Dunne challenges NZ to become a republic, but can we do it?

In his unofficial valedictory speech at Parliament today at Victoria University's post-election conference, Peter Dunne has called on New Zealand to make our next head of state the President of the Republic of New Zealand. While I agree with this idea at a fundamental level, my own first-hand experience of the flag change campaign through the independent Change the NZ Flag group suggests that no political leader is going to be willing to put their political capital on the line to support it.

Any change to New Zealand's constitutional arrangements has several hurdles to overcome. The first of which is ensuring that any change doesn't fall victim to partisan political point scoring from both politicians and the wider political community, as we saw Labour do with the flag referendum, despite a referendum to change the flag being their long-standing policy.

The next is a general apathy towards messing with the status quo. To be fair to New Zealand's existing constitutional arrangements, they do work relatively well. Our Parliament is able to get things done and doesn't descend into gridlock, we generally have a consistent foreign policy bar some tinkering around the edges, and we're flexible enough to address issues as they arise. If we took the minimalist approach, and simply kept the existing arrangements while switching out the Crown for a Presidential head of state, people would be justified in asking "What's the point?"

Unlike a flag change which could have had positive flow on impacts for our economy through a consistent, identifiable, and unique New Zealand country brand, simply switching who's in charge of our country isn't going to really deliver any tangible benefits other than maybe a little bit of a feel good factor. However, as this solution would see that head of state still appointed by the government of the day, it's hard to see people getting that excited about it.

That brings us onto the next issue, and that is if we're going to change our head of state, why wouldn't we take a look at our other constitutional arrangements too. As Australia found during their Republic referendum in 1999, divisions over the preferred method of selecting or electing their future President played a significant role in the defeat of that referendum. Broadly speaking, many Australians wanted to be able to vote for who their President would be. Of course, as soon as you turn the head of state role into an electable position, it's likely to become a politicised position, which then means you probably should review the powers and resources of that role to make sure you maintain a balance.

A similar situation prevailed here too in the flag referendum, where those who either didn't like Kyle Lockwood's design that was put up against the current defaced blue ensign, or didn't like the process, didn't vote for change or simply didn't participate at all (whether or not they would have made enough of a difference to the final vote had they voted for change would make a great doctorate topic for someone).

If you want a hint of the cascading complexities that anything other than a simple head of state switch-a-roo entails then Sir Geoffery Palmer's draft constitution is interesting reading. He's written a whole book on it, but that op-ed by him gives a general overview of what he's trying to achieve.

Of course, I should point out that a switch of the Crown for a President as head of state to become a republic isn't necessarily as simple as I've made it out to be here. There are legitimate concerns from Māori about the role Te Tiriti o Waitangi would play in a presidential republic, and how a change of head of state might impact the legal status of the Treaty. The role of Te Tiriti in a republic is an important issue whether we simply switch the Crown for a President, or undertake a larger constitutional restructure as suggested by Palmer.

None of these issues are insurmountable. But, if the flag referendum has taught us anything, even something that should be relatively simple like changing our flag, is fraught with political and practical difficulties that make it a risky political move. We're certainly unlikely to see any movement, or indication of a time frame on considering it, in the current Parliamentary term. New Zealand First, while supporting the putting of controversial issues into referendums, is an extremely pro-status quo party, and even National, should it try to support it, would face significant internal pressures from a large conservative wing.

Of course post 2020 if New Zealand First isn't around, that would change at least some of the Parliamentary dynamics that would hold back change.

While I support the notion of Peter Dunne is proposing, I can't yet see a viable path forward for New Zealand becoming a republic. Much like having another go at changing the flag, becoming a republic is going to be a challenge that we'll need to kick to touch for now. But I look forward to supporting the process when it does happen.


Photo credit: Government House from front lawn by LJ Holden, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.