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