Opinion: New Zealand Becoming a Republic

To be or not to be

Over the last few weeks, we have seen the birth of a royal baby, Prince Harry visiting our shores and a formal process to decide whether to change New Zealand’s flag. In light of these events, it may be worth considering the state of New Zealand’s constitution and whether we are making a slow march towards a republic or whether we will continue as a constitutional monarchy.

The flag change process is reported to cost around $25 million, so converting to a republic is likely to cost a great deal more. In that sense, our current system is the cheaper alternative, and also one with a proven record of delivering peaceful democratic outcomes. If the classic adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies, then surely a transition to a republic would need strong arguments in its favour.

For a start, a republic or aspects of republicanism may better reflect New Zealand’s independent identity in this century. Having the Queen of England as our head of state can seem an archaic arrangement, especially when her power is conventionally constrained to a delegation to the governor-general, who acts on the advice of cabinet anyway. Embracing republicanism would be embracing the future but perhaps not a “new” New Zealand; it may simply reflect the constitutional and political realities of the last few decades. However, detractors would warn against abandoning the symbolic representations of our history as a nation, much like arguments made in opposition to changing the flag.

Prime Minister John Key’s views on New Zealand republicanism are well documented. He is a firm monarchist but believes that a transition to a republic is inevitable. Labour leader Andrew Little expressed his views at Waitangi this year, saying that New Zealand’s head of state should be a New Zealander, perhaps a president-type figure. He also proposed that a more extensive form of Māori self-governance should be explored. Little later said that these are his personal views, not those of his party.

The current system, based on constitutional conventions, allows the government to conduct its affairs unconstrained by interference from the executive branch. This mirrors what a president-style head of state — which is what we would have if New Zealand were a republic — would provide.

This begs the question, is constitutional reform still only a “personal issue” for New Zealand citizens and its MPs? Could the flag change, in fact, be a false-flag operation that hurries along a transition to republicanism? These questions will be answered one day, but, for now, it seems the republicans aren’t banging down the doors of Government House just yet.   

This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2015.
Posted 11:18am Sunday 17th May 2015 by Tim Lindsay.