Prime Minister of New Zealand

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The Prime Minister of New Zealand is New Zealand's head of government and is the leader of the party or coalition with majority support in the Parliament of New Zealand. Since 5 December 1999 the Prime Minister has been Helen Clark of the Labour Party.


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 coordinating 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 a Prime Minister to give direct orders is surprisingly 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 — for example, the Labour Party 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.
  • 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 also can call elections by notifying the Governor-General.

By convention, the Prime Minister is the leader of the party or coalition of parties which has the most seats in Parliament. There is also a Deputy Prime Minister, who may or may not be from the same party.

History of the office

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 2nd Parliament. Despite his formal leadership role, however, his only actual title was Colonial Secretary. 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.

Assuming that Sewell is counted as the first Prime Minister, thirty-seven 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).

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 two females heads of government directly succeed the other.

List of New Zealand Prime Ministers

Name Took Office Left Office Party
1 Henry Sewell 7 May 1856 20 May 1856 None
2 William Fox 20 May 1856 2 June 1856 None
3 Edward Stafford 2 June 1856 12 July 1861 None
William Fox, 2nd time 12 July 1861 6 August 1862 None
4 Alfred Domett 6 August 1862 30 October 1863 None
5 Frederick Whitaker 30 October 1863 24 November 1864 None
6 Frederick Weld 24 November 1864 16 October 1865 None
Edward Stafford, 2nd time 16 October 1865 28 June 1869 None
William Fox, 3rd time 28 June 1869 10 September 1872 None
Edward Stafford, 3rd time 10 September 1872 11 October 1872 None
7 George Waterhouse 11 October 1872 3 March 1873 None
William Fox, 4th time 3 March 1873 8 April 1873 None
8 Julius Vogel 8 April 1873 6 July 1875 None
9 Daniel Pollen 6 July 1875 15 February 1876 None
Julius Vogel, 2nd time 15 February 1876 1 September 1876 None
10 Harry Atkinson 1 September 1876 13 October 1877 None
11 George Grey 13 October 1877 8 October 1879 None
12 John Hall 8 October 1879 21 April 1882 None
Frederick Whitaker, 2nd time 21 April 1882 25 September 1883 None
Harry Atkinson, 2nd time 25 September 1883 16 August 1884 None
13 Robert Stout 16 August 1884 28 August 1884 None
Harry Atkinson, 3rd time 28 August 1884 3 September 1884 None
Robert Stout, 2nd time 3 September 1884 8 October 1887 None
Harry Atkinson, 4th time 8 October 1887 24 January 1891 None
14 John Ballance 24 January 1891 27 April 1893 Liberal
15 Richard Seddon 27 April 1893 10 June 1906 Liberal
16 William Hall-Jones 10 June 1906 6 August 1906 Liberal
17 Joseph Ward 6 August 1906 28 March 1912 Liberal
18 Thomas Mackenzie 28 March 1912 10 July 1912 Liberal
19 William Massey 10 July 1912 10 May 1925 Reform
20 Francis Bell 10 May 1925 30 May 1925 Reform
21 Gordon Coates 30 May 1925 10 December 1928 Reform
Joseph Ward, 2nd time 10 December 1928 28 May 1930 United (Liberal)
22 George Forbes 28 May 1930 6 December 1935 United (Liberal)
23 Michael Joseph Savage 6 December 1935 27 March 1940 Labour
24 Peter Fraser 27 March 1940 13 December 1949 Labour
25 Sidney Holland 13 December 1949 20 September 1957 National
26 Keith Holyoake 20 September 1957 12 December 1957 National
27 Walter Nash 12 December 1957 12 December 1960 Labour
Keith Holyoake, 2nd time 12 December 1960 7 February 1972 National
28 Jack Marshall 7 February 1972 8 December 1972 National
29 Norman Kirk 8 December 1972 31 August 1974 Labour
30 Bill Rowling 6 September 1974 12 December 1975 Labour
31 Robert Muldoon 12 December 1975 26 July 1984 National
32 David Lange 26 July 1984 8 August 1989 Labour
33 Geoffrey Palmer 8 August 1989 4 September 1990 Labour
34 Mike Moore 4 September 1990 2 November 1990 Labour
35 Jim Bolger 2 November 1990 8 December 1997 National
36 Jenny Shipley 8 December 1997 5 December 1999 National
37 Helen Clark 5 December 1999 (present) Labour


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