United Kingdom – she is also Queen of New Zealand, and 14 other countries which were once part of the British Empire.

As Head of State of New Zealand, the Queen has a range of “royal powers” that she exercises in her constitutional, ceremonial, and community roles. Some of the Queen’s powers as Head of State of New Zealand include signing bills into law, formally appointing governments and Ministers, appointing judges, and dissolving Parliament. If the Queen was present in New Zealand her ceremonial role would be to open Parliament, as occurred in 1954. The Queen’s community functions include bestowing honours on people in recognition of their community service. 

Since it would be difficult for the Queen to juggle all these duties for all 15 of her realms, in reality most of her formal duties are done by her representative, the Governor-General. The Governor-General has full authority to act on the Queen’s behalf when the Queen is not physically present in New Zealand.

The Constitution Act states that the Queen, or the Governor-General, can only exercise any of the royal powers with the advice and consent of the Government of the New Zealand. These powers will transfer to the next monarch after Elizabeth II.

The Queen in election year

Although New Zealand’s Parliaments can be shorter, they are generally renewed after an election every three years and do not carry on continuously. If the Queen was present in New Zealand in an election year she would be advised by the Government (usually the Prime Minister) when to bring the Parliamentary term to an end.

The Queen – or normally, the Governor-General acting in her place – issues a ‘proclamation’, which is an announcement that Parliament will be dissolved. The Governor-General also issues a writ, again on the advice of the Prime Minister, that instructs the Electoral Commission to hold an election on a certain date. The writ also includes a provisional date for Parliament to meet again. (We’ll explain the writ in a future feature.)

After an election, the new Government that has been sworn in announces the time and place for the new Parliament to have its first meeting, where members elected at the general election will be sworn into office. Members give an oath or affirmation, declaring their loyalty to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors.”

The Governor-General reads the Speech from the Throne, on the Queen’s behalf. This speech is given at the start of every new Parliament, and explains why Parliament has been assembled. It outlines the Government’s plans for the next three years, and what it wants Parliament to consider. On a number of occasions, the Queen herself has delivered the Speech from the Throne in person, like the opening of Parliament in 1954.

Queen Opens New Zealand Parliament (1954) Source: British Pathé. [Video duration: 2 min 22 sec]

The Queen’s responsibilities and powers in New Zealand’s system of government are mostly set out in legislation, are limited, are largely ceremonial and are usually carried out by the Governor-General.