NZDF Overview

The Defence Act 1990

The Defence Act 1990 reaffirmed the historical prerogative of the Crown to raise and maintain armed forces, and the principle of ministerial authority over the Armed Forces. In particular, the Act constituted the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), comprising the Armed Forces under the command of the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) and the civil staff under the control of the CDF. The Act also defined the respective roles of, and relationships between, the Minister of Defence, the CDF, and the Secretary of Defence.

Armed Forces 

The Armed Forces of New Zealand comprise:

  1. The New Zealand Naval Forces, consisting of:
    1. the Royal New Zealand Navy;
    2. the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve;
    3. the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve;
    4. the Naval Reserves; and
    5. additional naval forces raised in time of war or other like emergency.
  2. The New Zealand Army, consisting of:
    1. the Regular Force of the New Zealand Army;
    2. the Territorial Force of the New Zealand Army;
    3. the Army Reserve; and
    4. additional army forces raised in time of war or other like emergency.
  3. The Royal New Zealand Air Force, consisting of:
    1. the Regular Air Force;
    2. the Territorial Air Force;
    3. the Air Force Reserve;
    4. additional air forces raised in time of war or other like emergency.

The Armed Forces are raised and maintained for the following purposes:

  1. the defence of New Zealand, and of any area for the defence of which New Zealand is responsible under any act;
  2. the protection of the interests of New Zealand, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere;
  3. the contribution of forces under collective security treaties, agreements, or arrangements;
  4. the contribution of forces to, or for any of the purposes of, the United Nations, or in association with other organisations or States and in accordance with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations;
  5. the provision of assistance to the civil power either in New Zealand or elsewhere in time of emergency; and
  6. the provision of any public service.


The Governor-General as Commander-in-Chief of New Zealand and as head of the Executive Council is constitutionally the supreme authority in defence matters in New Zealand. The Governor-General exercises powers only on the advice of the Minister of Defence and all other Ministers of the Crown.

Minister of Defence

Specific powers and responsibilities of the Minister include:

  1. Command and Control

    The Minister of Defence has the power of control of the New Zealand Defence Force; this is exercised through the CDF (see Defence Act, s.7).

  2. Powers of Requisition

    Where the Minister of Defence is satisfied that there is an actual or imminent emergency involving the deployment of any part of the Armed Forces outside New Zealand, the Minister may authorise the CDF to requisition any ship, vehicle, aircraft, supplies or equipment to be used in connection with that emergency. In addition, any land, buildings or installation may be similarly requisitioned. The Crown is liable to pay compensation to the owners of any property requisitioned under this process (see Defence Act, s.10).

  3. Provision of Public Services and Assistance to the Civil Power

    The Armed Forces may be used, in New Zealand or elsewhere, to perform any public service or to provide assistance to the civil power in time of emergency (see Defence Act, s.9).

    The specific written authorisation of the Minister is required for the use of the Armed Forces to provide public services in connection with any industrial dispute, and the Minister must inform Parliament of that authorisation. Assistance to the civil power involves law enforcement measures in situations where there is the likelihood that members of the Armed Forces may be required to use force. Any assistance to the civil power must be authorised by the Prime Minister, or next most senior Minister, acting on information supplied by the Commissioner of Police or a Deputy Commissioner of Police. The authorising Minister must be satisfied that there is a real or imminent emergency in which any person is threatening, causing or attempting to cause death, serious injury or serious harm to persons, or destruction or serious damage to property. Any assistance provided by the Armed Forces remains under the control of the Police, and the authorising Minister must inform Parliament of the authorisation. Any authorisation given in connection with an industrial dispute or assistance to the Police lapses after 14 days unless Parliament passes a resolution extending the authority for a period as specified in the resolution.

  4. Armed Forces Canteen Council

    The Armed Forces Canteen Council is established by the Armed Forces Canteens Act 1948 to set up and operate canteen services on NZDF camps and bases. The main purpose is to provide quality retailing and cafeteria services for NZDF personnel. As well, profits made from trading are distributed to single Service welfare funds according to the equity each Service holds in the organisation. Routine oversight of the AFCC trading operation is provided by a Board of Management (chaired by the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff) to which the AFCC chief executive reports. The AFCC Council only meets to carry out the functions prescribed for it in the Act. The Act appoints the Minister of Defence as the Chairman of the Council. The CDF chairs the Council in the absence of the Minister.

  5. Delegation of Powers

    The Minister may delegate to the CDF any of the Minister's powers, duties or functions that are delegated to the Minister under the Defence Act or any other enactment (see Defence Act, s.30).

Chief of Defence Force

The CDF is appointed by the Governor-General. The terms and conditions of that appointment are specified in the written terms of reference provided to CDF by the Minister of Defence. The terms of reference, which must be consistent with the Defence Act, set out the duties and obligations of the appointment and the manner in which the government expects those duties and obligations to be carried out. The purchase agreement between the CDF and the Minister forms a part of the terms of reference.

Particular functions imposed upon the CDF by the Defence Act include:

  1. the command of the Navy through the Chief of Navy, the Army through the Chief of Army, and the Air Force through the Chief of Air Force, together with the command of any joint force through a joint force commander or through the Chief of Staff of any Service;
  2. the responsibility to act as the principal military adviser to the Minister of Defence and to other Ministers;
  3. the responsibility to the Minister of Defence for:
    1. carrying out the functions and duties of the NZDF (including those imposed by any enactment or by the policies of the government);
    2. the general conduct of the NZDF; and
    3. the efficient, effective, and economical management of the NZDF.
  4. Chairing the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
  5. The power, in the name and on behalf of the Crown, to:
    1. enter into any contract, agreement, or arrangement with any other person;
    2. purchase, take on lease, dispose of, or trade in any goods, services, or assets, including land, buildings, equipment, facilities, stores, operating supplies, investments, and ownership of any part of any body corporate; and
    3. sell or otherwise dispose of, or grant any lease, licence, or easement over, any land or interest in land under the control of the Defence Force.
  6. Fixing the terms and conditions of members of the Armed Forces, having regard to:
    1. the need to achieve and maintain fair relativity with the levels of remuneration received elsewhere;
    2. the need to be fair both -
      1. to the person or group of persons whose remuneration is being determined; and
      2. to the taxpayer; and
    3. the need to recruit and retain competent persons.
  7. Operating, in respect of civil staff, a personnel policy that complies with the principle of being a good employer; developing and publishing annually an equal employment opportunities programme; and ensuring proper standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.
  8. Negotiating any collective employment contracts applicable to civil staff,subject to consultation with the State Services Commissioner.

In performing the above functions, the CDF is empowered to issue Defence Force Orders consistent with the Defence Act or any other Act.

In time of war or other like emergency, or in the event of any actual or imminent emergency involving the deployment of Armed Forces personnel outside New Zealand, the CDF may, upon request, be relieved by the Minister of Defence of any of the particular responsibilities imposed upon the CDF by the Defence Act or by any other Act. Any responsibilities so removed would be imposed by the Minister upon some other member of the NZDF. The CDF may make representations to the Minister, or, in exceptional circumstances, to the Prime Minister, in respect of the exercise of command by, or in respect of the exercise of any functions imposed upon, the CDF. Chiefs of Staff may, after notifying the CDF in that behalf, make representations to the Minister in respect of the exercise of command by them, or in respect of the exercise of any functions imposed upon them.

Relationship with the Ministry of Defence

In 1990 the Defence Act established two separate organisations: the Defence Force, headed by the Chief of Defence Force, and the Ministry of Defence, headed by the Secretary of Defence. The Ministry of Defence is responsible for the formulation of defence policy, major equipment procurement, and the audit and assessment of Defence Force functions, duties and projects. The Secretary of Defence is the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Defence.

Functions imposed upon the Secretary by the Defence Act include:

  • being the principal civilian adviser to the Minister
  • formulating advice, in consultation with the CDF, on defence policy
  • preparing, from time to time, a defence assessment
  • procuring, replacing or repairing, for the Defence Force, ships, vehicles, aircraft and equipment of major significance to military capability
  • arranging for the assessment and audit of the Defence Force in relation to any function, duty or project.

The Defence Act requires a close relationship between the Defence Force and the Ministry of Defence. To this end, a notional Office of the Chief Executives (OCE) provides coordination between the two organisations in respect of their joint responsibilities and provides a forum to facilitate consultation and joint decision-making, and to coordinate activities in support of the two defence chief executives. The procurement and acquisition and effective maintenance of military capability is also managed jointly by the two defence chief executives through the Capability Management Board.

Ministerial Correspondence and Parliamentary Affairs

Letters from members of the public, including requests for official information, and parliamentary questions addressed to the Minister of Defence on all defence matters, except those that are the responsibility of the Secretary of Defence, are normally referred by the Minister's office to Corporate and Ministerial Services in the Office of the Chief of Defence Force, HQNZDF, for draft reply.

The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee of Parliament routinely examines the Defence Force Estimates for the current year and the financial performance of the Defence Force for the current and previous years. The Standing Orders of Parliament allow ministerial attendance at these hearings. The Committee, on its own initiative, seeks briefings from the Defence Force on other matters as it sees fit.

Relationship with State Sector

The Defence Force is not bound by the provisions of the State Sector Act 1988, as the Defence Force is not an organisation listed in the Schedules to that Act. Nevertheless, the CDF does have statutory responsibilities and is accountable to the Minister of Defence to ensure that the Defence Force complies with relevant New Zealand legislation.

The CDF and Secretary of Defence are members of the Officials Domestic and External Security Committee (ODESC).  The ODESC provides leadership, coordination and support to all-of-government responses to national security issues.  The ODESC also considers advice on some major defence capabilities before it is submitted to Ministers.

The Defence Force also provides assistance to the civil power in times of emergency, general support to a wide range of multi-agency operations and the wider community as well as tasks in support of foreign and defence policy objectives. Government departments and agencies regularly supported by the Defence Force include:

Relationship with Employers of Reserve Forces

The Territorial Force Employer Support Council is a statutory council created by the Defence Act 1990 and is modelled on similar organisations in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.  The council is responsible to the Minister of Defence and is supported by a secretariat provide by the Defence Force.  The structure of the Council is designed to be highly inclusive at both political and community levels to facilitate employer relations between reserve personnel and the New Zealand business community, inclusive of private and public sectors, and any other organisation employing reserve persons.

Relationship with Defence Industry

Industry is an active partner of the Defence Force and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), providing many hundreds of millions of dollars annually for capital projects, and goods and services.

Operating within the government procurement policy, the MoD and Defence Force engage actively with local and international industry.  The MoD directly supports the Defence Industry Committee New Zealand, a Ministerial advisory committee for defence industry issues.

This page was last reviewed on 31 October 2017.