De facto head of state: representing New Zealand to the world

The Governor-General, our de facto head of state, represented New Zealand at the D-Day anniversary on 6th June. There’s been a bit of discussion online about why the Prime Minister didn’t go, but our focus was on the fact that our Governor-General represented New Zealand well at the commemorations. Of course, in reality the Queen is New Zealand’s head of state, the legal (“de jure” as opposed to “de facto”) reality is that the Governor-General is just the Queen’s representative.

Yet, the Queen herself confirmed in the early 1990s that she cannot represent New Zealand overseas as the “Queen of New Zealand” - a clear confirmation of the reality that the Governor-General is our de facto head of state. We know this because Dame Cath Tizard recalled the decision in her autobiography Cat Amongst the Pigeons (page 263-264), when discussing visiting the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the New Zealand pavilion at the 1992 World Expo:

A formal invitation had come from the King of Spain for me to make a State Visit.

Oh dear! According to the authorities, the Governor-General could not make a State Visit, only a Head of State could make a State Visit. Her Majesty the Queen was New Zealand’s Head of State, not her representative, the Governor-General. It was about this time that Her Majesty became aware of this nonsense and expressed surprise. She very practically pointed out that she, herself, could hardly travel abroad as ‘Queen of New Zealand’ and that the appropriate and authorised person to represent New Zealand was, in fact, the Governor-General. She said, quite firmly, that I should accept the invitation and so it came to pass that I became the first Governor-General to make a State Visit when I went to Spain in 1992.

This was the last that was heard of these pompous restrictions and subsequent Governors-General have travelled abroad as New Zealand’s Head of State without the sky falling in.

Governors-General since then have made numerous state visits. As the late historian Gavin McLean observed, the Governor-General the office is now an uber-diplomat.