Posts Tagged ‘Republicanism’

So, TVNZ has feverishly reported both that there is a highly unusual emergency meeting being called of the Queen’s staff, and that a representative has told them that “they can safely assume the Queen and Prince Phillip are not dead.” I won’t mock them for reporting that the queen isn’t dead, because it would be irresponsible reporting not to have sought assurance that she wasn’t when reporting about an emergency meeting with an undisclosed purpose.

I am somewhat amused at the generation gap that the New Zealand media still think the Queen is marginally relevant to life in the south pacific. If she dies, we replace her with another figurehead that literally doesn’t do anything important except sign off on the documents when we need to replace a Governor General. It will be sad if she dies, of course, because she is a human being even if I have no real emotional connection to her myself, and it will be newsworthy, because she is a foreign head of state.

But in de facto terms, she is not our head of state, all those functions have been delegated to the Governor General, and they don’t get picked up even during royal visits. In child custody terms, we’ve been all-but-adopted by the Governor General. She is a mere legal fiction to New Zealand, so the appropriate time to cover this sort of story is really when something has actually happened. If she is getting sick or deciding to abdicate powers in favour of her descendents, the only real effect this will have on us under the current arrangement is that we will be obliged to observe some official mourning customs and possibly change the title from “Queen” to “King” on a lot of our official government stuff, and we don’t need to breathlessly preempt that story online simply because of TVNZ has a large audience of baby boomer monarchists. Most of them probably don’t check your website, TVNZ, save it for the 6pm news.

If the meeting is not about a turn in the Queen’s health or a plan to step aside, then it is still timely for New Zealand to consider if we still want to be a monarchy after the Queen dies. A lot of the reason for public support for monarchy is that people like Queen Elizabeth II specifically, rather than the institution of monarchy in general, and there’s a good argument that we should have a plan for what we want to do on her death, even if it’s simply “enact mourning arrangements in the media and with flags, and switch up our letterheads, signs, and coins.”

And if public opinion or the resolve of our leaders is shifting towards republicanism like polls suggested around the time of the flag referendum, (I say shifting towards, not that it has a majority yet) then we need to start the conversation now about what our constitutional arrangements should look like if we really want the transition to a new monarch to be the point at which we become a republic, because rushing into that process half-blind is not a good idea.

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.


Hi again to everyone, I’m not dead, I’ve been working on fiction writing and some other things ahead of political blogging.

I thought I’d step back into blogging, possibly very temporarily, to talk about a recent poll from Curia, noted push-poller and National Party satellite operation. The poll is commissioned by the liberal (and I carefully use the word “liberal,” because some of their members are prominent right-wingers) organisation New Zealand Republic Incorporated, who advocate for Parliament to appoint a New Zealand head of state. (as opposed to the Prime Minister appointing a Governor General) I may have mentioned in the past that I am an enthusiastic Republican, (in the sense of not wanting a Monarchy) but I should also mention I’m not actually involved with NZ Republic Inc in any way because I disagree with their approach.

Curia are not a particularly ethical or reliable polling operation in my opinion, but they do generally put an extra effort into their polls that don’t relate to National Party policies to make them fair, so it’s likely that any errors in this poll are genuine errors rather than biases.

The short version of the results: A plurality1 of New Zealanders support a specific option for becoming a republic for the first time ever, and a majority2 support some method of becoming a republic. That’s about 44% for directly electing a President, and 15% for Parliament appointing one through a vote in the House of Representatives. (that second method being the one NZ Republic favours)

This raises a few issues. The first is: is this a sustainable groundswell for republicanism? It’s a bit too early to tell, but at the risk of revealing myself to be living in a liberal bubble like Red Peak supporters did3, I think it actually could be. (especially with effective campaigns that represent multiple voices) The flag referendum was a fiasco, but I think it really did make some kiwis realise they aren’t as attached to the Monarchy as they thought, they just want a better process to be followed and to be presented with real options that they’re enthusiastic about before they go ahead. It also didn’t help that left-wing voices were largely left out of the debate, and it ended up essentially being between right-wing liberals and conservatives from both wings, with left-wing liberals generally opining that the whole thing was a waste of time. If right-wing liberals want to push for a Republic, they’re going to need left-wing liberals not just theoretically onside, but also with some degree of enthusiasm for change.

Secondly: What sort of republic do we want, and do we need some more complicated safeguards to get it?

Well, I think this poll makes it clear for the first time how New Zealand would like to move forward. They would like Presidential elections if we form a Republic. There’s an argument to be made that that’s because a lot of them don’t know the upsides of Parliament appointing someone, (and there are upsides, most of them being “they’re more likely to use their powers as reserve powers because it could create a constitutional crisis for an appointee to overrule elected representatives”) but I expect that’s not the case. I expect New Zealanders actually want more power for voters, not less. And that’s okay. There are ways to make a directly elected president work, and they would likely not be too expensive on top of current government costs. (Maybe $1.5-3 million extra a year because we’d need to allow for extra ballots and counting, some public funding for the candidates, and maybe some education about how to vote for President, if we chose a system other than FPP, which we should. By comparison, royal visits can cost the taxpayer up to $1million each, which I hope we would stop funding under a Republic, and in both systems we pay the cost of Government House and a salary to the Governor General/President, so we’ll call those a wash)

Nobody is talking, fortunately, about an American-style strong executive President, which would replace Cabinet in our government, and have powers like the ability to declare war, deploy police, and generally mess around with the operation of the civil service to an even larger degree than ministers do. That system has huge problems and it’s better we avoid them, and I think both Republicans and Monarchists are agreed on that fact.

What powers could we give an elected President, and what limits should we place on them? I think the powers could be very similar to the current powers of the governor general, but we could actually define situations in which we want them to be used. They could be obliged to attend ceremonial events, to sign bills into law, to determine who is appointed Prime Minister, when Parliament dissolves, and generally required to resolve constitutional crises, ideally by using one of the previous two powers. We could maybe throw them an extra power or two if needs are identified before this debate seriously becomes a thing.

What limits would we need to place on an elected president to ensure they didn’t act as a dictator? Well, firstly, I would submit that any candidate for President should not have been a member of a political party for the past five years at the time they apply to become a candidate. We don’t want an active politician in this role, and we don’t want it to be a retirement package for Prime Ministers, or a reward for party faithful. As someone who has been a member of a political party, I think this is absolutely fair. Some people will retire their memberships before running for President, and that’s well and good, as it should also to some extent cut their ties to their former parties by requiring them to quit more than a single term in advance, even if they still have political views aligned with a party. If we really wanted to enforce a seperation, we could also ban parties from endorsing presidential candidates or donating to them to campaign, but I think on the whole it’s better that we preserve freedom of speech there, as there are several ways to get around a ban, so it would just separate the pragmatists from the principled rather than prevent collusion.

Secondly, the President should be obliged to sign any bill into law that gains a 75% supermajority in the House of Representatives. This is to protect New Zealanders against a president dictating a veto despite broad political support for a bill. The President should, however, be able to exercise their own discretion on bills passed with a normal majority but less than 75% support. In practice, the governor general never exercises their reserve powers to refuse assent to bills, precisely because they’re not elected. It would have been excellent to have had an independent political voice to strike down say, that abomination against natural justice that is the Three Strikes Law, which stops judges from exercising their discretion to sentence people leniently where it’s appropriate, and outright contravenes BORA.

Thirdly, I would suggest that if an elected President dissolves Parliament, they also become a lame duck and are required to immediately (or within a very short timeframe) set a date for both a Parliamentary and Presidential election, and that Presidents may only be re-elected once. This means that Presidents that abuse their power to dissolve Parliament face an immediate referendum of the people on whether they should stay in office, and that first-term Presidents would also be potentially shortening their own term even if they do get re-elected.

Fourthly, I would consider whether the President, rather than the Prime Minister or an arbitrary legal cutoff, should have the ability to remove Ministerial responsibilities from MPs, and to eject MPs from Parliament. Right now, corrupt or scandalous ministers can only be removed by the Prime Minister. I would suggest that the President should also be able to remove Ministers in cases of corruption, unethical behaviour, or threat to democracy only, as this prevents situations like Judith Collins being a Minister because she’s too powerful in the National Party to keep her out of cabinet, despite her being provably corrupt. We should then generally expect a Prime Minister not to re-appoint ministers a President sacks, but leave the discretion with the PM to do so, and with the President to just sack them again if necessary. (It also gives the Prime Minister an incentive to quickly sack misbehaving ministers or to privately encourage their resignation, so that the PM is seen as more effective than the President in that regard, so over time Presidents should need to resort to that power less and less. It also has a nice side-effect of giving the President a legitimate reason to dissolve Parliament if the Prime Minister can’t find enough qualified and uncorrupted MPs to act as Ministers) I would also suggest that although we should keep the current threshold that allows MPs convicted to crimes with significant sentences to be automatically ejected, and that the President also be able to eject MPs from Parliament for similar reasons to removing their ministerial warrants, subject to an override by a supermajority of 75% of MPs to make sure this power isn’t abused. 75% supermajorities generally require a large amount of the opposition to cross the aisle, so the only vulnerability that would leave us with is that an opposition-aligned President decides to sack unpopular government MPs for reasons that aren’t really corruption, hampering the government’s ability to function. There could be additional safeguards placed here that allow the government to dissolve Parliament and necessitate a Presidential election if we need to prevent against that.

Fifthly, I would suggest we require all elections to be both Presidential and Parliamentary at the same time to reduce voter fatigue, and recommend setting a date towards the end of the year (perhaps a set day in September) as a fixed election date, and making that date a public holiday every year with a trading ban in place. (It could be called “Republic Day” 😉 ) A public holiday for elections is superior to the current law, as it removes the need of employees to ask for time off to vote if they work weekends, and it also gives us both the reminder and time off to think about our government and how it should work. (or just some well-deserved family time, which is equally as precious) If the President does not dissolve Parliament using their special powers, Parliament would automatically dissolve a set time before that date, (say, the second August after the last election, so that there is a disincentive to calling early elections) and the next election day would have both a Parliamentary and Presidential election. Early elections would be held under the provisions of the current law, ie. on a Saturday and employers must grant reasonable time off to vote.

The non-trading provision could also increase the number of locations that could function as polling places, as businesses could offer their premises too, allowing churches that prefer to hold Saturday services an option not to participate as a polling place without leaving communities stranded without a nearby polling place.

Those should be adequate safeguards to allow an elected President to both effectively use the current reserve powers if they need to, while still protecting New Zealand from an elected dictator vetoing everything the House passes and dissolving it if they don’t do the President’s will. (which seems to be nightmare that Monarchists warn a Republic would turn into)

There are other relevant issues as well. I’ll delve shallowly into some of the most important.

Firstly, Te Tiriti o Waitangi. (Yeah, that’s the Treaty for those of you with even less Māori than me) Now, any way that we reasonably would become a Republic should preserve the treaty. We are in fact obligated to preserve treaties that guarantee human rights under international law, so there would be a lot of pressure on New Zealand if we tried to ditch the Treaty as part of becoming a Republic. Our independence should make it relatively clear that it’s absolutely possible for what’s called a “successor state4” (in my example, the successor state is the current Realm of New Zealand) to take on the obligations of an existing treaty. But is it enough that the Treaty remain as it is?

I think any law making us into a republic needs to explicitly acknowledge the Treaty as a constitutional document, explicitly identify and protect its known principles, (some of which are defined, but like the Bill of Rights Act, some of which may not even have been identified yet, because it is living law) require participation in the Māori electoral roll to drop below 0.83% of the national population before any legislation can remove the Māori seats, (ie. make the Māori roll into a regular referendum on whether Māori wish to retain their separate seats) and guarantee Māori their traditional rights. These provisions need to be sovereign over Parliament, so that courts can if necessary strike down laws that attempt to cause new Treaty violations. This wouldn’t create any new powers or entitlements for Māori, but it would protect those rights that already exist. My understanding is that Māori as a whole are already more supportive than average of the idea of a Republic, so it’s only right that this process strengthen their rights.

Secondly, I think any law making us into a republic also needs to make the Bill of Rights Act (or BORA) sovereign over Parliament, and to outline any reasonable exceptions to BORA in law. Right now, Parliament effectively decides when it is reasonable to violate BORA, and just gets a report on where each piece of legislation is inconsistent, but can then vote away even if they’re trampling on our civil liberties by doing so. This would allow New Zealanders the option to go to the courts to obtain their rights if legislation, through either action or inaction, has become inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. If this had been an option, we would likely have had gay marriage a lot earlier, for instance, and it would be another safeguard against unconstitutional legislation like the Three Strikes law.

Thirdly, I think regular independent reviews of our electoral system and constitutional issues should be set up, with the power to refer issues to a binding referendum. We’ve seen from the MMP review that when changes are recommended that are inconvenient for the government, that they often aren’t passed into law. We need an option that skips Parliament to make changes in the future, so that they can’t slow things up and hope they get forgotten, or turn them into political footballs like happened with flag change. (actually the flag change is the best example yet, because it started out as a football for pop patriotism from the government, and its poor process turned it into a football for anti-government resentment for two of the opposition parties)

I intend to come back for at least a second post later on less important issues like why a republic, (that case has effectively already been made if a majority want one, but I will justify why they should later) should we codify the constitution5, how we should elect a President if we did have a public vote, what we should replace Queen’s birthday with (Matariki, oh wait now I don’t need to post that 😉 ) and anything else you or I can think of.