The case for a New Zealand republic

The monarchy no longer represents New Zealand as it is, and certainly doesn’t represent our future, writes Lewis Holden.

It is easy enough to win the rational debate for a New Zealand head of State.

The proposed Palmer-Butler constitution clearly sets out a pragmatic path to a Kiwi as our Head of State, building on our strong parliamentary traditions, clarifying the royal prerogatives and the neutrality of the office. In a clutch of short articles, the proposed constitution sets out a practical way of doing this. The articles dismiss all the nonsensical objections to change. The straightforward changes required are set out. Of course, we could simply lift these articles and put them into an Act of Parliament, but that’s a broader debate about a written constitution. The proposed constitution adds to the growing weight of academic literature which demonstrates the relative legal ease of change.

Sadly, though, this isn’t simply a rational constitutional debate. It’s an emotional one – and they’re much harder to win. The Head of State goes fundamentally to how we, the people, see ourselves as a country and in the world. The whole monarchy versus republic issue is an emotional debate. And not being an overtly emotional country, we tend to stay away from the discussion, with our elite dismissing (as Dame Sian Elias recently did at a conference on the Magna Carta) the issue as a constitutionally irrelevant or unimportant issue, simply to entertain a public unable to engage in “bigger ideas”. Yet our country is exactly that – a big idea. Countries are sometimes described as “imagined communities” in that they consist of peoples sharing certain values, histories and common aspirations who perceive themselves as part of that nation state.

Emotionally the monarchy connects with a number of New Zealanders, largely out of a nostalgic attachment to the past represented by the Queen’s record-breaking reign. Analysis of support for the monarchy has argued that a lot of New Zealanders are “Elizabethan” rather than die-hard monarchy loyalists. Take away the Queen and the equation changes. The Royal Family knows this, and since the disasters of the late 1990s the Royals have become adept at public relations. They have built a formidable public relations machine that feeds the news media’s contemporary celebrity obsession. This, combined with the public’s general apathy to a debate largely focused on national identity, has ensured the monarchy’s continued survival in New Zealand and other parts of the former British Empire.

Support for the monarchy is largely emotional – and likewise, so is support for a Kiwi Head of State. This emotional attachment colours any rational debate on the Head of State. Rationally, no-one starting from scratch writing a constitution for Aotearoa would contemplate any sort of New Zealand monarchy; the authority of monarchies around the world have been established through many centuries of conflict. Yet it’s often argued that the monarchy is the “best form” of government yet devised, with such claims verified by various rankings showing monarchies (usually in western Europe) out-ranking republics. Rationally this is nonsense; unless the Queen as our head of State makes New Zealanders better at reading and voting then it’s highly unlikely the monarchy can claim our success as its product.

The monarchy is broken. It is broken because it does not represent the country we have become and it certainly does not represent the country we want to become. It tells the world we put an aspect of our history ahead of our own self-regard and self-confidence. All too often arguments against a New Zealander as Head of State fall back to cultural cringe towards New Zealand and New Zealanders. Of course the New Zealand Head of State is never going to be a major player on the world stage. At least they should be one of us, chosen by our elected representatives. No-one internationally sees the Queen as Queen of New Zealand. Our Head of State is an interesting sidenote for editors in Wikipedia. We deserve better than that.


A fifth generation New Zealander, Lewis Holden was educated at Hutt International Boys School in Trentham, Upper Hutt, before completing a Bachelor of Commerce and Administration at Victoria University in 2006.
He is a keen debater, participating in the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championships, and New Zealand Universities Debating Championships in 2006 which his team won in that year.
Lewis works in the information technology industry. Starting as a graduate for IBM, he has also worked for New Zealand-owned systems integrator Spectrum Consulting, Ingram Micro NZ, Oracle, and most recently as southern regional manager for Cogent Ltd.


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