Why a Republic?

Posted: October 30, 2016 in democracy, elections, government
Tags: , , ,

So, as I mentioned earlier, there’s either a potential groundswell of support for a Republic coming, or we’ve recently had another rogue poll. We’ll see, probably when the monarchists push more biased questions on the public next, (this is the first poll, for instance, that accurately reminded people that the monarchs are primarily the United Kingdom’s monarchs, and they’re even less kiwi than Russell Crowe, who identifies as an Australian) but in the meantime, I’ll discuss why we should bother considering a Republic.

Now, if everything else in our constitutional framework was all correct and functioning fine, I would actually agree with monarchists who argue you don’t need to fix something broken. Transitioning to a republic is as much about having an excuse to debate wider constitutional issues as it is about ditching the monarchy itself, but there are some inherent benefits to it, too. Let’s go one by one.

The monarch is an absentee landlord

Technically, we claim that the UK Queen is also, by pure legal fiction, the Queen of the Realm of New Zealand. (a fancy way of pretending our now nominally independent nation can be independent while still asking the UK to politely lend us their Queen occasionally) However, because she’s busy being queen of another country, we also get her to rubber stamp delegating all of her duties to someone the Prime Minister appoints. A corporation would never pay a CEO to delegate all their duties, so why should a government put up with a head of state that does the same? So in practical terms, the governor general is our head of state, like a real estate company appointed by the landlord to manage our country or something.

But the governor general is a poor real estate agent. Because she’s appointed by the Prime Minister after the process being duly rubber-stamped by the monarch of the day, there is a convention that although the Governor General could technically dissolve Parliament whenever she wanted, or simply refuse to sign the Royal Assent to bills, that she won’t. This “constitutional convention” comes about because it’s essentially a bad look for someone appointed to overrule a bunch of people who have some actual claim to legitimacy because they’re elected. So functionally, the Governor General never acts without explicit instruction by the Prime Minister or Parliament, even when it might arguably be justified, such as laws that have blatant and unjustified disregard to human rights. We politely call these “reserve powers,” labouring under the blissful illusion that a power that is controversial to use under normal circumstances will be less controversial in a constitutional crisis, which to me at least seems rather naïve, as they will in fact generally be more controversial, not less. In our real estate agent metaphor, the practicality of using reserve powers is something like asking the real estate agent to first check that they agree with the tenants before making any decisions about the house!

 The monarchy undermines egalitarianism

There are several different types of egalitarianism, (the idea that we’re all equal to varying degrees) and monarchy undermines all of them. We live in a country where legitimate political power is supposed to come from being an elected representative, yet we are content to have a wealthy family steeped in institutional discrimination on the basis of religion and sex1 to sit above our representatives in legal status because they inherited a title.

Egalitarianism is a core democratic value. It’s one of the things that protects us from democratic decay like they have in the USA, where they’re essentially an elected oligarchy. Yes, this is mostly symbolic stuff, but in the long run, symbols are important, and having to teach kids that we simultaneously believe in equality but also have a Queen is a ridiculous circle to try and square. Why bother?

The monarchy are not all fair brokers

While Queen Elizabeth II has managed to by and large stay out of political scuffles, not all of her family feel the same way. Monarchists generally point to the benefit of having a head of state that’s above politics. It’s a great ideal, but like any democratic norm, it has to be achieved by being adopted as a cultural practice, rather than entirely relying on a philosophical safeguard. Inherited power doesn’t necessarily make you above politics.

In fact, the perception that the monarch is above politics is largely because the royal family have made a large effort to keep silent on political matters, at least until Charles. I would say it’s better for people to actually discuss their political opinions and when they’d step in so that the public is actually aware, and to create a culture where we vote for a President who will act as an honest political broker and protect the interests of the nation as a whole. Unlike just shipping the job out to the monarchy, it’s not an easy answer, but ultimately, it’s a real answer that doesn’t run into conflicts about democratic legitimacy.

We’re not Little Britain anymore

The crux of the argument is, really, whether the British heritage of many (but not all) Pakeha New Zealanders justifies pretending that it’s realistic to timeshare a monarch. There are a lot of mental gymnastics involved to the Monarchist arguments: the Queen is our Queen, but becoming a Republic is also tantamount to cutting ties with Britain. (regardless of them being functionally cut in real terms already, and only beginning to come back into consideration if Brexit does, in fact, succeed before the next general election, and New Zealand manages to work itself into a favourable position with a nation that doesn’t currently consider it particularly relevant)

We speak our own accents in our own media now, and no longer regard sounding British as conferring extra authority. Some Pakeha feel more allegiance to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and our New Zealand laws than they do to a far-distant Queen, and don’t identify with the Union Jack. That’s the cultural change that’s coming for the rest of New Zealand, over time. The question is if we’re there yet. Many people won’t be. I can think of a few of them who’re very close to me.

It stops us from putting real constitutional safeguards in place and enacting real reforms

The illusion of protection through the reserve powers saps momentum from efforts for real reform, such as the proposal to have a fixed election date law that gives the winner of a snap election a two-year-and-change term instead of a full three-year one, (thus putting a real price on calling a snap election for political purposes. John Key proposed something like this, but poisoned the well on it by coupling it with an extended four-year parliamentary term) on the proposal for Parliament to appoint a President with similar powers to the Governor General, or collecting together and spelling out some of our constitutional law. If we can agree on a set of circumstances upon which it’s reasonable to ask the republic question, then we can actually start digging into matters of constitutional import without constant alarm over a potential republic popping up.

It doesn’t need to be like the US system

The US system, with its strong executive presidency2 is actually an anomaly among democratic republics, and most serious objections to the idea of a republic come from people assuming “republic” means “like the US,” which has a positively ancient constitution that hasn’t been modified, an obstructionist opposition using gerrymandering to retain influence when they’ve lost the popular vote in over three-quarters of the elections in recent history, and several other significant problems that don’t relate to the intrinsic fact of them being a democratic republic. The German system, for instance, has a Head of State appointed by their legislative body in a way that’s not synchronised with popular elections, like NZ Republic wants, (presumably to remove the talking point that elections cost money, but honestly, elections are one of the hardest bits of government spending to argue against, because look at the alternatives!) which maintains a tradition of a seperation of day-to-day politics, like monarchists claim to want, and our Parliament most closely resembles the German one thanks to our adoption of MMP, so it’s not an unreasonable starting point for talking about Republican reform.

Next post: a deeper dive into options for a NZ presidency, and their pros and cons.

1 Technically, they got rid of royal discrimination by sex in 2013. It does boggle the mind though that it took the conception of a certain Prince George (at the time this agreement started, nobody knew he’d be a prince as opposed to a princess) to trigger the idea that maybe rules preventing a firstborn woman from being Queen if she has any brothers at all were stupid. The same law also got rid of the prohibition on Catholics inheriting the throne, and removed the monarch’s veto on the marriages of a certain percentage of their extended family. That doesn’t of course immediately wash away all that history, all very basic things we should prevent a Head of State from doing, but somewhat of a waste of time compared with ditching the monarchy altogether in my opinion.

2A strong executive President would essentially remove the responsibilities of Ministers and all of the executive powers of the Prime Minister and give them to the President and their cabinet. There’s a legitimate argument that the reason the US system went that way is because they were influenced by monarchies at the time, where kings wielded supreme executive power, and that there were sympathies for the idea of having George Washington become an American king. Attempts to emulate the model in other countries have been hugely problematic, and overall our model in New Zealand of having a hybrid legislative-executive but with a broad degree of independence for public servants working for the executive branch has worked reasonably well. If it’s worth making a hypothetical New Zealand President the head of any branch of government, it’s arguably the Judicial Branch, which has no elected representatives acting as a check or balance. This would actually fit reasonably well with a non-ceremonial Presidency similar to the German model, as one of the responsibilities of the presidency in that model is to uphold the constitution, although there are no specific powers given to the president in the German model. Most of the President’s duties are prevented from overreach by requiring the agreement of the Prime Minister before they go into effect in Germany, which is one way of giving an appointed President legitimacy and preventing them from over-reach.


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