Putting Monarchy on a short reign

By Frances Morton

Architects are unlikely revolutionaries, but the idea of opening her wallet and seeing a picture of the "Luddite" Prince of Wales on a $20 bill deeply rattles prominent Auckland architect Julie Stout. With Queen Elizabeth's reign approaching its end, Stout is among a growing group of New Zealanders reluctant to allow Charles to become our king.

While the Queen has ruled with detached dignity there are concerns that Prince Charles has a tendency to weigh in on his pet issues, abusing his power. In June, a British judge criticised him for an "unexpected and unwelcome" intervention in a London property development. Prince Charles, who has long been a critic of modern architecture, put a stop to the project by making his views known to the Emir of Qatar, who was involved in its construction.

"He is firmly looking backwards as opposed to trying to evolve a modern way of living," says Stout.

Republicans say it is time to change the system before Charles ends up in charge.

"I find it abhorrent," says Stout. "I can't believe we're in 2010 and we're still in a monarchy situation. I can't believe we aren't independent.

"It's like being a child - still got your trainer wheels on until you're fully grown up.

I think it hinders robust debate about who we are."

Successive prime ministers have used one word when describing a future republic - inevitable. John Key has previously said he believes the country will one day become a republic but has ruled out moving towards it on his watch.

In her valedictory speech to parliament last year, Helen Clark declared: "It is inevitable that our constitutional status as a monarchy will also change. It's a question of not if, but when."

In a surprise move in 1994, Jim Bolger pushed for a republic, stating "the tide of history is moving in one direction".

That "inevitable" time has always been an amorphous moment in the distant future but Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard brought a timetable into focus during their election campaign. "I think the appropriate time for this nation to be a republic will be when we see the monarch change," Gillard told the Melbourne Age.

Gillard favours a system in which the legal framework for a republic is put in place so that when the Queen's reign comes to an end there will be a smooth transition.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Tony Abbott, former head of the group Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, says he cannot see Australia moving towards a republic any time soon.

As the law stands in New Zealand, Prince Charles will automatically become our head of state when the Queen dies. Section 5 of the Constitution Act provides that "the death of the Sovereign shall have the effect of transferring all the functions, duties, powers, authorities, rights, privileges and dignities belonging to the Crown to the Sovereign's successor".

Dean Knight, senior lecturer in law at Victoria University and a member of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand, favours Gillard's approach of "getting all your ducks in a row and saying this isn't going to happen until the Queen passes".

"No one has really got anything against Queen Elizabeth personally," says Knight. "Things are moving on and I'm not sure that her grace and her gravitas and her mana will necessarily follow with her son."

This minimalist approach to forming a republic would not require great structural and legal changes, says Knight. "You could draft the legislation on the back of the napkin."

He advocates adopting an appointment process for a head of state that closely reflects the current system. Government would put forward a candidate and that person would need the approval of a super majority (75 per cent) in Parliament.

Currently the Governor-General is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. Similarly, the Prime Minister can advise the Queen to dismiss the Governor-General, which essentially means the power of the head of state rests with the government of the day. Dismissing a Governor- General carries the bizarre terminology of being "recalled" by the Queen, as in "recalled to England", a strange hang-over from colonial days.

Knight believes the minimalist model of a republic suits New Zealanders' incremental and pragmatic approach to constitutional change.

"Let's do some baby steps," he says. "We keep the existing structure, existing name and just promote the Governor-General from being a de facto head of state to a real head of state - same power, same function, same responsibilities, same house.

"We can deal with symbols, flags later on. They're distractions. That's the puffery around the edges."

Knight is not even concerned about changing the name - Governor General will do the trick, he says. Other options could be president or a Maori term such as Rangatira (chief) or Tumuaki (leader/president).

The Treaty of Waitangi is seen by some as a sticking point but Knight says it need not be. "The obligations of the Crown under the Treaty are discharged and honoured through the government of the day. That would continue under the republic."

Next week, Knight will face off against Michael Cullen in a debate at Parliament as part of a conference called "Reconstituting the Constitution", chaired by Jim Bolger and hosted by Victoria University's Institute of Policy Studies.

When in government, Cullen described himself as the "token monarchist" in Labour's cabinet. Yet he seems to have changed his tune. Cullen is expected to also state his support for the idea of New Zealand becoming a republic-in-waiting. He could not be reached for comment.

Dame Cath Tizard, Governor- General from 1990 to 1996, says there is a groundswell of opinion that the time for a republic is coming but it is a complex issue and needs to be thoroughly worked through. She has no objection in principle to New Zealand becoming a republic but does not want to see it turn messy.

"I am exasperated by the fact that so few people understand what is involved in the change," she says. "Most people think it's a matter of, Thank you, goodbye, we're sad the Queen's gone and we'll have a republic.'

"If the time is coming, do it properly. Debate the issues, think them through and do it with some style and dignity."

From Tizard's personal dealings with Prince Charles, she sees no problem in him taking on the role as our head of state. "I think Prince Charles is a very honourable, earnest, sincere fellow who would do a perfectly good job of filling his mother's shoes. Well, perhaps not filling his mother's shoes. I don't think he'd look too good in high heels."

In reality, those shoes are symbolic glass slippers used only for pomp and ceremony. As Tizard says, the Queen has absolutely no influence and no power in New Zealand. "We are a totally independent country."

So why retain those links with the monarchy? Public opinion polls on whether New Zealand should become a republic show an increasing number of New Zealanders support cutting ties with Britain but slightly more favours keeping the system as it is.

Team Monarchy experienced a boost following Prince William's visit to New Zealand earlier this year. A phone poll conducted by Research NZ found a 10 per cent slump in support for the republic after William's visit compared with the year before.

In the popularity contest between William and his father, William is winning all over the Commonwealth, rating as preferred king in Australia and Canada as well as New Zealand.

Another former Governor-General ,Sir Paul Reeves (1985-1990), has previously voiced his support for a republic but this week refrained from nailing his colours to the mast.

Reeves says he cares very much about New Zealand's sovereignty and how it should express and develop its understandings of being a nation but, like many others, he feels there are more pressing issues of national identity at heart.

"At the moment we are not really consumed by this debate. I'm more concerned with the All Blacks maintaining their form."

It is this reluctance to debate the issue that has led the "inevitable" formation of a republic to stretch on and on, say republicans.

"The monarchy has survived in New Zealand largely because it's irrelevant and we just don't take the time to discuss these things and what they actually mean," says Republican Movement chairman Lewis Holden.

In April, Green MP Keith Locke's private member's bill a Head of State Referenda was defeated 68-53 on its first reading. The bill proposed holding two referenda. The first would give people a choice between three options: the present system, with the monarch remaining our head of state; a New Zealand head of state approved by 75 per cent of parliament; and a New Zealand head of state directly elected by the people.

The two most popular options would then go to a second referendum to determine which system to adopt.

Locke says there is a feeling among politicians and the general community that the end of the Queen's reign is a logical time to switch to a republic. "Anyone who thinks that's a nice time for change, which many do, ... we have to get our act together quite soon. Let's get on with it," he says.

Locke believes there was enough support among individual politicians for the bill, but it failed in the House because MPs were whipped into voting along party lines. "My experience in politics is there is an unwillingness to upset monarchists," says Locke.

His reason for putting up the bill was a matter of national identity.

"It's very hard for a country to be fully independent when we are living in the South Pacific and have our Number One person of another nationality in another country on the other side of the world, someone from the colonial past," says Locke.

A head of state in a position by birthright that favours men over women, whites over non-whites, Anglicans over Catholics, English over New Zealanders and older over younger is at odds with New Zealand's values, says Locke. "It actually violates our human rights legislation."

The next opportunity for the issue to be debated in Parliament is as part of a constitutional review - a condition of the agreement between National and the Maori Party. The review is still under discussion, although Minister of Justice Simon Power's office was unable to give a timeline for it.

Simon O'Connor, chairperson of Monarchy New Zealand, disputes the idea of a republic as inevitable.

"In terms of Julia Gillard I think it's quite disappointing," he says. "She is stuck in a 20th-century mindset. Republicanism is an outdated idea." He cites violence in Lebanon and the contentious 2000 US election as examples of where republics have faltered.

"It's at the passing of the Queen, at her death, that the New Zealand monarchy shows its importance because the only thing that will be inevitable is a seamless and peaceful transition of power from her to her son. There's going to be no fighting, no confusion, no court cases." O'Connor believes the challenge for New Zealand is to align ourselves more closely with the Queen as head of state.

"Great Britain is very good at using Queen Elizabeth but she's just as much our Queen and New Zealand should be doing the same. She's the best-known woman in the world, arguably. We should, as a country, be asking her to represent us more."

- Herald on Sunday

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