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September 25, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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A ‘Soft’ Republic?

In 1994, then-Prime Minister Jim Bolger said he believed New Zealand could cut ties with the British monarchy, and become a republic by the year 2000.

Although he succeeded in ending the awarding of British Honours in New Zealand in 1996, and firmly advocated replacing the Privy Council as the country’s highest appellate Court—successfully executed by the subsequent Clark Government—17 years later Mrs Windsor remains the symbolic head of state.

Writing in the 1940s, the foundation Professor of Political Science at Victoria, Leslie Lipson observed of New Zealand’s political culture: “abstractions, theories, ideals—these are of little account or interest unless they can be immediately applied. Utility is the national yardstick.” The cultural pragmatism Lipson recognised endures, and goes a long way towards explaining why Bolger’s push for full and final independence remains unfulfilled. The question persists: Why, when New Zealand is already a de-facto republic, do we need to officially cut ties with the monarchy?

With the Government having initiated a review of our constitution, it is with deference to the aforementioned cultural reality that I advocate the prospect of a ‘soft’ republic.
The soft republic approach would see New Zealand’s system of government move to a parliamentary republic, with the current hereditary head-of-state replaced with a New Zealander chosen by New Zealanders, whether by direct election, or the more likely option of parliamentary appointment. Under the parliamentary republic model, this new head-of-state would retain the same powers, functions and responsibilities of the current Governor-General, but would symbolically reflect New Zealand, rather than Mother England.

As Victoria University law lecturer, Dean Knight argues, under this system we would have a head-of-state who retains the valued ceremonial and community functions of the current Governor-General, but would better represent and reflect the values of multi-cultural Aotearoa, and that’s the crux of the argument.

“The Royal Family do not represent us. They represent something different, and whether they be pop-stars, or champions of goodness, they lack the essential Kiwiness. While the office of the Governor-General has evolved to manifest many of these Kiwi values, there is a limit to which it can continue to evolve when it is a subordinate role anchored abroad in London.”

Often submitted as an obstacle to achieving full independence by way of its essence as an agreement between iwi and hapu on one side and Queen Victoria on the other, the Treaty of Waitangi need not be an insurmountable hurdle. As it stands, the New Zealand Executive has long assumed responsibility for meeting Treaty obligations (to varying degrees, of course). Essentially, a soft republic would retain the status quo, with the transition to a republic, initiated largely independent of wider constitutional reform.

Of course, an optimistic—or less-soft—view of the potential surrounding republicanism, is that it would allow, and facilitate a wider debate resolving the future role and place of the Treaty. This, as part of, and along side, the codification of New Zealand’s Constitution, would be a more ambitious approach to be sure, but an approach that would benefit the nation as a whole.

Assuredly, advocates of republicanism are unlikely to be beneficiaries of the current constitutional review. Bill English, while accepting that the panel will review the republican debate, has explicitly stated that the Government “is not advancing the prospect of a republic.” This is hardly surprising when the current Prime Minister seems to hold an unusual affinity for the monarchy, working to strengthen the old symbolic ties to the extent that he reintroduced knighthoods to the New Zealand Honours system.

However, the republican question is shrouded in inevitability—something even Mr Key will admit, even if he’s happy to leave it for the Sixth Labour Government to address. As Victoria’s Dr. Jon Johansson argues, “It’s a natural rite of passage that our history has inexorably been leading us towards.

“Britain, the old ‘Mother Country’ (for fewer and fewer of us), abandoned us several decades ago, to better put its own house in order (or at least to pursue its own perceived self-interest, which didn’t include providing continued guaranteed access for our protein-based products), so it is time we simply acknowledged this reality and did the same.”

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  1. An interesting halfway house. So far all moves toward any form of ‘independence since 1907 have come from Westminster not Wellington.

  2. Gavin Connell says:

    How is what you describe here a ‘soft’ republic?

    Changing the role of the head of state from the UK monarchy to an internally elected/chosen NZder doesn’t appear ‘soft’ at all to me, that’s just a standard republic isn’t it?

    Not that I’m against the idea, you just haven’t explained what you think a ‘hard’ republic might be for comparison?

  3. Paul Comrie-Thomson says:

    Fair enough. So… a more ‘radical’ approach might see NZ completely reject the Westminster system of governance for a system based on a purer separation of powers, such as the US system, for instance. So, no Prime-Minister, but an elected President who, along with the Cabinet, are completely separate from the legislature, rather than being comprised of Members of Parliament.

    The idea of the ‘soft’ republic, is that it involves the very minimum in change. We cut the tie that binds, but our system of government is otherwise unchanged.

  4. Gavin Connell says:

    If we need to describe it as a ‘soft’ republic to get conservative types on board then so be it! As long as the word ‘republic’ is there, I reckon we’ll all be happy. The parliamentary model we currently use in NZ is perfectly compatible with a republican state, so I see no automatic reason to presume that we’d need to change governmental structure.

    One thing that I’ve never been convinced of, is the need for a separate head of state on top of the elected leader from the lead political party. The same argument rears it’s head again and again in republican debates in the UK. The argument goes, “If you get rid of the monarchy, we’ll need to replace them with a president as head of state, like the american model, and look where that’s gotten them!” I say in response to that, “The queen does nothing that our elected government can’t do better, and more representatively on its own. You don’t remove an inefficient part of a machine, only to replace it with something equally as inefficient, so why would we seek to replace this role with a similar one?”

    Do we really need some kind of figure head? Can’t we just have a prime minister and a government? Can’t they ‘represent’ New Zealand effectively?

    I like your article, I’ve just always been confused as to why more people aren’t challenging the very notion of having this second, ‘figure-head’ leader role? Am I missing something fundamental (it wouldn’t be the first time)?

  5. Paul Comrie-Thomson says:

    In parliamentary systems, the Head of State fulfills largely ceremonial functions; for example, greeting foreign dignitaries, and representing the country at state functions. They may also serve other functions, such as being able to dissolve Parliament, sign off on laws etc, as the Governor-General does in New Zealand, and in many cases, as in New Zealand, this is a mere technicality. So you’re right and we could function efficiently with just a PM.

    However, the benefit of having a separate Head of State is that they are (in theory) above politics; they are separate from the legislature and rather than pursuing a partisan agenda, they represent continuity.

  6. Gavin Connell says:

    Cheers Paul, all fair points. To that end, I think any serious powers (such as the ability to ‘sack’ a PM) could easily be spread among existing political roles, in fact, I’d love to see that particular power given to the Speaker of the house. The speaker would be an ideal role to enhance with these powers. They are non-partisan already and have to, by very definition be impartial and objective.

    When it comes down to the more ceremonial role of ‘meeting and greeting’, I’m fairly certain that this isn’t really an important political function. Why don’t we split that responsibility among the All Blacks squad on a rotation, or some other popular figure (partially joking)? I make light of the duty, because it seems pretty surface level and cosmetic to me…

    Failing all that, I’ll happily volunteer for the position if it comes with a small expense account? :)

  7. Chris Watson says:

    Academics and intellectuals may think the Kiwi public have it wrong, but the masses probably have a shrewder sense than their naive ‘betters’.

    There are some important issues in the republican debate:

    – in the case of the ‘soft’ issue. Who will wield the quite substantial powers of the crown. One of the greatest things about the current system is the very absurdity of the monarchy. The Queen and her representatives hold enormous power, but the very nature of the system means it would be inconceivable for these ‘reserve powers’ to be exercised in anything short of complete crisis. It seems unlikely that a politician who has some sort mandate can be relied upon to be as restrained. (This was the view of the Australian voters when they rejected the republic at referendum).

    – In the case where the powers of GG/President were reduced, who gets the powers relinquished by the crown? Whoever gets them, it again seems unlikely we can rely on them not to wield them.

    – Finally, can the ordinary people trust the drafters of whatever new constitution would be necessary to codify these new constitutional arrangements? There are so many political zealots around awfully keen to rewrite NZ’s (and Australia’s) constitution to include the fads and interest groups of the moment. I wouldn’t trust anyone on any side of politics at the moment to write a constitution for NZ. Whether deliberate or unintended, the unexpected consequences of a badly drafted constitution could be catastrophic.

    As always, the intellectuals are naive. Let our constitutional arrangements remain as they are.

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