The appointment of a recently retired head of the Defence Force as the country's next Governor-General should not be surprising. When the Queen's representatives were sent from Britain, they were as often as not former military officers. But that was another time. Ever since the post has been filled by New Zealanders the appointee has had a civilian background, often in law.

Sir Arthur Porritt was a doctor, Sir Keith Holyoake and Dame Catherine Tizard had held elected political positions, Sir Paul Reeves was Anglican Archbishop of New Zealand. All the rest - Sir Dennis Blundell, Sir David Beattie, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, Dame Silvia Cartwright and the incumbent, Sir Anand Satyanand - were lawyers.

Since the introduction of a proportional electoral system in 1996 the resident head of state has been a former judge, which might have been a precaution. MMP can produce results which call for a judicious response from the office if more than one party leader may claim the numbers to form a government. The claim would quickly be tested in Parliament and the Governor-General would not want to get it wrong.

Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae will have considered all the constitutional roles of the office before deciding to accept it. His appointment makes a refreshing change. Nobody needs to be a lawyer to act on constitutional advice and after three judges in succession, he will bring a different set of life experiences to the role.

It will be particularly encouraging for the armed forces to see one of their own elevated to head of state. It reflects perhaps a revival of public interest in the services. Their recent missions, notably in East Timor and in Afghanistan, have been cause for pride. The open celebration of Corporal Willie Apiata's Victoria Cross has given a good impression of the SAS and General Mateparae has agreed to make public a little more information on the special force's activities in our name.

He has clearly impressed the Prime Minister, even if the choice appears sudden. General Mateparae had just taken up an appointment as Director of the Government Communications Security Bureau. He will also be well known to Opposition leader Phil Goff, Defence Minister in the previous Government. Though convention requires appointees to be acceptable to both sides of the House, not all have started with the confidence of the Opposition. This one probably does.

It is important, too, that the next Governor-General is a Maori, only the second to hold the office. The first, Sir Paul Reeves, completed his term in 1990 and since then the country has had four Governors-General, two of them women. All elements of New Zealand's population need to recognise themselves from time to time in the one office that is above political argument, embodying the unity of the state.

Maori have a special historical relationship with the office, since the Treaty was made with the Queen's first representative. Recent incumbents, Sir Michael Hardie Boys excepted, have not given that relationship much public expression at Waitangi. Sir Jeremiah, as he will no doubt soon be, should do better.

Born in 1954, he is young to be taking up a position usually accepted by people near the end of a career. He might have looked forward to a more interesting time at the GCSB, an intelligence agency. He said yesterday that the role of Governor-General appealed to his sense of service.

He will bring a young family to Government House. That should be refreshing too. He will have five years, possibly more, to make the position his own. He could ensure it is seen and heard more often when it matters, such as in Christchurch these past two weeks. We hope he will.