New Zealand's 'inevitable' republic: Part two

New Zealand's 'inevitable' republic: Part two
Photo credit: Getty.

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says it’s essential New Zealand becomes a republic.

"Democracy in the West seems to me to be in considerable peril. We have Trump, we have Brexit, we have authoritarianism in Russia," he says.

"If you have a constitution as brittle and incomplete as the New Zealand one, we are open to the development of authoritarian populism."

In his book, "Towards Democratic Renewal", co-authored with Dr Andrew Butler, Sir Geoffrey outlines his vision for a New Zealand republic with its own codified constitution and a New Zealander as the head of state.

"It's very hard to explain to your grandchildren why the head of state lives in Britain.

"Deconstructing the monarchy is the key to everything in that respect."

New Zealand is currently one of three countries that does not have a written constitution in one document. The others are Israel and the United Kingdom.

A constitution, broadly speaking, is legislation outlining the principles by which a country is governed.

A 'codified constitution' refers to a single document. An uncodified constitution, like ours, is taken from multiple different sources.

New Zealand's constitution is spread between multiple statutes here and in the UK, a system Sir Geoffrey says is opaque and confusing to the average New Zealander. He says this needs to be fixed to avoid trouble in the future.

"The time to repair your constitution is when there is no crisis. New Zealand is not immune to the dangers of fake news, authoritarianism and the manipulation of public opinion."

Sir Geoffrey also suggests strengthening our constitution by giving it "superior law” status,  meaning it supersedes other laws and is difficult to change.

The most famous constitution in the world, signed by the founding fathers of the United States, has only been amended 27 times since 1787.

But Dr Sean Palmer, Chair of Monarchy NZ, says he thinks anyone who thinks creating a constitution and shifting to a republic would be a simple process is being "staggeringly idealistic."

"There is sometimes a mix of mythology and idealism in the Republican movement.

“The mythology is that it is possible to govern a country in a simple way, that you can find a constitution anywhere in the world that outlines how a country will work in its entirety and that it would be accessible to everyone."

He questions whether a codified constitution is a guarantee of stability, pointing to France, now on its fifth republic in 200 years.

According to a study by the University of Chicago, the average lifespan of written constitutions is only 17 years before the republic they define collapses.

But Sir Geoffrey says New Zealand's current ‘skeletal’ constitution doesn't do enough to clearly describe the powers available to the Government and how they may be used.

Sir Geoffrey says an example of misuse of power is the use of  "parliamentary urgency", whereby a Bill can be drafted into law in a single day without ever being sent to select committee.

In 2011, Labour MP Grant Robertson joined forces with right-wing blogger David Farrar to highlight the number of laws pushed through under urgency by the National government at the time.

That legislation included bills that tightened bail laws; brought in National Standards at primary schools; and introduced the 90-day trial period for small companies.

"That [a law] could pass in a single day, without public consultation, shows how fragile our constitutional system is," says Sir Geoffrey.

Sir Geoffrey also suggests a review of the new constitution every 10 years to ensure it remains relevant. He’s drafted a blueprint for a proposed constitution in both English and Te Reo - more details can be found here.

Freedom House, an international organisation which ranks countries based on their level of democracy and stability, says eight out of the top ten most stable and democratic nations worldwide are monarchies.

Freedom House also give each country a number rating reflecting their level of democracy, with 100 being the best possible score. New Zealand scores a 98, and Dr Palmer queries whether that isn't impressive enough.

"As NZ has a score of 98 out of 100, it does make me wonder what number Sir Geoffrey is hoping for and what he is prepared to gamble to get us there."

Dr Palmer says despite only making up around 25 percent of the world's nations, monarchies represent 80 percent of the most democratic states.  

But Dr Dean Knight, a Victoria University lecturer and spokesperson for pro-republic group New Zealand Republic, says the argument that monarchies are inherently more stable is "fairytale nonsense."

"I think the monarchists conveniently overlook all the monarchies which have been unstable - Fiji, Papua New Guinea, I could go on.

"The particular institutional brand of monarchy doesn't, in itself, guarantee stability. What leads to stability is the day-to-day values and civic virtues of the office holders on the ground,” he says.

"It's just nonsense to suggest monarchies are somehow some special beast that make everything proper and right."

Mr Knight says "those who prefer the status quo like to throw a lot of interference around this issue and make it seem more complex than it actually is. At its heart, moving to a republic is not that hard."

National's Chair of Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade, Simon O’Connor, disagrees.

"Constitutional change is never simple and the idea that it can be is bollocks. It's rubbish."

Mr O'Connor thinks our non-codified constitution is a strength and says changing it won't make our democracy any more secure.

"I love the idea of our constitution being in many places where it can't be as easily controlled by politicians.

"Republicanism hasn't stopped Trump in America, it hasn't stopped major autocratic takeovers in other countries."

Sir Geoffrey also proposes we have a new head of state, called the "Guardian of the Constitution", who would be appointed by a two-thirds majority Parliamentary vote for a fixed term of five years.

The Guardian would have essentially the same powers as the Governor-General, as well as the power to refuse to ratify new legislation if he or she thought it was unconstitutional.

But Mr O’Connor argues having a head of state chosen by Parliamentary vote would overly politicise our highest office.

"If we go down the republican route we will have a highly politicised head of state, and I'm happy to say this as a politician: we don't need more politicians."

Mr O'Connor says those calling for constitutional change may not have entirely altruistic motives in mind.

"Fundamentally when it comes to calls for a republic, it's all about power. They want the power. Simple as that. When [republicans] say they want a head of state that's a New Zealander, they have someone in mind, and it's them."

The next piece in this series will examine how the Treaty of Waitangi would be affected by New Zealand becoming a republic. 

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