Friday, October 16, 2009

Is Keith's republican bill avoiding the real issue?

I would love us to become a republic. Watching some historical films about the English monarchy and the parasites that surround them has re-inspired a powerful republican sentiment in me. It is not that I dislike the Windsors, but they are the result of more than a thousand years of inbreeding and (sometimes fatally) hostile family dynamics. Who on earth would want them as our Heads of State?

If Green MP Keith Locke gets his way, we will all get a chance to vote on it. His private members bill – the Head of State Referendum Bill – is set to be debated in Parliament and, if it passes, would force a public referendum to decide between three options for our Head of State: keeping the Queen; someone elected by the people; or someone selected by 75% of Parliament. If no option gets more than 50% of the vote, a second (run-off) referendum will be held featuring only the two most popular options.

I don't want the bill to pass. I do very much want it to pass a first reading and go to select committee. The people of New Zealand deserve an opportunity to have a say on whether we want royals or not, and the select committee public process would be a good start. In addition, it will spark a national debate in a constitutionally illiterate nation. That status is not surprising since most school don't teach civics education or even much New Zealand history, but it is shameful.

For all that, New Zealand will not, and should not, make such an important constitutional change by way of a private members bill. Keith is well intentioned but his bill is deeply flawed. It is a hasty fix – like slapping a plaster on an acid burn. What we need is slower and more considered debate, because the issue goes well beyond whose face is on the coins. The Queen (acting through the Governor General) can dissolve Parliament or refuse to assent to legislation for example, but she does not act because to do so would put her position in jeopardy. An elected President may feel that they have a democratic mandate to use those powers, causing a huge shift in our careful constitutional balancing act.

More importantly it is the constitutional thinking that underpins the monarchy that needs challenging – the peculiar British notion of the indivisibility of sovereignty. Many nations recognise that different functions of sovereignty can be exercised in different places – hence the sovereign status of various Indian nations as Indigenous people, and of individual States in the USA, or the very localised decision-making in Swiss Cantons. This is also what the Treaty of Waitangi promises in article 2 – the tino rangatiratanga (autonomy) of hapu. Keith's bill says that Treaty obligations would remain unchanged, but this ignores the bigger possibility to develop a constitution that truly reflects the partnership foreseen in the Treaty and our place in the Pacific Triangle. The highly centralised notions of power that dominate New Zealand political thinking are great for the rich and powerful but act against the interests of both Maori and Pakeha communities striving to maintain social and ecological stability in the face of the corporate steamroller. Just ask the people trying to stop iron sand mining or electricity transmission lines.

David Nielsen, in the 'Radical Rethink' lecture series run by Continuing Education at Waikato University spoke about possible responses to our environmental and social problems, and referred to the need for a 'cosmopolitan democracy' that recognises and empowers different levels of governance at a global, regional, national and local level, but whose fundamental principle was based on supporting and encouraging local autonomy. That is where we need to take the republican debate, in my view. Swapping the Queen for some other toff means nothing to me.

(from my Waikato Times column 16 October 2009)

NB I am speaking at the 'Radical Rethink' lecture series on 27th October at 6.30pm, AG.30, Gate 8


Lewis said...

Excellent article Nandor. Obviously as Chair of the Republican Movement I'd like there to be a referendum on the issue, preceded by some form of public inquiry. If that means Keith's Bill, then we'll support that - it's currently the only chance New Zealanders will get to discuss the issue in a public forum.

Nandor Tanczos said...

Thanks Lewis

I agree - and despite my criticism of the bill, Keith is doing a real service in getting the debate up.

Nandor Tanczos said...

Thanks Lewis

I agree - and despite my criticism of the bill, Keith is doing a real service in getting the debate up.

Hugh said...

The idea of the division of sovereignty is not familiar in England? I beg to disagree, Nandor - the English monarchy is very familiar with the idea of divided monarchical powers, for instance the system that saw the Kings and Queens of England simultaneously ruling as monarchs of Hanover without unifying executive control - a model that your Hungarian ancestors actively emulated during the Ausgleich of 1867.

I also think that you can't say you have nothing against the Windsors when you consider them inbred.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good post Nandor - you are actually doing the Green Party a real service here, and I hope they pay attention to such constructive criticism.

You made the point:
"The Queen (acting through the Governor General) can dissolve Parliament or refuse to assent to legislation for example, but she does not act because to do so would put her position in jeopardy. An elected President may feel that they have a democratic mandate to use those powers, causing a huge shift in our careful constitutional balancing act."

This is the MOST important aspect of the flawed republican debate. Republics like the US have president's who regularly veto laws passed by their Parliaments (Congress & Senate), and they also propose laws which Congress & Senate then have to deal with. Not to mention the US practise of 1 elected person (President) appointing a bunch of unelected 'cabinet ministers' (Secretaries of State) who effectively run the nation; this is dangerously close to what we see in the Auckland Supercity separate Mayoral office and budget. None of this is democratically accountable!

Republicans should ask themselves - why have Jim Bolger, Helen Clark and other such ego-obsessed politicians all been so keen on a Kiwi republic? Because they want to BE the president. Hardly a recipe for more enlightened democracy in NZ.

Keith should withdraw his bill and focus on getting rid of the 5% MMP threshold and getting STV in electorate elections (both council & govt & DHB). That would improve democracy practically; a republic will not.

Nandor Tanczos said...

Thanks for your informative comment Hugh, although I am not sure that we are talking about the same thing. Having said that, I suspect you are correct and the problem is the way that this doctrine has been interpreted in Aotearoa NZ. Similarly our extreme approach to the notion of Parliamentary sovereignty.

Anonymous, thanks for your comment but I do not see why the US constitution should be seen as the authoritative model. There are many countries where the President does not have much power - Ireland is one. My point here (not my main point which is well covered in my post) is not that we shouldn't become a republic, but that to simply swap a President for the GG will unintentionally shift the balance. These associated issues, such as whether the HoS should be able to veto legislation, for example, needs to be debated alongside this question.

As for the 5% threshold, I think we need to either scrap it or remove the provision waiving it if a party wins an electorate seat. It is an anomaly at the moment. I agree on STV for electorate seats and other local elections.

Wrexx said...

Kia Ora Bro,

One of the greatest difficulties in getting this debate past the exploring of academic concepts and giving it some nation wide public credence, is the absence of a concrete answer in the form of an alternative system that will work for Aotearoa and our unique circumstances.

I agree that there are inherent deficiencies both in principle and practice to the Monarch HoS system we have now, but like most kiwis I am saying its pretty inert regarding constitutional meddling from the Crown, and I am looking for an exact republican model that will not open itself to abuse more so, such as we see in the US system.

I believe that size of population makes different models function better or not, and that say an adequate system of governance for a country of 120 million may be slightly dysfunctional in a country of 4 million and positively corrupt in a nation of 40 thousand. If someone can offer a model that fits our needs I would get off the fence and happily promote it, however there seems to be a lot of vague nebulous options floating out in the political ethers with no concrete kiwi solution as yet for me to feel encouraged past fine tuning what we got already.

Aroha Nui & hugs to the Whanau.

Richard said...

My concern with this debate is the majority of New Zealanders do not understand 9nor care too) the implications for the treaty relationship. While Keith has included this in the bill, it doesn't work now as those in power lack the political courage to deal with it properly. Tangata whenua would be left even further out in the edges if this country went to a republic, as the DEMOCRACY argument would rule. I believe we need to have that debate before we even look at a republic.
I have been watching the Tudors Nandor, not at all an educational nor even historically accurate record of the time, but extremely amusing :)
I agree with your point around the origins of the monarchy and support the change - but only when the above is addressed.