State power should come from the people

The head of state should represent NZ’s identity, culture, and heritage, argue Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dr Andrew Butler

In our book A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, we propose that New Zealand should become a republic.

At present New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth II is our Head of State as Queen in Right of New Zealand. On the advice of the New Zealand Prime Minister, the Queen appoints a representative to the position of Governor-General to exercise her power in New Zealand.

The monarchy has so far served us well and for the most part has been uncontroversial. So the first question must be:

Why should we change?

We believe our Head of State should reflect New Zealand’s national identity, culture and heritage. New Zealand is a unique country with a diverse culture and history. Becoming a Republic would better reflect the changes in demographics which have and will continue to occur, as many New Zealanders of Asian or Pacific descent have no historic ties to Britain and the monarchy. Becoming a Republic will also clarify the values which New Zealand finds important: egalitarianism and merit. A hereditary monarch who holds the position of sovereign and Head of State for life, just by dint of being born, goes against these values. New Zealand should have a democratically appointed and accountable Head of State who is one of our own.

Another argument in support of a republic is based on constitutional realism – the idea that, in reality, we already are one. We believe that it is better for our constitutional arrangements to be plain and straight-forward about where power lies, and how and when it can be used. We think it likely that most people have only a hazy idea of what the actual powers of the Queen and the Governor-General are. We prefer that the powers and functions be explicitly set out and readily accessible, then carried out in a contemporary New Zealand context, by a New Zealander.

What should we change to?

New Zealand is an independent country and we should have a Head of State of our own, one who can represent our interests here and overseas and who is not constantly divided between multiple countries. Appointing our own Head of State will send a clear message of maturity and independence to the international community.

Our proposals are relatively conservative. We believe that here in New Zealand it would be better to have a model that fits with our tradition as a Westminster-style democracy rather than to strike out in radical new directions.

We are proposing a new Head of State, a New Zealander who lives here, in the place of the Queen reigning over New Zealand. The new “Head of State” would be selected on a free vote in the House of Representatives and would enjoy very similar, although not identical, powers and functions to those exercised by the Governor-General now. The term of office would be five years. New Zealand would remain in the Commonwealth.

The royal prerogative – those powers traditionally held by the Queen and her agents – would be abolished with a five-year transition period and replaced with clear and certain statutory powers. The reserve powers of the Head of State would also be removed. An added protection should allow the Head of State to seek a ruling from the Supreme Court if they believe the advice of the Government is unconstitutional or illegal.

New Zealand has secured many advantages from its British connections over the years and these can be maintained, but we need now a more defined sense of our own national identity as an independent nation in the area of the world in which we live.

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