Royal retreat or sovereign sanctuary? The monarchy versus republic debate in New Zealand.
While not quite so prominent as it is across the ditch, the question of whether or not New Zealand should retain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic is a key issue in New Zealand’s future. Salient feature writer Matthew Cunningham interviews Noel Cox, Chairperson for Monarchy New Zealand and Lewis Holden, Chair of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand, on whether or not New Zealand should ditch its pull-ups and don a pair of big-boy pants.
Matthew: Why do you support retaining a constitutional monarchy in New Zealand?
Noel: I think it’s the most practical form of government for New Zealand. It’s also the one that people are most familiar with, and it works very well for us.
Matthew: What are some of the advantages that the monarchy provides New Zealand?
Noel: The primary one would be political stability and political neutrality—in the sense that the head of state is non-partisan.
Matthew: Do you believe that issues like national identity tie into it as well?
Noel: They don’t have to at all. You can have national identity being weak or strong irrespective of the form of government you’ve got, so long as you’re an independent country—and New Zealand has been independent for a very long time. I don’t think that national identity is at all central to this debate.
Matthew: What do you believe would be some of the negative effects of instituting a republic in New Zealand?
Noel: It would depend to some extent on how the system was changed. Any change could be seen potentially as a sign of political instability. But apart from that, we would have to adopt a system that people understand, and one that provides the same sort of safeguards that our present system has.
Matthew: What do you believe the role of the monarchy should be in New Zealand? What powers should it retain?
Noel: Well essentially, it’s not so much the power the monarchy retains as it is the power it denies politicians. For instance, with the judicial role, it’s not that the queen or the governor-general actually presides in a trial, but it’s that the justice system operates in the name of the Crown, and is therefore totally non-political and independent of the government of the day.
The powers that are vested in the governor-general should be those that are necessary to the workings of government. They should also include some additional powers which may be necessary in the case of a crisis—for instance, the ability to sack the Prime Minister.
Matthew: A number of changes were implemented in the last decade that changed the role of the monarchy in New Zealand affairs. This included replacing appeals to the Privy Council with the New Zealand Supreme Court and replacing the British honours system with a New Zealand one—although the British honours have subsequently been re-introduced by Prime Minister John Key. What is your opinion on these changes?
Noel: Well, as to the Privy Council, the government that implemented the changes was fairly ambivalent about them. On the one hand they said it was necessary for national identity, but at the same time they said it wasn’t a constitutional change.
Speaking as a lawyer rather than someone associated with the monarchy, I would say that the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council was a legal change that didn’t have any direct relation to the question of monarchy or republic. After all, there are some republics that retain the right of appeal, just as there are some monarchies that have abolished it.
The honours question is more interesting. The terminology that is often used is either ‘British’ or ‘Imperial’ honours, as distinct from New Zealand. But of course the reality is that, over many decades, the system has become more and more indigenised. We had the Queen’s Service Order in 1975, for instance.
It wasn’t really a case of abolishing the British honours system and creating a New Zealand one—we already had a New Zealand honours system—it was merely removing all of the remaining links with the British system. What we’ve got now is a purely New Zealand system. The Knighthoods are still a part of the New Zealand system—it’s clearly a case of the royal honours system, but it’s not the British honours system. So that’s as it should be for an independent country.
Matthew: Recent public opinion polls show that the retention of the monarchy enjoys somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent public support. However, Prime Minister John Key has stated he believes that, in the long term, becoming a republic is ‘inevitable’. Do you think it is inevitable, or do you think the current level of support for retaining the monarchy will remain high?
Noel: To answer your second question first, opinion polls over the last 40 years have indicated a fairly consistent level of support for the monarchy. Certainly, any political party would be envious of that level of support.
And that really ties into the first question, which is do I think it is inevitable. I don’t think anything is inevitable. I’m not going to say that New Zealand won’t become a republic, but, I mean, what makes it inevitable? The only way you could describe it as inevitable would be if the monarchy were a temporary or a transitional arrangement. But it’s actually the only form of government we’ve known in New Zealand, and there is no reason why that has to change.
Matthew: Some opponents of republicanism have argued that, if New Zealand were to become a republic, the relationship between the Crown and Maori—specifically, the Treaty of Waitangi—might come under question. Do you believe that this would be the case?
Noel: Well, there’s two answers to that. One is the technical/legal one—which is largely irrelevant when you’re taking about politics—and that states that, whatever the form of government, the new regime will assume responsibility for the treaty. So becoming a republic wouldn’t remove the Treaty of Waitangi.
But the reality is that the cosmetic or symbolic side of things is actually far more important. The Treaty is seen as a partnership between the Crown and Maori, so if you remove one of the parties then it does raise fundamental questions about the whole nature of the treaty.
So, yes, it could be a problem. And I think that, for New Zealand, the question of how we deal with the Treaty of Waitangi is a much more difficult and fundamentally important question than whether or not we should be a republic.
Matthew: What is your opinion on Keith Locke’s ‘Head of State Referenda Bill’, which seeks to bring about a referendum on the question of whether New Zealand should become a republic?
Noel: I think it’s an interesting bill because Mr Locke has tried to suggest that this is not a bill promoting a referendum on the monarchy as the head of state. That’s a chimera; that’s illusory. The reality is that he wants New Zealand to become a republic, so he’s introduced a bill which would cause a referendum on the subject.
So on the one hand it’s a bit dishonest, but more fundamentally it’s not answering the core question. There may be people who want a republic, and there may be people who say it’s inevitable even if they don’t want one, but clearly that is no grounds upon which to hold a referendum now.
My third point is that it’s a very poorly drafted bill. It is introducing a particular referendum model which is not ideal at all.
Matthew: Assuming that the referenda did go ahead, and a majority opted to retain the monarchy, would you see that as a validation of the monarchy?
Noel: I think if we do have a referendum—whether it’s badly drafted or not—and the people give a clear answer, then that should resolve matters one way or the other. But then again, if we look at the Australian example where the referendum ten years ago resulted in a fairly strong vote of support for retaining the monarchy, that didn’t bring an end to discussions. It didn’t bring an end to the republican movement.
So a referendum, whichever way it goes, is not necessarily going to resolve matters.
Matthew: Why do you support instituting a republic in New Zealand?
Lewis: We support a republic for three main reasons.
The first is around our sense of nationhood and national identity. We feel that it is time for New Zealand to assert its independence to the world and to have a constitution that reflects our values and our egalitarian tradition in New Zealand.
Second, because we believe in democracy. We believe that all political offices in New Zealand should be open to New Zealanders and appointed on merit rather than birth.
And thirdly, we believe that we need to develop better checks and balances in our government. Becoming a republic is a part of that debate.
Matthew: What are some of the advantages that becoming a republic would provide?
Lewis: Well, the first set of advantages is symbolic, but a lot of people assume that the republican argument is all about symbolism. Whilst a republic would assert our independence to the world and be good for national identity, it’s also about taking ownership of our constitution, defining what the powers of the head of state are—which are currently undefined—and also about asserting checks and balances on the Prime Minister and the cabinet.
So the main benefit from a republic is actually around the constitutional changes that would result—defining what those reserve powers are, and ensuring that we have a head of state who can keep the prime minister and cabinet in check.
Matthew: What form does the Republican Movement envisage that a restructured central government—in particular the judiciary and the head of state—would take under a republic?
Lewis: Well there wouldn’t be any change to the judiciary—the last link to the UK was cut off seven years ago with the Privy Council.
At the moment you’ve got a governor-general who is de-facto appointed by the Prime Minister, who every six years sends a fax off to Buckingham Palace which says “this person is going to be our governor-general for the next five years”, the Queen rubber-stamps that, and presto! You get a governor-general.
So what we’re really talking about is reforming the office of governor-general—firstly into a full head of state, and secondly into an elected position. So what that means is that you’re decreasing the power of the prime minister and taking away his or her ability to simply put forward one of their mates.
Matthew: How do the goals of the Republican Movement resemble those pursued by Jim Bolger in the nineties? How do they differ?
Lewis: Bolger raised the debate in ’94 because he was very much about the ideal of national identity. And that’s pretty much where the Republican Movement came from—a group of students at VUW got together and said “this national identity stuff is really starting to matter in New Zealand now”. After the eighties there was a sense of confidence in ourselves that hadn’t been there before.
In terms of where we differ from Bolger, well, we don’t really differ too much. What Bolger proposed was a minimal change, which is essentially what we say we should do—reform the office of governor-general into a full head of state. It’s not legally difficult to do.
One thing that Bolger did say is that we should directly elect the president. The Republican Movement’s policy is that that decision should be up to New Zealanders—it should be the public’s choice on how the President is selected, not the prime minister’s. And any process around becoming a republic should be as inclusive of the general public as possible.
Matthew: Recent polls show that the retention of the monarchy enjoys somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent public support. What is your comment on that?
Lewis: That’s a pretty average reflection. The long-term trend is towards more support for a republic. Obviously at the moment the polls are slightly down because of Prince William’s visit, but we’ll probably go back up in the next few years.
The incredible thing is that, in the late eighties, support for the monarchy was about three quarters of the population. Whereas now, the last New Zealand electoral study said 48 per cent. So that’s quite a decrease in support for the monarchy.
The critical thing for us though is that, whilst people may not be supporting the monarchy, that doesn’t actually mean that they support a republic—hence why support for a republic is only around 30 or 40 per cent. But more and more people are becoming undecided on the issue. So the debate is actually heating up, and it will happen whether people want it to or not.
Matthew: What is your stance on the honours system? British, New Zealand, or both?
Lewis: Our position is reflective of what our membership thinks, which is that we kind of like the idea of titles. In terms of what those titles should be, that’s where our debate is. We’ve suggested that they should really introduce some sort of Maori/indigenous title.
The actual concept of titles isn’t exclusive to monarchies, though—they have them in Italy, Portugal and Malta, which are all republics. So these aren’t mutually exclusive things—you can still have the Privy Council in a republic as well.
Matthew: Some opponents of republicanism have argued that, if New Zealand were to become a republic, the relationship between Crown and Maori—specifically, the Treaty of Waitangi—might come into question. Do you believe that this would be the case?
Lewis: Well, it’s a very important part of the debate for New Zealand. But the critical thing is that, under the status quo, who the Crown is, actually isn’t very clear. When the treaty was signed in 1840, the Crown meant Queen Victoria and her government. Then in 1852 we got a settler government, and they started confiscating Maori land and bringing out imperial troops to force them off their land—all these sorts of ugly things which we are now dealing with. The Crown now in New Zealand actually means the New Zealand government—it doesn’t mean Queen Elizabeth over in the UK. So in essence, that relationship won’t change if we become a republic.
The real question is what we do with it symbolically. I guess that from a Maori perspective, there is a lot of concern that it could mean an end to treaty settlements because there is no longer a ‘Crown’. But I believe it would actually be quite beneficial for us because it would actually clarify who the Crown is and what that actually means in terms of treaty settlements, because Maori are now part of the Crown.
It’s also worth making the point that a lot of Maori, in urban regions specifically, support a republic, even more so than non-Maori New Zealanders. And I think that may be because of the history of the Crown oppressing Maori and taking away their culture. So there’s actually quite a good understanding of the fact that the Crown never did anything to protect Maori. It’s only been since the New Zealand government has been in the driving seat that things have changed.
Matthew: Over the last few decades there have been several political parties that have formed to campaign on the question of becoming a republic. Are there any plans for the Republican Movement to launch a party?
Lewis: No. We’re not a political party. We’re a campaign group, and we’re going to stay that way.
We’re cross-partisan as well—we’ve got people like David Farrar who’s heavily involved in the National Party, Jordan Carter who is very much involved with Labour—so we’ve got quite a good mix of people from both sides of politics. Our general way of campaigning is around party activists, so we work a lot with people who are involved in the democratic process.
There’s always been a tendency for people to expect us to contest elections, but we’re not going to do that. The first reason for that is because it doesn’t actually get us anywhere. The second is because New Zealanders aren’t going to vote on a republic issue at a general election, because the top tier issues are always going to be health, education, employment, that sort of thing. Constitutional reform is an esoteric thing—it doesn’t make you get a hip operation faster, it doesn’t ensure that your kids get a good education.
What we actually need is for the big parties to adopt a policy of change and say that we will have a constitutional convention on this issue that will draft recommendations, and then we will have a referendum.
Matthew: And finally, your thoughts on Keith Locke’s ‘Head of State Referenda Bill’?
Lewis: It’s quite a good piece of legislation in terms of getting the discussion started. Whether or not it will ever get to be in a referendum is open to question. I would say that the critical thing at this stage is that, if it goes to a Select Committee, we can actually have that debate for the first time. This republic debate has been going on since the sixties, but we’ve never had a discussion at the parliamentary level on this issue. And I think it’s critical now that we actually start talking about it.