The 'inevitable' republic: Part one

The 'inevitable' republic: Part one
Photo credit: Getty.

Jacinda Ardern thinks New Zealand will become a republic in her lifetime, rekindling a debate as old our nation - who should head the state?

New Zealand is a "constitutional monarchy" meaning the Queen is still our monarch, acting through her appointed representative, the Governor-General.  

However, since passing the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act in 1947, New Zealand was essentially granted full autonomy in day-to-day governance.

Sixteen other countries in the Commonwealth have adopted similar acts and are legally distinct monarchies, or realms, no longer lumped under the umbrella of the British Crown.

Queen Elizabeth therefore carries the title "Queen of New Zealand" or "Kuini o Aotearoa", making us our own discrete kingdom.

Our independence in practical political matters and the mostly symbolic role of the Crown is a common argument for maintaining ties to the monarchy. As former Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boys summarised: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

While it is true the Governor-General, acting in the Queen's stead, isn't involved with daily legislative affairs, the office is still imbued with immense power.

As well as swearing in new Prime Ministers and accepting their resignations, the Governor-General technically has the ability to dissolve Government and fire the Prime Minister.  

While no Governor-General has ever invoked this power, it remains one of the "reserve powers" granted in the name of the Queen.

Other reserve powers include the ability to call for a new election, refuse a Prime Minister's request for an election and to refuse to ratify new legislation.

Justice Minister Andrew Little has previously shown his support for cutting ties with the Crown, echoing a common sentiment in the pro-republic camp by saying: "Our head of state should be a New Zealander."

In his final address to Parliament, Peter Dunne gave an impassioned call for a republic, arguing:

"We can do so much better than continuing to bend our knee to a hereditary monarch on the other side of the world."

However, pro-monarchists argue having a head of state removed from the daily tumult of politics maintains stability and avoids partisanship. 

But Mr Dunne says the transition to a republic wouldn't be difficult; it would essentially involve just renaming the Governor-General's role and removing token deference to the Crown.

One possibility being floated is turning the Governor-General's office into the office of President. The holder of that title would remain the head of state and retain many of the same powers.

The Governor-General is currently elected by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Pro-republicans say this is undemocratic, as it allows our highest office to be determined by one person.

"Electing the head of state is a basic democratic right," says pro-republic campaign group New Zealand Republic. It argues a president could be determined by popular election, allowing the head of state to be determined by all New Zealanders.

"Republicanism is based on the principle that government authority is reliant on the consent of citizens."

However Dr Sean Palmer, Chairman of Monarchy NZ, says there is no guarantee a presidential office of this kind would be a positive change.

"It is easy to confuse more elections with more democracy," he says. 

Dr Palmer also argues there would be nothing simple about becoming a republic, and likens the process to changing the foundation of your home.

"Anyone saying it would be a simple process is either willfully misleading people or doesn't understand the system."

The next part in this series will take a closer look at the technicalities of transforming into a republic.

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