New Zealand will become a republic – but there’s no hurry

by Jane Clifton / 07 May, 2018
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The Queen. Photo/Getty Images

And even if there were firm majority support for New Zealand becoming a republic now, that's only the first baby step.

Republicans had better not hold their breath: they’ll probably turn a royal shade of blue.

It’s a paradox Lewis Carroll could have written for his arch contrarian, the Queen of Hearts, that what protects the monarchy is probably the very system that has robbed it of its powers: democracy.

Opinion polls suggest there’s not firm majority support here for becoming a republic, but even if there were, that majority desire would be only the first baby step.

As Al Gillespie, a law professor at the University of Waikato, says, there are probably as many types of republic as there are people with opinions on republicanism: a new system couldn’t simply be imposed on us by Parliament but would have to gain majority public support. And that’s one marathon multi-choice exam.

“Would we have an elected president with veto power? Or an appointed president with some power? Or no more power than the Governor-General? We would need to work out what checks we needed on the Executive, and there are lots of options for that.”

What about having an upper house, or vesting more authority in the judiciary? The electoral system would need re-examination in light of any of these decisions. And all this would almost certainly have to be debated within the frame of a written constitution – another project of infinite variability.

“If we can’t even agree on changing the piece of fabric that’s our flag, it doesn’t look very hopeful,” Gillespie says, though he believes we are badly overdue a written constitution.

As it is, neither major political party has republicanism or constitutional reform as a priority. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she expects to see New Zealand become a republic in her lifetime, but it’s not on the Government’s to-do list. Opposition leader Simon Bridges wouldn’t put it on his, either, if National retook the Beehive.

“I’m a reluctant monarchist,” Bridges says, “in that, to repeat what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst possible system except for all the others. I’m totally opposed to the idea of appointing people on the basis of heredity. But it pretty much works for us.”

Sir Michael Cullen. Photo/Getty Images

Neither the Queen nor the Governor-General has any actual power, nor means to acquire any, Bridges says. It’s a cheaper, lower-key office to maintain than a presidency would be. And that’s much more in tune with the average Kiwi’s aversion to swagger.

The generally supposed alternative, a democratically elected president, would entail “a Helen Clark or a John Key coming back – and that really doesn’t do a lot for me”, Bridges says.

An elected, or even appointed, president would, with or without more power than today’s Governor-General, inevitably develop a popular power base. The more popular the president, the more moral influence she or he could wield: power vested only in a single personality is “not the Kiwi way”, Bridges says.

Sir Michael Cullen points out that a republican structure could put unpredictable pressures on Parliament and/or the government, and many voters already dislike the unpredictability of MMP.

“My reasons for being somewhat relaxed about the continuance of the monarchy is that while [the Queen] is the titular head of state of New Zealand, we still have New Zealand legislation, and that’s not going to change,” the former Deputy Prime Minister says. “I just don’t see any merit in the contention that somehow we’re not grown-up because we still have ‘mummy’.

“I doubt whether Canada feels that way – and it has much more reason than we’ve ever had to revisit the issue. And if you look around the world, those countries that have symbolic monarchies do rather better than those that don’t in terms of human rights.”

Like Gillespie, Cullen envisages divisive debate over key issues in a mooted transition to a republic, with the risk that bitterness and lack of broad acceptance would linger.

However, most politicos agree there’ll be no stopping the republicans among us giving the massive project a kick-start once the Queen dies.

This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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