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Constitutional

The Governor-General's role as Commander-in-Chief

Issue date: 
Monday, 10 December 2007
Speaker: 
Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyanand, GNZM, QSO

May I begin by greeting you all in the languages of the realm of New Zealand - English, Maori, Cook Island Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan and New Zealand Sign Language. Greetings, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni and as it is the morning (Sign)

May I specifically greet you: Lt Col Andrew Shaw, Director of the Command and Staff Course; Lt Col Peter Cosgrove, Directing Staff for Studies at the Command & Staff College; College staff and students, and a particular warm welcome to the officers from Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, People's Republic of China, Philippines, Singapore and Tonga.

As Governor-General, it is with pleasure that I welcome you to Government House in Wellington today.  I would like to take this opportunity to briefly outline my constitutional relationship with the New Zealand's Defence Force.

Most New Zealanders, if asked what position I hold, would say: "He's the Governor-General."  Yet for those of you who are commissioned officers of the New Zealand Defence Force, you would be aware that the legal document that establishes the office of Governor-General describes my position as "Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief." 

But what does that mean in practice?  I have never been a member of the military and New Zealand has not had a Governor-General with a senior military background since Sir Denis Blundell completed his term in 1977, although Sir David Beattie (1980-85), served in the Army and later the Naval Reserve.  Alison Quentin-Baxter, who played a key role in the 1980s review of the Letters Patent that constitute the Office, described the title as being "devoid of substantive effect" but that it remained due to "the importance still attached in New Zealand, particularly within the Armed Services, to the naming of the Governor-General as Commander-in-Chief."

Certainly times have changed since those of Governor Sir George Grey.  In 1865, Grey entered into an acrimonious dispute about the conduct of the war in South Taranaki with the British General in charge of Imperial Troops in New Zealand, Duncan Cameron.  Frustrated with Cameron's cautious approach, Grey entered the field of battle himself, and, in command of colonial troops and "friendly Maori" captured Weraroa Pa, an event that Grey hailed as a major victory.

The relationship between the Crown and the armed forces is based on the historical powers of the Sovereign.  I may exercise these prerogative powers in relation to the armed forces, as the sovereign's personal representative, but the exercise of the powers has been greatly tempered over time.

First, by strong constitutional convention, the powers of the Governor-General in all matters are exercised on the advice of his or her ministers.  Professor Joseph's book on Constitutional Law in New Zealand records the last time a Sovereign undertook personal command of  the army was in 1793! It is democratically elected ministers, rather than the appointed Governor-General, that direct the powers of the Crown.  Secondly, the royal prerogative with regard to defence has been largely replaced by statute law and indeed New Zealand's military was established by statute early in its history.

The result is that the Governor-General's relationship with the Defence Force is now largely ceremonial.  This contrast between the letter of the law and the reality of the constitutional role was well put by Sir Ninian Stephen, then Governor-General of Australia, in 1983.  He noted that a literal reading of the Australian Constitution suggested that Governor-General controlled a powerful office and was like "a general on a white horse, at the head of his armies, with standard unfurled".  However, he then went on to quote constitutional lawyers who declared that in reality, the Governor-General, as Commander-in-Chief, was little more than a glorified Patron of the Defence Force.  "He may retain his white horse, you might think, if he will, but in terms of military command, it will certainly prove no horse of war." 

But that the Defence Force and the Office of Governor-General have an intimate link is emphasised by the Defence Act 1990, whose first part is entitled: Constitutional position of the armed forces, and that the first two sections outline the Governor-General's authority to raise and maintain armed forces.  The next section, however, underscoring the Act's long title, goes on to specify that the Minister of Defence "shall have the power of control of the New Zealand Defence Force, which shall be exercised through the Chief of Defence Force".

Recently, I was Reviewing Officer for the 38th graduating class of the commissioning course from the New Zealand Officer Cadet School.  While my comments to them were to young people about to begin their careers as officers, they may bear repeating.  I told them that the Act empowered me to appoint the Chief of Defence Force and commission other officers:

"In doing so, on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen and your country, and on the advice of Ministers, I place a formal trust in the Chief of Defence Force and in you.  Each commission I sign places my 'trust and confidence in your loyalty, courage and good conduct' in carefully discharging your duties as an officer and maintaining the discipline of subordinate officers and ranks, and following the orders and directions of your superiors. If so authorised, you may one day have to give orders for the men and women under your command to use deadly force against others.  The reality of active military service is that men and women under your command may be injured or even killed in fulfilling their duties—duties that you may have ordered them to undertake.  These are not powers and responsibilities that our society lightly gives to anyone."

In graduating from the NZ Defence Force Command & Staff College staff course, it is no doubt sometime since you received your commissions as officers.  But those comments are equally relevant, if not more so, to you.  As mid-level officers in the armed forces, you were specifically chosen to undertake this course because you had demonstrated high potential for promotion.  To move from Lt Commander to Commander or Captain; from Major to Lt Colonel or Colonel; or Squadron Leader to Wing Commander or Group Captain, is a significant increase in responsibilities.

This course was specifically designed to prepare you for higher senior command.  For 30 weeks you have lived together and have undertaken a mix of graduate academic study as well as visits to defence establishments and selected industries both in New Zealand and in Australia. The academic study has included seminars by about 60 visiting lecturers from universities, government, diplomatic and private institutions.

A modern armed force needs senior officers who know more than just how to lead a force into battle.  They need to have the intellect to understand the increasingly complex issues in their area of command.  New Zealand's defence force is increasingly involved in peacekeeping activities where tact, diplomacy and a keen awareness of the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, rather than brute force, are the order of the day. 

In conclusion then, there remains a strong link between the Crown, and hence the Governor-General, and the New Zealand Defence Force.  Just as New Zealand officers make an oath of allegiance to the Queen of New Zealand, so do I.  As Commander-in-Chief of New Zealand, I wish the New Zealanders here all the best for your future careers with the NZ Defence Force.  For those of you from overseas, as Governor-General, I extend my best wishes for your career in your respective forces. 

On that note I will close in Maori, offering greetings and wishing you good health and fortitude in your endeavours. No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, kia ora, kia kaha, tena koutou katoa

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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