I went along to Drinking Liberally last night at Galatos and heard Lewis Holden speak about the New Zealand Republican Movement. I went more to catch up with the constantly busy Conor Roberts (another hopeless Googler of his own name – hi, Conor) than out of any particular interest in the topic. Nevertheless, I paid attention.
The Republican Movement in its current form began shortly after the shift in New Zealand from FPP to MMP as an electoral system. A bunch of students in Wellington asked the question, “What’s the next big constitutional question in New Zealand?” Obviously, it was breaking away from the Monarchy and becoming a republic.
Support for the idea has grown in recent years, from 17% in a poll in the early ’90s to just under half the population a few years ago. Holden spent most of his time addressing the usual objections he faces.
One of the most common is the Treaty of Waitangi, which is perceived as being an agreement between the Crown and New Zealand Maori. Holden responds that the agreement was never really with the monarch, but was rather made on the orders of the British government, and was an agreement between the NZ government and Maori. Traditionally, transferences of power from an old head of state to a new one includes a transference of all extant responsibilities and treaties, so the Treaty of Waitangi would remain intact.
Another objection is that it’s not a pressing matter. We’ve got crime and the economy and such to worry about. Of course, with that attitude, it would never happen – there’s always something more urgent. And if you agree that it should happen, it might as well happen sooner rather than later.
The real bottle of fun it would open up is a written constitution. Holden sidestepped most questions about the obstacles involved in writing a constitution, because he’s talking about republicanism itself, rather than the various problems that arise with written constitutions. He did provide a few interesting models for comparison, however – Ireland and Israel featuring several times.
Another question is the role of the president and how the president is elected – directly or by an elected parliament. Concerns about partisan presidents should be put aside, he argued, because the Governor-General has traditionally been partisan in New Zealand anyway.
I do kind of like how Ireland’s president operates – signing off legislation, but having the power not to just plain veto, but refer it to the Supreme Court if there are concerns about how constitutional it is, or refer it to a referendum if there are concerns about how popular it is. That might make things very interesting indeed.
Anyway, Holden and gang’s arguments are probably far better written at their website, and they have a book coming out. Holden himself seemed like a nice, earnest guy, claiming he was inspired by a love of New Zealand to want to see it come into its own as a republic.
But the question remains: what would a president of New Zealand say about a snake with a hand?