This page provides general information about the matters Ministers, departments and other state sector agencies should consider in an election year. It also describes the process of forming and appointing a government following an election, and the resumption of government business.
The following overview of the election period, including key dates for the 2020 General Election, can be downloaded and is suitable for printing as a single-page summary.
A summary of the main principles outlined in this page can also be downloaded and is set out at the end of this page.
Further information is contained in chapter 6 of the Cabinet Manual 2017, on which this page is based. Other sources of information are listed below. The Cabinet Office is also available to answer any questions that you may have.
Information on our roles and responsibilities during an election period can be found on our roles and responsibilities page
For information about the electoral process, including significant dates during the election period and how to enrol and vote, see the Electoral Commission's website.
Before the election
Is there a limit on what a government can do before an election?
Ministers have full authority to exercise their ministerial responsibilities right up until the day of the election. Unlike some other jurisdictions, including Australia, the caretaker convention does not apply in the pre-election period in New Zealand.
Successive governments have, however, traditionally chosen to exercise some restraint in two main areas in the three months before an election: making significant appointments, and government advertising.
Paragraph 6.9 to 6.15 of the Cabinet Manual discusses the pre-election period in more detail. The Cabinet Office publishes specific advice on government decisions and actions in the pre-election period early in an election year.
Can coalition and support parties talk about their own policies before an election?
The principle of “collective responsibility” underpins the system of Cabinet government. The principle provides that once Cabinet makes a decision, Ministers must support it, regardless of their personal views. Agree to disagree processes may, however, be used in relation to different party positions. In addition, Ministers outside Cabinet from parliamentary parties supporting the government may be bound by collective responsibility only in relation to their particular portfolios.
While collective responsibility continues to apply to Ministers in the pre-election period, during an election campaign Ministers (and other members of Parliament) from all parties represented in the government may promote their own party's policies.
Paragraphs 5.24 to 5.33 of the Cabinet Manual discuss collective responsibility in more detail.
After the election
Who is in charge after the election and what can they do?
During the government formation process, the current government remains in office, as it is still the lawful executive authority, with all the powers and responsibilities that go with executive office. Traditionally, governments have, nonetheless, constrained their actions until the political situation is resolved, in accordance with what is known as the “convention on caretaker government”.
What can a caretaker government do?
The actions that a caretaker government can take will depend on the unofficial results on election night:
- If it is clear who will form the next government, but it has not yet taken office, the existing government should undertake no new policy initiatives, and should act on the advice of the incoming government on any matter of importance that cannot be delayed.
- If it is not clear who will form the next government, the normal business of government continues. Any significant matters requiring decisions should be deferred, or handled using short-term solutions. If neither of these options is possible, decisions should be made only after consultation with other parties.
Governments operated in caretaker mode in 1993, 1996 (for 9 weeks), 1999 (for 2 weeks), 2002 (for 2 weeks), 2005 (for 4 weeks), 2008 (for 11 days), 2011 (for 18 days), 2014 (for 18 days) and 2017 (for 33 days).
Paragraphs 6.21 to 6.40 of the Cabinet Manual describe in more detail how the caretaker convention affects decision-making by Ministers and departments.
How is a government formed after an election?
Government formation negotiations
Under New Zealand’s proportional representation electoral system (MMP) it is likely that, following an election, two or more parties will need to negotiate coalition or support agreements so that a government can be formed that can command the support of the majority in the House of Representatives ("the House").
Paragraphs 6.41 to 6.47 of the Cabinet Manual discuss the principles and process of government formation in more detail.
When do the government formation negotiations have to be finalised?
Parties are likely to be under political pressure to produce a result from negotiations relatively quickly. The resumption of Parliament, which is required to meet not later than six weeks after the day fixed for the return of the writs for the election, provides a reference point for negotiating parties. If negotiations have not been successful by the time Parliament has been summoned to meet, a confidence vote can be called during the Address in Reply debate. In the unlikely event that the confidence vote fails to resolve the situation, it may be necessary to hold another election.
Parliament has issued a Fact Sheet on Parliament and the general election, which includes information about the Address in Reply debate and the resumption of parliamentary business.
What is in coalition and support agreements?
The content, format, and detail of coalition agreements and support agreements have varied considerably. Regardless of the level of detail, most have three key elements relating to policy, process, and the distribution of ministerial responsibilities. The balance between the three elements and the level of detail will vary depending on the parties, the issues, and the context. Since the introduction of MMP in New Zealand, the agreements have always been made publicly available.
What is the Governor-General’s role in government formation?
Although the Governor-General formally appoints the Prime Minister and other Ministers, he or she does not participate in government formation negotiations. The formation of a government is a political decision and must be arrived at by politicians. The Governor-General’s task is to ascertain where the support of the House lies, and to appoint a government accordingly. In doing so, the Governor-General will rely on public statements by the political parties.
For example, two or more party leaders might state publicly that they are forming a majority government by entering into a coalition agreement. Or, party leaders might announce that a minority government will govern with support from another party or parties on confidence and supply votes in the House. This recent speech by the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, provides more detail about the role of public statements by political parties in the government formation process.
The Clerk of the Executive Council provides impartial support to the Governor-General, including liaising with party leaders as required. The Governor-General may choose to talk to party leaders if there appears to be no clear outcome from the negotiations (although that has never been necessary in the past).
Paragraphs 6.44 to 6.46 of the Cabinet Manual discuss the role of the Governor-General and the Clerk of the Executive Council during government formation negotiations in more detail. See also this speech, delivered by former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae in November 2013.
What is the role of the public service during government formation negotiations?
The public service continues to serve the caretaker government during the government formation period. Negotiating parties may, however, seek access to information from the public service for the purposes of the negotiations. The Public Service Commissioner issues guidance on the process to be followed by negotiating parties and public servants in this situation, which is intended to ensure that the neutrality of the public service is protected. The Public Service Commissioner is the central point of contact for information requests.
During this period, the Clerk of the Executive Council provides impartial support to the Governor-General, including liaison with party leaders on behalf of the Governor-General. This contact with the party leaders takes places separately from the Public Service Commissioner’s processes for providing information on policy issues.
Paragraphs 6.41 to 6.47 of the Cabinet Manual discuss the principles and processes of government formation in more detail.
Appointment of the Prime Minister and Ministers
How does the Governor-General decide who to appoint as Prime Minister and as Ministers?
The Prime Minister is appointed by the Governor-General. In making this appointment the Governor-General acts, by convention, on the outcome of the election and subsequent government formation negotiations between the political parties represented in the House. The Governor-General will, therefore, appoint as Prime Minister the person that politicians have decided will lead the government.
The Governor-General also appoints Ministers, on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and Ministers must be members of Parliament.
Paragraph 2.2 of the Cabinet Manual describes the appointment of the Prime Minister in more detail.
Paragraphs 2.15 to 2.17 of the Cabinet Manual describe the appointment of Ministers in more detail.
Who decides the role of each Minister?
The Prime Minister assigns each Minister a “portfolio” of responsibilities, and determines the title and scope of each portfolio. Each Minister generally holds more than one portfolio and may, for example, be the Minister in one portfolio and an Associate Minister in another.
Paragraphs 2.7 and 2.8 of the Cabinet Manual provide more detail about the scope and allocation of portfolios.
The current list of portfolios is published by the Cabinet Office.
A full appointment ceremony is held when a government is formed after an election, even when the composition of the government has not greatly changed. The ceremony formally marks the formation and commencement of the new administration and marks the end of the caretaker period.
See paragraph 6.51 of the Cabinet Manual.
Transition and resumption of government business
The appointment ceremony should take place fairly quickly after the Governor-General is satisfied which party or group of parties is able to command the confidence of the House. To allow ministerial portfolios to be allocated or reassigned, there is likely to be a period of days between the indication that a government can be formed and the point at which Ministers are named and formally appointed. Normal government business may resume as soon as Ministers are appointed.
Other sources of information
The Electoral Act 1993 sets out how an election is carried out under New Zealand’s mixed member proportional system.
The Constitution Act 1986 describes many of the powers and functions of the Head of State and the three branches of government: the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary.
The Cabinet Manual 2017 contains detailed guidance on conventions and processes relevant to elections, particularly in the introduction and chapters 1, 2, 5 and 6.
A speech by former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae to the Parliamentary Press Gallery on 9 November 2013, describes the role of the Governor-General in the government formation process.
A speech by the Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy to Returning Officers and Registrars of Electors on 17 March 2020 provides further detail about the options for government formation.
A speech by the Secretary of the Cabinet/Clerk of the Executive Council Michael Webster to IPANZ in August 2017, which describes aspects of the government formation process.
Cabinet Office circulars:
This list will be updated as circulars for the upcoming general election are published:
Government Decisions and Actions in the Pre-election Period, Cabinet Office circular CO (20) 1
Management of Parliamentary Business after the Dissolution of Parliament, Cabinet Office circular CO (20) 4
Constitutional Procedures after the Election, Cabinet Office circular CO (20) 5
Government Decision Making during the Period of Caretaker Government, Cabinet Office circular CO (20) 6
Public Service Commission guidance for public servants during the election period:
He Ārahitanga Pōtitanga Whānui | General Election Guidance
The operation of government during the election period:
Summary of principles
The Cabinet Office is available for advice on the way in which these principles affect what Ministers and departments can do during the election period, particularly on decision-making and the implementation of decisions taken before the election.
The Public Service Commission is available for advice on political neutrality and the role of public servants during the election period.
The pre-election period
Cabinet Manual, paras 6.9 to 6.15
CO (20) 1
The post-election period: caretaker convention
Cabinet Manual, paras 6.21 to 6.40
CO (20) 5
Cabinet Manual, paras 6.41 to 6.53
CO (20) 5
Public service support for government formation
Cabinet Manual, paras 6.65 to 6.68
CO (20) 5