Around August this year a new Governor-General will take office to replace Dame Patsy Reddy upon the conclusion of her five-year term. A few months before then the Prime Minister will announce whom she has chosen to be the next Governor-General. Following the custom since the late 1960s it will be a prominent New Zealander and the Prime Minister has already indicated it will not be a former politician.
Again, following the customary practice, the decision will be largely the Prime Minister’s, with the major Opposition party informed shortly before the announcement is made. There will be no public input into the process, nor will the nominee be subject to any form of Parliamentary scrutiny or endorsement. The Governor-General is, after all, the Queen’s Representative as New Zealand’s Head of State so in that respect is not subject to the approval of the New Zealand Parliament.
The appointment of the next Governor-General is usually a process that passes under the national radar screen until the appointee is announced. However, recent events in the form of the Oprah Winfrey television interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex give added flavour to this coming appointment. Whatever view one may have about the appropriateness or otherwise of their actions, the impact and flow-on effects from their comments are likely to colour perceptions of the wider Royal Family for some time to come. For many, they will have confirmed that the Royal Family has been living in a world of its own for years, with no real signs anything much is likely to change in the future, if the attitudes of Princes Charles and William are anything to go by.
The relevance of all this for New Zealand is that during the five years of the next Governor-General’s term it is more than likely that the long reign of the Queen will come to an end, and that Prince Charles will become King, and thereby New Zealand’s Head of State. The Governor-General will be his representative in New Zealand.
That change alone is likely to bring into stark relief New Zealand’s future relationship with the British monarchy. There is undoubtedly deep affection and respect for the Queen in this country, which has stalled the steadily growing feeling here that it is time to become a republic with our own Head of State. There is no real sign that any of that respect or affection will transfer to her successor, meaning calls for cutting the umbilical cord with the monarchy and becoming an independent republic within the Commonwealth – like almost two-thirds of the Commonwealth’s members are already – will most likely intensify. The reaction to the Sussex’s interview may well fuel that further.
A potentially complicating factor is the special relationship Maori have held with the British monarch since the signing of the Treaty in 1840. However, the reaction of the Maori Party to the Sussex’s interview suggests that special bond may not now be felt as strongly among younger Maori as earlier generations. Nevertheless, it will be an issue to be carefully navigated in any future constitutional discussions.
Against that backdrop, the government should be taking the view that in all probability the next Governor-General will be our last Governor-General. It should be seeking to use the five years of the next Vice-Regal term to initiate the debate and referendum process needed for New Zealanders to determine whether we remain tied to the British constitutional monarchy, or whether we will become the republic that so many have described over the years as an inevitability at some point.
Critical to that decision will be the role and form of our own Head of State. Ideally, we would move to a non-executive President as Head of State, following the example of the Republic of Ireland where the non-executive President performs a virtually identical role to that of our Governor-General, within a Parliamentary system of government headed by a Prime Minister and Cabinet.
That then raises the question of the process by which the President would be chosen. In the Irish case, and in other Commonwealth republics, the process is one of direct public election, with terms varying between usually five and seven years. While candidates often run under party political labels, the connections are a little looser than in Parliamentary elections, given the more broadly based role that being President of the republic requires.
If there is a sense of wariness or disdain for an elected Head of State on the grounds that could lead to the process and role becoming more politicised than is desirable, an alternative process would be for the President to be appointed by a super-majority (say two-thirds or three-quarters) of Members of the House of Representatives voting for the appointment. Were that process to be adopted it would require a transparent nomination process to be established to ensure that the best candidates were forthcoming.
Over the years, New Zealand has been extremely fortunate to have been served by a succession of high quality domestically chosen Governors-General. But the concentration of the current process in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day, and the secrecy that attends that, would be neither adequate nor appropriate for the selection of the President of the Republic of New Zealand.
That needs to be much more an appointment of the people, by the people (or their representatives) than the appointment of the British monarch’s representative in New Zealand could ever be.
Previously, successive New Zealand governments have been able to put off considering the republic question on the grounds that it was not the right time to do so. However, with the second Elizabethan era most likely drawing to a close during the term of our next Governor-General, the timing excuse will pass.
All this adds interest to the appointment of our next Governor-General. Will the government use the appointment to signal that future change may be in the wind, or will it play safe with a very status quo appointment? Only the Prime Minister knows the answers to those questions, and for the time being, at least, she is not telling.