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Pieces of a whole
Sovereignty: from the Treaty of Waitangi to the United Nations
Sovereignty challenged
Te Tiriti o Waitangi
How it all fits together
Representing the Queen
Three branches of government
MMP's first decade
Watchdogs for democracy
National identities
Association of former Members of Parliament
Pacific citizens
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Representing the Queen

The Governor-General's three functions
The constitutional role
The Reserve Powers
'Acting' Governor-General
The NZ Honours System
Dame Silvia Cartwright PCNZM, DBE
Teaching modules

The Governor-General is the personal representative of our Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand. The Realm of New Zealand comprises New Zealand, Tokelau and the Ross Dependency, and the self-governing states of the Cook Islands and Niue.

One of the distinctive features of our type of democracy – constitutional monarchy – is that our Head of State is non-partisan. The role of Head of State is separate from the “business” of government. The Governor-General is regarded as a symbol of national unity and leadership.

The Governor-General’s three functions

The Governor-General has three overlapping roles – the constitutional, the ceremonial and the community.


The Governor-General’s constitutional role is to maintain the legitimacy and continuity of government. She does this by, for example, dissolving Parliament before a general election is held; issuing the writ directing the holding of a general election; formally appointing the Prime Minister and assenting to the enactment of legislation.


The Governor-General takes part in public ceremonies as the individual who represents the state. This role includes opening new sessions of Parliament, holding honours investitures, welcoming visiting Heads of State, receiving credentials of foreign diplomats and attending Waitangi Day commemorations.


The Governor-General provides non-partisan leadership in the community. New Zealand Governors-General are always the patrons of many charitable, service, sporting and cultural organisations. Our present Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright, is patron to nearly 200 organisations. The patronage of the Governor-General signalsthat an organisation is worthy of wide support. Many of the Governor-General’s community functions also have a ceremonial dimension, such as attendance at the official openings of buildings, addresses to open conferences, or launching special events and appeals.

The Governor-General’s community role is by far the busiest: during most years, there will be 400 to 500 functions to attend, from Northland to Stewart Island, from Fiordland to the Chatham Islands. During her regular visits around the country, Dame Silvia meets – and talks and listens to – thousands of New Zealanders where they live and work.

The constitutional role

New Zealand’s constitution is set out in a series of formal legal documents, decisions of the courts and the practices we describe as conventions. It increasingly reflects the fact that the Treaty of Waitangi is regarded as a founding document of government in New Zealand.

The Constitution Act 1986 is the principal formal statement of the constitution.

This Act recognises that the Queen is the Head of State of New Zealand and that the Governor-General is her appointed representative. Each can, in general, exercise all the powers of the other. The powers of the Governor-General are described in the Letters Patent Constituting the Office of the Governor-General of New Zealand, most recently revised in 1983.

As Head of State, Queen Elizabeth’s formal New Zealand title is 'Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of New Zealand and Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith'.

The Queen’s personal representative in New Zealand is formally styled 'The Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief in and over New Zealand'. The Governor-General is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the New Zealand Government, usually for a term of five years.

The Governor-General signs into law (gives Royal Assent to) bills that have been passed by the House of Representatives. The Constitution Act empowers the Governor-General to summon and dissolve Parliament. The Governor-General also presides at meetings of the Executive Council (Council members are Ministers of the Crown) and signs regulations (as Orders in Council).

By convention, the Governor-General acts on the advice of Ministers who have the support of the House of Representatives. Ministers must keep the Governor-General informed about government business. The Governor-General may encourage, warn and offer suggestions to Ministers.

The Governor-General appoints members of the Judiciary and Justices of the Peace, may exercise the royal prerogative of mercy, and signs the commissions of officers in the New Zealand Defence Force and the warrants for Royal Commissions.

The Reserve Powers

In a very few cases, the Governor-General may exercise a degree of personal discretion, under what are known as 'reserve powers' (and even then convention usually dictates what decision should be taken). The most important is the appointment of a Prime Minister following an election, or accepting the resignation of an incumbent Prime Minister. Other reserve powers are to dismiss a Prime Minister, to force a dissolution of Parliament, to refuse a Prime Minister’s request for an election, and to refuse assent to legislation (some would dispute the last).

'Acting' Governor-General

The Letters Patent provide for an order of succession if the Governor-General were incapacitated, outside the country, or otherwise unable to perform his or her duties. This 'acting Governor-General' is known as the Administrator of the Government. First in line of succession is the Chief Justice, followed by the President and then the Senior Judge of the Court of Appeal. The Administrator is required to take an oath similar to the one taken by the Governor-General.

The NZ Honours System

The New Zealand Honours System is based on merit and recognises community involvement, selfless dedication, ingenuity, intelligence and talent. Our highest honour is the Order of New Zealand, with a maximum ordinary membership of 20. The next tier of honours is the New Zealand Order of Merit. It has five levels, the highest being Principal Companion (PCNZM). A third honour is the Queen’s Service Order and the associated Queen’s Service Medal. Awards are made on the advice of Ministers twice a year. The Governor-General, on behalf of the Queen, holds investitures for the people named in the New Year and Queen’s Birthday Honours Lists. The Governor-General is Chancellor of the New Zealand Order of Merit and Principal Companion of the Queen’s Service Order. (The New Zealand Honours System began in 1996. Prior to 1975, New Zealand shared the British Honours System; between 1975 and 1996, the honours system was a mix of British and New Zealand Royal honours.)

Dame Silvia Cartwright PCNZM, DBE

Dame Silvia Cartwright is New Zealand’s 18th Governor-General. She took the oath of office in April 2001 after a distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist, and as an advocate for women and women’s rights.

Dame Silvia was born in Dunedin. She graduated with a LLB from Otago University in 1967. After several years in private practice, she embarked on a judicial career which culminated in her appointment to the High Court – the first woman in New Zealand to achieve this.

In 1987 and 1988, Dame Silvia chaired the Commission of Inquiry into the Treatment of Cervical Cancer and Other Related Matters at National Women’s Hospital. The inquiry, also known as the Cartwright Inquiry, was a landmark in New Zealand medical history.

Internationally, Dame Silvia contributed as a member of the United Nations committee monitoring compliance with the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In 2001, she was made an International Honorary Member of Zonta International, an organisation for the advancement of the status of women worldwide.

Since becoming Governor-General, Dame Silvia has assumed the Chair of the Waitangi National Trust Board which administers the land at Waitangi on which the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840.

Dame Silvia is patron to nearly 200 organisations and charities and regularly travels overseas to represent New Zealand. As Governor-General, Dame Silvia has visited England, Bahrain, Thailand and East Timor.

She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1989. She is married (1969) to Peter Cartwright, a lawyer who chairs the Broadcasting Standards Authority and is an Accident Compensation Appeal Authority.

Dame Silvia and Peter Cartwright live at the Governor-General’s official residence, Government House in Wellington. There is also a Government House in Auckland.

Find out more in Government House teaching modules, including for secondary schools on the " Governor-General: past, present, future" .

Link to Government House website added during December 2005 update. Further updating will need to address issues posed by her retirement and the appointment of a new Governor-General during 2006.

Updated 10 February 2006


NZ PM, Prince, GG, Ministerss
Prime Minister Helen Clark and government ministers greet Prince Charles and Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright




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