23 March 2016
Congratulations to Dame Patsy Reddy on her appointment as New Zealand’s next Governor-General. She is another outstanding selection in that now long line of impressive New Zealanders to hold the office, and I have no doubt she will do a superb job and quickly earn the respect of New Zealanders.
However, she should be the last person to occupy the role. It is high time for New Zealand to elect its own Head of State, and for our country to become a republic. We should take the opportunity of the appointment of a new Governor-General to commence the process of public debate, leading up to a public referendum, which if supportive of our becoming a republic, should lead to the installation of our first President, when Dame Patsy’s term comes to an end in September 2021.
The Irish Republic provides the model for New Zealand, with a parliamentary system of government and an elected President as Head of State. The President does not exercise any executive functions and is obliged to act on the advice of his or her Ministers, in pretty much the same way as our Governor-General does now. The difference is of course that Uachtaran na hEireann (President of Ireland) is the supreme Head of State, elected directly by the people, not the representative of a foreign hereditary monarch at the other end of the world, as is our Governor-General.
Opponents of New Zealand’s becoming a republic often erroneously argue that it would mean the end of our Commonwealth ties. That is utter nonsense. 32 of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states are already republics, including major Commonwealth players like India, South Africa and Singapore, amongst a host of others. So there would be no reason at all for New Zealand, upon becoming a republic, to have to reconsider its Commonwealth membership in any shape or form, and nor should it.
As a way forward, a group of leading but informed New Zealanders (often not the same thing!) should be gathered together to begin the process of public discussion about how a New Zealand republic could be structured, including issues such as how that relates to the Treaty of Waitangi. That process should be long-term – running for about three years – and culminating in a binding referendum in mid 2020 on whether New Zealanders wished our country to become a republic. In the event of a positive result, the establishment of the republic would then be timed to coincide with the end of Dame Patsy’s term in late 2021.
I make these comments with no disrespect to Dame Patsy, nor the current and past Governors-General, nor to the high office to which they have all been appointed. So long as the office of Governor-General remains, both it and the person holding the role deserve the respect and loyalty of all citizens. But the appointment of a new Governor-General does establish a finite period. That provides a chance to think afresh about our future constitutional structure. I have long believed New Zealanders are ready for that discussion and that we should therefore give them that opportunity. The appointment of a new Governor-General does just that.