Cross Examination: A New Zealand Republic?

By Anuja Mitra

Last year’s election has brought up a great deal of questions about our nation. Perhaps not something at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but one raised by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as Leader of the Opposition at the time is New Zealand’s status as a constitutional monarchy. When asked whether we should become a republic, Ardern replied that we should definitely “start having the conversation”.[1] Her response was not groundbreaking. Republicanism has been a movement in New Zealand for decades, and with the recent debates around our flag and our constitution, now is as good a time as any to address the future of our country.

The Current System

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy. Our Head of State is Queen Elizabeth II; represented on domestic soil by the Governor-General (currently Dame Patsy Reddy). The Governor-General is appointed by the Queen on the advice of our Prime Minister and exercises “ceremonial, symbolic and constitutional” roles on her behalf.[2] In reality, though, most decision-making power lies not with the Queen or the Governor-General but with the elected officials comprising our government.[3]

This system marks us as a constitutional monarchy. By contrast, a republic is a “state in which power rests with the people or their representatives; [specifically] a state without a monarchy.” If New Zealand became a republic, we would have an elected Head of State, whether this takes the form of a president, the Prime Minister themselves, a position similar to the Governor-General or an entirely new office.[5] We would no longer need royal assent on government matters or fall under the umbrella of the ‘British monarchy’.

Calls for Change

“A Head of State 100% Kiwi Owned & Operated” shirt from the New Zealand Republic website

Proponents of a New Zealand republic include key political figures such as former Prime Ministers David Lange, Jim Bolger and Helen Clark.[6] The mid-90s saw the establishment of New Zealand Republic, a non-partisan organisation advocating for the shift to a republic.[7] In 2016, former Prime Minister John Key acknowledged that a republic was “inevitable”, but did not believe it would happen within his lifetime.[8] More recently, republican debate was sparked by Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler’s much-discussed A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, in which the authors outline why New Zealand should become a republic and exactly how these changes could be made.[9]

There have also been efforts to gauge the temperature of public opinion on the matter. A 2016 survey by Curia research claimed that 59% of New Zealanders wanted to leave the monarchy.[10] This view was especially popular among younger generations, with 76% of of 18-30 year olds supporting a republic (up from 59% in 2015).[11] However, it is difficult to draw precise conclusions from these kinds of surveys. What can ultimately be said is that the question of a republic is being raised and ordinary New Zealanders have an opinion it.

Reasons in Favour of a Republic

Independence According to their website, New Zealand Republic argues that having an English Head of State contradicts the notion of New Zealand as a fully-functioning independent country.[12] Though once a British colony, we have separated ourselves from Britain in significant ways. Just two examples of legal and judicial change include the passing of the Constitution Act 1982 and the creation the New Zealand Supreme Court, our own highest court of appeal.[13] Despite this, we are still tied to the sovereign; and one that does not fully represent us. When the Queen goes overseas, she does so in her capacity as symbol of Great Britain.[14] Having a Kiwi in the highest position in the country would mean a Head of State who truly represents us and us alone. This would heighten our sense of nationhood and “signal New Zealand’s independence and maturity to the world.”[15]

Democracy A related argument is that transitioning to a republic would emphasise New Zealand’s commitment to democracy. Supporters of a republic hold that it is undemocratic to have a Head of State chosen by hereditary means.[16] Even if the presence of a monarch as our Head of State does not actively infringe our democracy, it does not do much to uphold it either. The Governor-General is not an effective check on executive power because they are answerable to the Prime Minister. Consequently, an independent Head of State would be better placed to guard against abuse of power by the government and deal with constitutional crises.[17] This individual would also be more accountable to the people, as they would be elected either directly by the public or indirectly by Parliament.[18]

Constitutional Realism A third argument in support of a republic is discussed by Palmer and Butler as “constitutional realism”.[19] This is the idea that New Zealand should become a republic because, to all intents and purposes, it already is one. The Queen is merely a figurehead. Her role and that of the Governor-General “have little power”, and any “essential constitutional function” they serve can easily be performed by a local Head of State.[20] This view posits that if New Zealand is already a kind of informal republic, it is only logical to take the next step of formally becoming one.

Reasons Against a Republic

Identity In contrast to NZ Republic, Monarchy New Zealand (Monarchy NZ) – a non-partisan organisation founded in 1995 to promote celebration of New Zealand’s links to the British monarchy – believes that the monarchy affirms our rich identity. Our relationship with the royal family is a “sign of our maturity and independence as a nation”.[21] The organisation highlights public excitement around royal visits to New Zealand, arguing that such events create national unity. This echoes John Key’s sentiments last year that the particular popularity of the younger royals is evidence that our “bond” with the monarchy is strengthening.[22]

Stability Some also argue that a monarchy is preferable to a republic because it provides a sense of continuity. The royal family sits above any political volatility within New Zealand. Even Palmer and Butler recognise the advantages of this arrangement, since “particular administrations may come and go, but the monarchy goes on forever”.[23] Monarchy NZ claims that the Queen and Governor-General are not simply figureheads, but actively contribute to our national prosperity. The monarchy has established the foundations of democracy in New Zealand and maintains its survival.[24] Thus, any change to the system risks toppling the harmony we have enjoyed so far.

Crown-Maori Relations Not all anti-republican arguments are explicitly pro-monarchy. A good example is the argument that changing to a republic might throw into question Crown-Maori obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. Jacinda Ardern believed that there were issues along these lines which required addressing before New Zealand becomes a Republic,[25] while former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae considered that changing to a republic would complicate Crown-Maori relations.[26] Pro-republicans insist that this would not be a problem, since obligations under the Treaty would naturally be handed to the new Head of State who possesses “increased mana” to uphold the government’s obligations to Maori.[27] Nonetheless, anxieties about the place of Maori remain a “‘deal breaker’” for some who would otherwise support a republic.[28]

So What?

Where does all of this leave us? If New Zealand is basically a republic in our day-to-day functioning and we are largely unaffected by monarchy, most of the arguments above are based on semantics and symbolism. Yet republican debate has certainly flared up in Australia. Last year, a document in favour of a republic was signed by almost all state and territory leaders,[29] while this year saw Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten promising that a referendum would be held in the first term of a Labor government.[30] If Australia becomes a republic, will New Zealand follow – If for nothing more than outdoing our neighbours across the ditch?

The expression that perhaps best summarises the Kiwi mindset is “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If staying a monarchy does not negatively impact the country, then why change it? But by the same logic, why not? New Zealand has progressed over the years from a country overlooked by the rest of the world to a respected player in international affairs. Becoming a republic would only confirm our strength as a nation, and demonstrate that we certainly have no issue when it comes to standing on our own feet.

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

[1] “Jacinda Ardern in the PM Job Interview: ‘It’s time to talk about a republic’” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, 22 August 2017).

[2] Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2017) at 87.

[3] At 89.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary (online ed, Oxford University Press) at [republic, n].

[5] Palmer and Butler, above n 2, at 93-94.

[6] At 89-90.

[7] “Our Goals and Objectives” New Zealand Republic <www.republic.org.nz>.

[8] Claire Trevett “NZ a republic? Not in my lifetime, Key predicts” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, 26 January 2016).

[9] Palmer and Butler, above n 2, at ch 3.

[10] Stacey Kirk “Nearly 60 per cent of Kiwis want the British Monarchy out – poll” Stuff (online ed, 4 September 2016.)

[11] Kirk, above n 10.

[12] “What We Stand For” New Zealand Republic <www.republic.org.nz>.

[13] W David McIntyre “Self-government and independence – Towards a republic?” (20 Jun 2012) Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand <www.teara.govt.nz>.

[14] New Zealand Republic, above n 12.

[15] New Zealand Republic.

[16] New Zealand Republic.

[17] New Zealand Republic.

[18] Palmer and Butler, above n 2, at 101.

[19] At 92.

[20] At 90.

[21] “Welcome to Monarchy New Zealand” Monarchy New Zealand <www.monarchy.org.nz>.

[22] Trevett, above n 8.

[23] Palmer and Butler, above n 2, at 86.

[24] “Myths” Monarchy New Zealand <www.monarchy.org.nz>.

[25] New Zealand Herald, above n 1.

[26] “NZ republic inevitable says Governor-General” (16 August 2016) Maori Television <www.maoritelevision.com>.

[27] Lewis J Holden The New Zealand Republic Handbook: A Guide to Creating the New Zealand Republic (Republican Movement, Auckland, 2009) at 46.

[28] At 43.

[29] “Australia republic move: Leaders begin push” BBC News (online ed, 25 January 2016).

[30] “Australia’s Labor opposition vows republic referendum” BBC News (online ed, 29 July 2017).