Savage: Now is the hour to make head of state our own

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Despite the success of the royal tour, developing a New Zealand head of state is still a priority. Photo / AFP
Despite the success of the royal tour, developing a New Zealand head of state is still a priority. Photo / AFP

New Zealand is reaching the end of an era and it is clear we need to make plans now to change to a New Zealand head of state. It could take between five and eight years to implement these reforms so it makes sense to start now.

The British monarch is unable both in a practical and a symbolic sense to represent contemporary New Zealand and the most recent poll shows 44 per cent of us would prefer a New Zealander be selected for the role. Support for change from Kiwis under 30 years old is now as high as 66 per cent.

Traditions are a good thing, but some traditions are exclusionary and no longer serve our needs. New Zealand is more diverse than ever before and our head of state needs to reflect contemporary values and embrace future trends. The ongoing call for a fair selection process cannot be denied.

John Key says it is "inevitable". Former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon agrees with him and says the royal family understand this.

Six of the 16 remaining Commonwealth realms are now actively discussing the details of such a change.

Prince Charles has been quoted as saying it would be easier if New Zealand had its own head of state and in a recent interview former Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard said we should be "making plans for what we propose to do when Her Majesty is no longer with us".

Dame Catherine is right to make that call and waiting until the current monarch passes away or is unable to participate is not appropriate either. It would be more inclusive to have the current monarch involved in our final step to full independence.

After listening to what New Zealanders were telling us over the last few years, we have developed a blueprint for reform that we think offers a practical solution to the head of state problem. The current arrangements have set a good standard so we propose taking what works and discarding what does not.

We advocate changing the position of governor-general into an independent head of state with the same amount of reserve powers and with very similar duties and obligations.

We are suggesting a two-stage referendum process that will give all New Zealanders a chance to have their say. Establishing a Constitutional Commission to investigate the options and make some recommendations on what would work best would be a first step toward that goal.

Changing the flag has gained a lot of momentum recently and there are clear plans for referendums on that issue but there is more to change than just symbolism. If we are going to rethink our flag then we may as well discuss what it is a change of flag would symbolise.

Having a working and relevant head of state is important. We advocate that only a New Zealander should fill the role. The method of both nomination and selection (either direct or indirect election) must be fair and transparent and the role must remain independent.

It cannot be allowed to become mixed up with parliamentary politics. The head of state and Government House must remain separate from Parliament.

No one is advocating we cut ties with Britain or that we adopt anything other than a uniquely New Zealand republic. The change is first and foremost about updating what we already have. The Treaty of Waitangi would not be affected and we would stay in the Commonwealth. The plan is all about careful and incremental change. Steady as she goes for the ship of state.

The royal visit is naturally being used to promote the royal couple and to promote New Zealand, but interest in the event should not be confused with the larger issue of democratic reform.

The young couple are popular but developing our own head of state is still the priority. William is ineligible to fill the role under the criteria we propose but if one day the couple want to move to New Zealand and be part of our way of life then I am sure they would be made to feel welcome.

Only a New Zealander, who lives in New Zealand, can properly serve us as our head of state and the only way to choose properly is through a fair process. It is not the New Zealand way that someone should be born into public office.

In our long-term interests New Zealand has to make the change. It is going to happen anyway so we might as well embrace it and ensure all New Zealanders are part of this vital democratic reform.

Savage is chair of New Zealand Republic's "Campaign for Kiwi head of State". He is also a writer and filmmaker and lives in west Auckland.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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