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Prime Minister of New Zealand

Prime Minister of
New Zealand
John Key

since 19 November 2008
Style The Right Honourable[1]
Residence Premier House
Appointer Governor-General of New Zealand
Term length At Her Majesty's pleasure
(dependent on parliamentary support)
Inaugural holder Henry Sewell
As Colonial Secretary
Formation 7 May 1856
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The Prime Minister of New Zealand (in Māori: Te Pirimia o Aotearoa) is New Zealand's head of government consequent on being the leader of the party or coalition with majority support in the Parliament of New Zealand. Since 19 November 2008, the Prime Minister has been John Key of the National Party, who has been re-elected a total of two times (2011 and 2014).

The title "Prime Minister" had made its first formal appearance in the 1873 Schedule of the Civil List Act, but originally the Prime Minister was entitled Colonial Secretary or First Minister. This was formally changed in 1869 to "Premier". However, this title too did not last, being informally changed by Richard Seddon to "Prime Minister" in 1901 during his tenure in office.[2] Following the declaration of New Zealand as a Dominion in 1907, the term "Prime Minister" has been used exclusively.

Responsibilities and powers

The role of the Prime Minister is not formally defined, being based on constitutional convention rather than specific legislation. According to these conventions, the Prime Minister is leader of Cabinet (itself a body existing by convention), and takes a co-ordinating role.

The Prime Minister is regarded by convention as "first among equals". He or she does indeed hold the most senior post in the administration, but is also required to adhere to any decisions taken by Cabinet. The actual ability of the New Zealand Prime Minister to give direct orders is largely limited; most of the position's power comes about through other means, such as:

  • The ability to set the Cabinet agenda, thereby controlling what issues will be discussed.
  • The ability to appoint and dismiss ministers. The extent to which this power can be exercised varies between different parties; the Labour Party, for example, places most of this responsibility in the hands of the Caucus, leaving the Prime Minister only with the power to choose which portfolios a minister is given. Furthermore, the MMP electoral system has complicated this, as the Prime Minister may have to consult with another party leader.
  • The influence a Prime Minister is likely to have as leader of the dominant party. These powers may give him or her more direct control over subordinates than is attached to the Prime Minister's role itself.
  • The power gained simply from being central to most significant decision-making, and from being able to comment on and criticise any decisions taken by other ministers.

The Prime Minister can call elections by advising the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament. The Governor-General may reject this advice if the Prime Minister has recently lost a vote of confidence (that is, the Governor-General would be using his or her reserve powers), but so far none have done so.

The post of Prime Minister is, like other ministerial positions, an appointment by the Governor-General "during the Queen's pleasure". However, the convention has long since been established that the Prime Minister must have and retain the support of a majority of members of parliament. Historically, this has usually meant that the Prime Minister is the parliamentary leader of the largest political party in the House of Representatives.

Sole right to advise the Sovereign

By constitutional convention, the Prime Minister holds formal power to advise the Sovereign.[3] This means the Prime Minister advises the Queen:

  • Who to appoint as Governor-General. By constitutional convention, only the Prime Minister has the right to tender advice to the Sovereign on nominations for the office, and so in effect the Prime Minister may appoint the Governor-General;
  • To recall (dismiss) the Governor-General, so long as the Prime Minister has the confidence of the House of Representatives;[4]
  • On amendments to the Letters Patent 1983. This most recently occurred in 2006; and
  • the conferment of New Zealand honours (except for honours in the personal gift of the monarch).

Deputy Prime Minister

Within the last fifty years, a convention has also developed of appointing a Deputy Prime Minister. The Deputy typically holds important ministerial portfolios and becomes Acting Prime Minister in the absence or incapacitation of the Prime Minister. The Deputy is commonly a member of the same party as the Prime Minister, but not necessarily so; in coalition Governments, the parliamentary leader of a support party may be offered the post.


The Prime Minister is supported by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, their official residence is Premier House, Tinakori Road, Wellington. On appointment to office, the Prime Minister receives the title The Right Honorable for life.[1]

The Prime Minister's salary and annuities are determined by the Remuneration Authority, under the Civil List Act 1976.


File:Henry Sewell, ca 1872.jpg
Henry Sewell, regarded as New Zealand's first premier.

Assuming that Sewell is counted as the first Prime Minister, thirty-eight people have held the office since it was established. Some of these people have held it on several different occasions, with the record for maximum number of times being shared between William Fox and Harry Atkinson (both of whom served four times). The longest that anyone has served in the office is thirteen years, a record set by Richard Seddon. The first holder of the office, Henry Sewell, led the country for the shortest total time; his only term lasted only thirteen days (the shortest term actually belonged to Harry Atkinson, whose third term lasted only seven days, but Atkinson served longer than Sewell in total). The youngest to hold office was Edward Stafford, who was 37 years old when he became Premier in 1856. The oldest was Walter Nash, who was 75 years old in 1957.

New Zealand is also one of the few countries in the world to have had two female heads of government, and one of only two countries to have had a female head of government directly succeed another (the other country being Sri Lanka). The first female New Zealand Prime Minister was Jenny Shipley, who replaced Prime Minister Jim Bolger in mid-1997. She was succeeded by the next Prime Minister, Helen Clark, in 1999.


File:William Hall-Jones 2.jpg
William Hall-Jones, the first New Zealand premier to be titled "Prime Minister".

On becoming the Colony of New Zealand in 1841, New Zealand was directly governed by a Governor, appointed by the Colonial Office. Self-government was established in 1853, following the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, and the 1st Parliament met on 24 May 1854.

The exact origins of the office of Prime Minister are disputed. Use of the words "prime minister" as a descriptive term date back to the 1st Parliament, where they are applied to James FitzGerald and Thomas Forsaith. FitzGerald and Forsaith had no official titles, however, and New Zealand had not yet obtained self-rule. As such, they are not usually considered Prime Ministers in any substantive sense.

The first person to be formally appointed to a position of leadership was Henry Sewell, who formed a government at the beginning of the Second Parliament. Despite his formal leadership role, however, his only actual title was Colonial Secretary, a position comparable to the Minister of Internal Affairs. His successor, William Fox, was also given a formal leadership role, but was not Colonial Secretary. It was not until Frederick Weld, the sixth person appointed to formal leadership, that a substantive leadership title – Premier–appeared. Weld's successor, Edward Stafford, briefly changed the title to First Minister but it was soon afterwards restored to Premier by William Fox. From that point, Premier became the usual designation. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the term Prime Minister arose as a common alternative to Premier and Richard Seddon used the title almost exclusively. Seddon's successor, William Hall-Jones, was officially appointed Prime Minister rather than Premier. The title "Prime Minister" has been used ever since.

Initially, Premiers acted as advisers to the Governor. This began to change during the first tenure of Edward Stafford. Stafford met with his ministers and made decisions outside of the official Executive Council, forming the New Zealand Cabinet.[5] Stafford also clashed with the Governor over control of Maori affairs, which was eventually to fall within the Premier's powers.[6] A further extension of the Premier's power came during John Ballance's tenure, 1891–1893. The Premier gained the ability to restrict the term of appointments to the Legislative Council of New Zealand.

Dominion and Realm

File:John Key Helen Clark handshake.jpg
Helen Clark and John Key, the 37th and 38th Prime Ministers of New Zealand.

In 1907 Parliament passed a declaration declaring New Zealand as the "Dominion of New Zealand". This led to the reconstituting of the office of Governor as Governor-General, and a subsequent narrowing of that office's power. As a result, the Prime Minister's powers were again expanded.[6]

In 1967, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake advised the Queen to appoint Sir Arthur Porritt, the first New Zealand–born Governor-General.[6]

Until the premiership of Labour's Helen Clark, it was customary for senior members of the legislature, executive and judiciary – including the Prime Minister – to be appointed to the British Privy Council, granting them the style "Right Honourable". This practice was discontinued at the same time as the abolition of Knighthoods and Damehoods in 2000 from the New Zealand honours system. National's John Key became Prime Minister in 2008 and restored the titles, but did not resume appointments to the Privy Council, meaning Key was styled "The Honourable".[7] However on 3 August 2010 the Queen granted the Prime Minister, Governor-General, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice the style "Right Honourable" upon appointment. This decision will not affect past officeholders.[8]

Two prime ministers who died in office were buried in mausoleums; William Massey (died 1925) in the Massey Memorial in Wellington, and Michael Joseph Savage (died 1940) in the Savage Memorial at Bastion Point in Auckland.

Living former Prime Ministers

There are five living former prime ministers. The most recent prime minister to die was David Lange (1984–1989), on 13 August 2005.

Name Term of office Date of birth
Sir Geoffrey Palmer 1989–1990 (1942-04-21) 21 April 1942 (age 73)
Mike Moore 1990 (1949-01-28) 28 January 1949 (age 67)
Jim Bolger 1990–1997 (1935-05-31) 31 May 1935 (age 80)
Dame Jenny Shipley 1997–1999 (1952-02-04) 4 February 1952 (age 64)
Helen Clark 1999–2008 (1950-02-26) 26 February 1950 (age 65)


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See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "THE RIGHT HONOURABLE". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  2. "Prime Minister: The Title "Premier"". Te Ara – An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 1966. Retrieved 27 August 2007. 
  3. "Cainet Manual 2008". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 2008. Retrieved 21 September 2011. 
  4. This power has never been exercised by a Prime Minister in New Zealand. Three Governors were recalled during the colonial period, but on the advice of British ministers.
  5. Bohan, Edward (1994). <span />Edward Stafford, New Zealand's first statesman<span />. Christchurch, New Zealand: Hazard Press. ISBN 0-908790-67-8. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Gavin McLean (October 2006), The Governors, New Zealand Governors and Governors-General, Otago University Press, ISBN 978-1-877372-25-4 
  7. "Titles of Dames, Knights to be restored – Key". 8 March 2009. 
  8. "New rules for use of the Right Honourable". Buckingham Palace. 3 August 2010. 

External links

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