Time to grasp the constitutional nettle

We should not wait for the Queen to pass away before we finally transition to a republic, we should just get on and do it, says Peter Dunne.

While New Zealanders were getting overly excited last weekend about the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the people of the Republic of Ireland were re-electing Michael D Higgins, the ninth President of the Irish Republic,  for a second seven year term as the country's Head of State.

The contrast between how two similarly sized, modern states, with many familial and cultural links, approach the issue of their nationhood could not be more marked.

While the Mayor of Wellington was telling residents of his city to "behave themselves" during the Royal visit, and there was concern the Duchess may have breached protocol and been too political by praising feminism, President Higgins was using his victory address to spell out his role as a non-executive, largely ceremonial, Head of State.

He observed that the "... Presidency through its direct representation of, and direct connection with the people of Ireland, is an independent space where new ideas and possibilities can emerge" and that "a real republic is a republic of equality of shared vulnerabilities and collective capacities ...  where every person is encouraged and supported to participate fully and where every person and community is treated with dignity and respect."

These fine, aspirational words are a sad reminder of New Zealand's continued failure to grasp the constitutional nettle and address the question of when we should transition to become a republic. (I say when because successive Prime Ministers over the last twenty years have acknowledged it is an inevitability, although none of them, including the current Prime Minister, has had the courage or sense of purpose to embark upon the journey.)

The most recent passed-up opportunity was at the time of the appointment of the current Governor-General.

Had it the political will to have done so, the Government at the time could have initiated a process that would have allowed for New Zealanders to consider the republic question and resolve it by way of a referendum, in say 2019, which, if successful, could have led to the election of our first President, upon the completion of the current Governor-General's term in 2021.

The process could take the following form: the appointment of an independent Eminent Persons Group to lead a public debate over say a two year period, followed by a one year lead-up to a binding referendum, which, if in favour of a republic, would then allow a further two years for the legislative and administrative changes necessary for the election of the first President.

That five year time frame is why it would be desirable to link the process to the five year term of a Governor-General, as it would also be the path of least disruption.

There were reports in the British media recently that the Queen is apparently frustrated about what she allegedly referred to as Australia's "death watch"

The Irish Republic provides a good model for New Zealand to follow with regard to the role of the President. Indeed, in many senses, the role parallels that of the Governor-General - above and removed from day to day politics and government, but actively involved in the wider life of the community. It is not an executive Presidency where the roles of Head of State and Head of Government reside in one person - like the President of the United States.

Like Ireland, the Republic of New Zealand would remain a Parliamentary style of government, headed by a Prime Minister and Cabinet, and with an independent Judiciary. It would also remain a member of the Commonwealth - indeed about 60 percent of the Commonwealth's member states are already republics - so would continue to recognise the British sovereign as Head of the Commonwealth, although no longer our Head of State.

Ironically, it may be the Royal Family themselves that drives a response from Australia and New Zealand. There were reports in the British media recently that the Queen is apparently frustrated about what she allegedly referred to as Australia's "death watch" on the republic issue.

She was reportedly concerned that just waiting for her to die before addressing the issue was as tawdry as it was unfair to her heir, and that it would be better for Australia to just get on with it. The same would apply to New Zealand as well.

And she is right of course. Far better to make the call for the types of positive reasons outlined, for example, by President Higgins, than because a long-reigning Monarch has passed away.

So, following the framework suggested above, the next realistic time for New Zealand to give consideration to this issue is the period 2021-2026, during the term of the next Governor-General, with a view towards having our first President in place after that, if that be the public wish expressed through a referendum in late 2024.

That time-frame shows not only respect for the current Governor-General and her successor, but also allows a reasonable, non-rushed, period for public reflection and debate, and a properly informed public referendum to be held.

It also allows for the government to start planning now towards that time and outcome, so that no-one can feel with any justification that the issue is being forced upon them.

None of this is any reflection on the calibre or performance of our Governors-General, especially since the late 1960s when it became the practice to appoint a New Zealander to the role, rather than a minor member of the British aristocracy as had been the case beforehand.

All of our modern Governors-General have served with distinction and their own individual style, and we have every reason to be proud of them. There is no reason, based on that, for us to have any fear about what a non-executive President might prove to be.

In many ways, the New Zealand born Governors-General have blazed the trail for a President to follow and have shown that we have sufficient people of calibre in our country to serve with similar distinction as a future President of New Zealand.

There is no justifiable reason for delaying consideration of this issue any longer. So we should now just get on and do it.

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