Lewis Holden: It's time Kiwis had a say in nation's top job

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Anand Satyanand at Government House in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Anand Satyanand at Government House in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Some time this month the Prime Minister will announce who New Zealand's next Governor-General will be. While they represent the Queen in London, constitutionally the Governor-General is the highest office a New Zealander can aspire to.

The appointment is entirely the choice of the Prime Minister of the day. The Queen merely rubber-stamps the appointment.

The new Governor-General will take office in August for five years. He or she will receive a salary of around $180,000, live in two palatial mansions in Wellington and Auckland, be driven around in late-model Jaguars and have a host of other privileges. For the first time, though, he or she will have to pay income tax like the rest of us.

After the infamous comments by TVNZ's Paul Henry last year, it is likely the appointee will be someone who "looks and sounds like" a New Zealander.

In fact, since 1967 we have had someone who looks and sounds like us in the role, including two women (Dames Tizard and Cartwright) and New Zealanders of Maori (Sir Paul Reeves) and most recently Indo-Fijian ancestry.

Yet no New Zealander can aspire to being our head of state - that position is reserved for a family in the United Kingdom. However, we recognise that we have to start somewhere. The Governor-General's office is an obvious candidate for reform.

The Republican Movement believes nominations for the job ought to be made by the general public, instead of the Prime Minister's office sounding potential nominees.

The public's nominee should be subject to approval of three-quarters of MPs and a majority of party leaders in the House of Representatives. It should not be up to the Prime Minister to appoint the officer able to dismiss his or her government from office.

The Government has already passed legislation to ensure members of the Electoral Commission are appointed by a resolution of the House of Representatives following nominations to a committee of Parliament.

Similarly, Ombudsmen and the Auditor-General are appointed by the House. Members of the Electoral Commission are nominated to the House by a special committee of Parliament.

There is no reason why the Governor-General should not be nominated to the Queen in a similar way, albeit with additional requirements to ensure the appointee is neutral, and acceptable to all sides of politics. That is why we propose a "super-super majority".

In the Pacific, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands elect their Governors-General. This is a consequence of both countries gaining independence about the same time in the 1970s.

Since 2007, Samoa has elected its head of state. The first such election took place in 2007, after the death of the last Malietoa who was a king-like figure under the 1962 independence constitution - written by New Zealand legal experts.

Elsewhere within the Commonwealth the republics of India, Malta and Trinidad and Tobago elect their presidencies via parliament with no problems.

This change would be a first step towards reforming the Governor-General's office into a full head of state. Dr Michael Cullen recently proposed such a change in his paper to the Reconstituting the Constitution conference.

Dr Cullen proposes that following the end of the Queen's reign a referendum is held to either make the Governor-General New Zealand's head of state, or for Prince Charles to carry on as our "Sovereign" in London.

In any event, Dr Cullen - a self-described "token-monarchist" - believed that Parliament should debate the appointment by way of a parliamentary order. This does not require legislation, although Victoria University constitutional lawyer Dean Knight, who also spoke at the conference, has prepared a potential members' Bill to amend the Governor-General Act.

There is much secrecy around the appointment process. The Republican Movement has made numerous Official Information Act requests to the Prime Minister's office to clarify the process and framework for the nomination process. All they have confirmed is that the appointment is made in secrecy.

The Prime Minister's office advises the Prime Minister on the framework for appointment, but the exact details of this advice remain shrouded in the official secrecy that surrounds the monarchy.

The changes we propose will clarify the vague and undefined conventions around the appointment and dismissal of the Governor-General. It is often claimed the Prime Minister must consult with the Leader of the Opposition, but this appears to have rarely been the case.

In 1977, when former Prime Minister Sir Keith Holyoake was elevated to the position, then leader of the Opposition Bill Rowling learnt of the Prime Minister's choice by a radio announcement.

If the House of Representatives debate the nominees it will further our constitutional evolution. It could be the first step to a New Zealand republic with an independent head of state.

* Lewis Holden is chairman of the Republican Movement.

- NZ Herald

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