Editorial: Time to ask questions of constitution

Queen Elizabeth II has been Queen of New Zealand since 1952. Photo / AP
Queen Elizabeth II has been Queen of New Zealand since 1952. Photo / AP

It may seem churlish the day after Queen's Birthday to raise the subject of New Zealand's constitutional status. Many will have simply enjoyed a day off and barely spared a thought about the name of the national holiday. But as long as the British monarch remains New Zealand's head of state then the question will persist: why should this Pacific nation, half the world away from the sovereign's palace, retain a foreign head of state?

It should be stated up front that addressing the question is entirely separate from the respect in which Queen Elizabeth II is held in this country. She has been Queen of New Zealand since 1952. Stability has been a hallmark of her exceptional reign, which has seen her visit these shores 10 times.

She is now 90. Her husband, Prince Philip, turns 95 this week. His health is far from robust, and speculation lingers in Britain that the Queen could withdraw to Balmoral, her Scottish country retreat, if the Duke of Edinburgh fades from public life.

She is not expected to abdicate, but rather hand many of the daily royal tasks to Prince Charles.

At some stage Charles, who is 67, will most likely succeed his mother and become king. It is fair to say that Prince Charles is not held in the same regard as the Queen. At the start of her 10th decade she can still grace the cover of Vanity Fair. It is difficult to imagine her oldest son posing for photographer Annie Leibovitz. While she is the monarch, support for the existing arrangements are unlikely to be challenged. A changing of the guard could well alter the equation.

The succession, whenever it may be, opens the door to change or, at the very least, raises legitimate questions about the current arrangements. The underlying principle in New Zealand's democratic structure is that the Queen - or king - reigns but the government rules while it has the support of the House of Representatives.

In practice, the government of the day governs but the convention remains that the Queen and her representative, the Governor-General, have the right to be consulted about matters of state, to encourage and also to warn. Clearly the arrangements have served us well, but that does not mean they should remain off-limits to scrutiny.

Should New Zealand maintain the status quo? If so, why? Why shouldn't we elect a head of state who is a New Zealander and accountable to the nation? Is this not a hallmark of a modern, independent, democratic state?

New Zealand's relationship with Britain was vastly different when the young queen ascended the throne. Sharing a head of state with the UK no longer guarantees New Zealand any favours with London. Britain's interests are not always our interests, though we share much in common.

Equally, New Zealand is a much changed country in 2016 than the loyal land of two million who lined the country's streets when the newly-crowned Queen made her first visit in the summer of 1953. A different nation, a different era. Perhaps it is time to discuss some difficult questions.

- NZ Herald

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