Peter Dunne advocates a Republic of New Zealand

DISCLAIMER: I am a supporter of a New Zealand Republic if a binding referendum finds New Zealanders to be in favour.

When Peter Dunne made his valedictory speech today, several weeks after quitting Parliament, he advocated that New Zealand become a republic. Mr Dunne, who has been an advocate for constitutional reform for the duration of his time in Parliament, has triggered a divided reaction on social media.

The Stuff media item has a poll, that I read at the time of writing this article, showed a narrow lead in favour of a Republic. Commentary was as divided as it was often ill informed, with many people not being clear on how a republic works or even why they opposed one.

So, below I ask and answer some key questions about New Zealand and the Republic debate. The answers to all these questions and more can be found and explored in greater detail in:

Holden L.J., “The New Zealand Republic Handbook”, 2009

What is a Republic

A Republic is a style of governance where supreme power is reliant on the consent of the citizens it governs. There is no hereditary leader like in a Monarchy where succession is passed on down through a royal family. In a Republic the President is either directly elected (such as in the United States), or by an elected assembly.

What types of Republic are there?

There are several types of Republic, notably the Parliamentary Republic, Presidential Republic, Islamic Republic and Peoples Republic.

Perhaps the most famous is the Presidential Republic, which is the style of the United States, where the President is not only head of state, but also the chief decision maker. New Zealand, whilst not being one, is closest to the Parliamentary Republic in that there is already a Parliamentary structure in place, headed by the Prime Minister. The role of a President would be most likely to appoint/dismiss Governments, receive heads of state and – heaven forbid – declare war.

The other two Republic types that are well known are the Islamic Republic and the Peoples Republic. Iran is an Islamic Republic with a Supreme Ayatollah who is the head of state and has influence on the President of Iran. The final one is the Peoples Republic, which variously includes – but is effectively the same in function – the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea), Democratic Republic of the Congo and the People’s Republic of China (China – not to be confused with Republic of China (Taiwan))

Will New Zealand have to leave the Commonwealth?

No. Numerous nations in the Commonwealth are Republics – Fiji, India, South Africa, to name just a few. As long as a member does the following it is a member of the Commonwealth:

  • Recognize the Queen as head of the Commonwealth
  • Respect the wishes of the people
  • Respect human rights, liberty, rule of law and free and fair democratic elections
  • Be a sovereign state

Why ditch the Monarchy if Republics are unstable?

Political instability generally has more to do with historical, social and economic circumstances rather than constitutional ones. Sierra Leone and Pakistan are Republics that started lives as unstable monarchies where coups were instigated before they became Republics.

Will the constitutional status of the Treaty of Waitangi be affected?

No. Responsibility will remain where it has been all the time: with Parliament and the Head of State, the only difference being a New Zealander would be head of state.


Talking about bold policy, here is mine

Listening to Labour and National go at each other, both appear to be parties trying to land big hits against each other but only seemingly able to land superficial blows. Neither party seems to have a king hit policy or idea that the other one cannot respond to.

I have said before as have others that Labour need to release some bold policy in order to draw in voters. I find it hard to believe that politicians can be so bereft of ideas as to only think about ones that last to the next election. One might therefore ask, okay if you are so sure that politicians are bereft of ideas, what great ones do you have?

When a political party talks they have a short period of time to get the key points of their policy platform across to the media. Keep it clear and keep it snappy – bullet points are best in a print format. I will be focussing on the following over the next couple of weeks:

  • Constitution
  • Social Welfare
  • Jobs
  • Environment
  • Health

Reform does not always have to be economic. Constitutional and/or legal reform can have equally significant effects, and change anything from the structure of the legal system, to a nations constitutional arrangements and include such areas as type of Government, election frequency, a single House of Representatives or a bi-cameral arrangement.

At some point in the near future, possibly in the next couple of years and certainly in the next two decades, New Zealand will have to have this discussion. I would personally much prefer it to happen now on our own terms, so that if in case a need to defer for a bit longer arises, we can establish an appropriate temporary framework that can be dismantled or added to.

If it happens on terms that are not ours, that would suggest something major has happened, such as the reigning sovereign Queen Elizabeth II has died and the public are not happy with whomever became King. This could be problematic because politicians, whilst wanting to appear in tune with the voting public can often find themselves wanting to make changes when there is no public appetite, or the public want changes, but they insist it is just a vocal minority stirring up trouble.

What I suggest is not new, but I think it is visionary enough to be a departure from the discourse currently emanating from politicians and political commentators. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former Labour Prime Minister, has likewise suggested that it is time to consider a formal constitution.

I agree with Sir Geoffrey. It is time to hold a binding referendum on the subject. It must be a binding referendum because ignoring it may spark a constitutional crisis of a magnitude not known to have existed in this country. It must also be binding because for all the transparency and relatively smooth functioning of the court system, there are some glaring loop holes, such as (but not limited to):

  • No clear cut legal mechanism for impeaching corrupted representatives who are not fit to serve another minute in office
  • Insufficient entrenching or other legal protection ensuring the key planks of our constitutional arrangement such as the Human Rights Act 1986, the Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Constitution Act, 1986

I can see a time coming when support for a Republic will grow substantially. This is something I personally support as well, but for reasons ranging from love of the Monarchy, through to concerns about Treaty of Waitangi recognition must be addressed before this can happen and given the contentious nature of becoming a Republic is well known, only a binding referendum can give the result the due legitimacy.

It is probably too late to go back now, but New Zealand should have gone through a binding referendum phase to determine whether or not the country should have a Supreme Court.

So, this is one of my big policies. The extent to which it can play out will be determined by the outcome of the referendum. I envisage that if the answer is NO, then legislation be passed that sets in place the mechanism for revisiting something that believe will eventually have to happen one way or the other.

The republic debate in New Zealand

When I was at high school I was asked to do an essay for homework one night to prove my writing skill in Year 12 English. I was given a range of essay subjects to choose from. Not being terribly excited by any of the others, I decided to give one about whether New Zealand should become a republic a go. My mark if I recall correctly was not flash, but not terrible either (about 60%). Reading the teachers comments, I noticed he wanted me to explore more the reasoning around my decision. Although the mark was not as high as I had hoped for, it did set in motion my interest in New Zealand eventually becoming a republic.

So, why a republic?

In 1995 when New Zealand won the America’s Cup, a major feat for a little nation then with no more than 3.5 million people, I was a Year 10 student in High School. I had not yet really developed the appreciation I have today for the ins and outs of political governance systems, but I was not really impressed by the idea of an old lady 12,000 miles away ruling my nation, one that she rarely visits. Although my thoughts have definitely matured on the subject of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II from those rather primitive ones of 1995, the basics remain the same.

It seemed odd then and still seems odd to me today that a nation as stable and able as New Zealand should need a Head State in the form of a Monarch nearly 20,000 kilometres away. We have developed into a nation that is the envy of many other countries around the world: stable, democratic and respectful of diversity. Although the Monarchists correctly say we are a peaceful nation, it stems in large part from addressing the grievances raised by Maori. It stems from surviving two big wars that gave us an appreciation for democratic rights, and it stems from understanding as a nation of immigrants that to reasonably comment on the origin of others, we must respect those who move here.

People worry that if New Zealand becomes a republic it would interfere with the Treaty of Waitangi and its applications. It would not. The new President and the Government would still have the same responsibilities. It  is interesting to note a Bill of Parliament by former Green Party M.P. Keith Locke showed a way to negate any such interference by explicitly stating the responsibilities of the President. Although Mr Locke retired from Parliament some time ago, and the Bill never passed, it demonstrates that consideration has been given to this subject.

People worry that New Zealand would have to leave the Commonwealth if it became a Republic. Not so. India, Pakistan, Fiji, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal among others are all Republics and they are still part of the Commonwealth. Jamaica is considering becoming a Republic.

Australia is known to have a strong republican movement, but a referendum in the 1990’s that asked Australians whether or not they wanted to become a Republic did not give them the opportunity to determine whether or not they wanted a Parliamentary or publicly elected head of state. The referendum was therefore rejected. However many believe it is just really a matter of time before another referendum is held, and that provided the referendum does not have the mistakes of the previous referendum, would result in a Republic of Australia.

Republics are portrayed as being more unstable nations than those that are Monarchs. This is not altogether true. In fact Tonga, which was until it suffered severe riots in Nuku’alofa in 2006, was ruled as an absolute monarchy. The riots precipitated constitutional reform that increased the democratic power of the population. Substantial corruption existed and still exists in the Kingdom where a Royal funeral takes up a significant portion of the nation’s annual G.D.P.; where the national airline is owned by the head of state and the aircraft are sometimes not appropriately warranted or have safety issues.

The case for and against a republic is laid out in the New Zealand Republic Handbook (Holden L.J., 2009, pp18-25 and  pp26-35 respectively).



Overhauling democracy in New Zealand

Despite the insistence of the political parties in Parliament saying otherwise, I have the distinct impression that New Zealand democracy is under attack. There are some good reasons for saying this. One good example the number of Bills of Parliament that have been forced through under urgency when there was no legitimate case. Urgency and extraordinary urgency to me should only be used when a law may be about to  expire, or situation exist where a rapid legal change is necessary to avoid significant and immediate adverse effects.

New Zealand once had a bicameral Parliament, that is a two level Parliament from 1852, which as established under the Constitution Act of that year. The lower house was known as the General Assembly, and the upper one as the Legislative Council. It was abolished in 1951 when Parliament became the current unicameral structure known today.

I believe that there is a case for restoring the bicameral legislature. However before that happens, the 1997 referendum on reducing New Zealand’s Parliament size to 100, which turned out 83% support should be honoured. The reduced number of Members of Parliament can make way for perhaps an upper house with two senators from each province. To enable this, there would need to be a binding referendum asking New Zealanders whether or not they support a bicameral Parliament.

A Parliamentary priority should be the entrenching of the Human Rights Act, Privacy Act and Constitution Act. I say this on the grounds that concerns about potential terrorist activities, changes in technology – particularly drones and smart phones – are potentially eroding ones liberty. Dictatorships and terrorism both win when people are fearful and willing to let Government run roughshod over established rights in supposed pursuit of justice. It is also said because there will always be a small minority of people with a malicious intent when they purchse devices capable of storing significant data or prying on others.


In light of recent proposed changes to local governance legislation, and experiences of Canterbury and Auckland where the elected Regional Council was replaced – or in Auckland’s case, disbanded completely – it is time for legislative change. The Local Government Act, 2002 needs to be strengthened so that the only way an elected Council can be voted out is either at the end of the three yearly election cycle, or via a recall vote. It is common knowledge that a Wellington based bureaucrat will never have certain knowledge about regional planning and governance issues, because that is vested in the local population – which most probably does not reside in Wellington.

Without depriving ourselves of a working law enforcement and national security apparatus, New Zealanders need to know that there are checks and balances in place to make sure Mr Dinosaur does not eat Ms Liberty. These steps would go some way towards achieving that and also improving our image as a democratic nation.

The unknown (but not the last) Governor General

Yesterday I came home from work to the announcement that a new Governor General had been appointed. I do not know whether I was more surprised at a person who was a complete unknown, or the fact that it had happened in the same week that we find out which of the two options will be our new flag.

I will be honest that until this day I had never heard of Patsy Reddy, much less knew that she is a Dame or what she did in her past.

To the credit of the Prime Minister, it would appear he has chosen a person from a very respectable background. Dame Patsy comes from a strong legal ground, with her work in Treaty of Waitangi negotiations and the recent report into the performance of the spy agencies. What type of style she will adopt as her persona in carrying out her public duties is another point altogether.

Perhaps the most striking part about this announcement was not the announcement itself but the reaction it drew from some quarters. United Future Leader Peter Dunne took to Twitter and asked if we were watching the presentation of the last Governor General, and admitting that he had been consulted. Whilst thinking that the end of the Governor General as an official position in New Zealand is approaching, I think Mr Dunne has jumped the gun in asking if this will be the last whilst the Queen is still alive.

I am a republican, definitely, and have blogged before about the style of republic that I want. However I am quite sure that simply walking away from the Monarchy without the mandate of a binding referendum is a quite dangerous approach to take, and one that stop me voting a republic. There is a time and place for that like there is a time and place for figuring out how to disband the Governor General’s office. But the time for neither is now.

Peter Dunne 01