Hats off to the Labour Party leader, Phil Goff. In suggesting that New Zealanders should start talking about our country becoming a republic, he has gone where influential sitting politicians have feared to tread.

Most, including the current Prime Minister, talk about the inevitability of a republic but are unwilling to do anything to create it.

Others, such as former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen, wait until they have retired from politics to voice similar sentiments. Such passivity has dampened the prospect of debate.

Yet this is an issue that, given the absence of stridency on both sides, will have to be galvanised by political leaders.

Mr Goff has acknowledged as much in stating emphatically that a republic would be the "making of New Zealand as a country". If he has his way, that notion will have seeped into the national consciousness by the end of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.

This, he says, is the logical point for the transition to a republic.

As reasonable as that might be, that time could easily be more than a decade away. A lengthy wait is implied. But, either way, Mr Goff is right to suggest the debate should start now, that it should not be rushed, and that New Zealanders should be fully consulted.

There is no logic in the topic being left to lie. If a republic is inevitable, why delay discussion on how to get there and what form it should take? Crucial issues of detail will have to be tackled, such as the place of the Treaty of Waitangi and how the new head of state will be appointed.

Yet trumping all such potential sticking points is the desirability of, and the maturity evident in, this country securing a singular and unambiguous identity.

Several years ago, former Prime Minister Mike Moore outlined a three-step process that could well serve as the foundation for the approach championed by Mr Goff.

This would see an eminent persons group of leading New Zealanders considering, over a period of several years, various overseas republics as a model for this country, and thrashing out the many issues of detail.

Their report would be tabled at a constitutional convention and if there was agreement there, the final decision would be made through a referendum. Republican sentiment would have to have become well ingrained to carry the day.

Many are probably still happy to see matters evolve, rather than be driven to such a conclusion. Partly, this is an acknowledgment of the Queen's record of unstinting dedication. But, as Dr Cullen indicated at a recent constitutional conference, the monarchy seems increasingly irrelevant to young people, in particular.

They appear more aware of the oddity implicit in this country's head of state being not a New Zealander but someone who lives on the other side of the world. The dwindling interest in visits by members of the royal family carries its own commentary.

In addition, the monarchy has not always helped itself. The missteps following the death of Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand's most eminent citizen, have only been compounded by Buckingham Palace's belated response to the Christchurch earthquake.

Clearly, this country's leaders have never believed the republic issue would deliver political capital.

Rather, they have been deterred by the potential for divisiveness and shenanigans of the sort that undermined the republican movement in Australia. Yet there need be no repeat of that if the path to a republic is well planned and the outcome conclusively heeds the popular will.

The succession of the monarchy offers the obvious opportunity for change. But to prepare the ground, much debate must take place. Mr Goff is right not only to break the mould but to say the formal process needs to begin now.