What is a republic?

A republic is a country where the supreme power of the state is dependent on the consent of the citizens it governs. The word republic is derived from the Latin res publica, which means “public thing”.

In a republic it is commonly said that political power operates only with the ongoing consent of the people. This is usually expressed through elections. The citizens elect representatives who are in turn responsible to the citizens who have elected them.

The majority of the world’s nations are republics. Not all of them are fully democratic although two-thirds of fully democratic countries are republics. In a republic the head of state is not a hereditary leader. The head of state is either directly elected or is appointed by an elected assembly. They are most often called the president.

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What is a head of state?

Each nation-state appoints or elects a person as its head of state, or shares the position amongst a number of people. Some share their head of state with other countries (such as Andorra). This important office represents the state’s historical claim to power and legitimacy within the nation.

Heads of state are given various titles according to whether a country is a republic or a monarchy. Examples include President, Captain-Regent, King, Queen, Emperor, and Emir.

In any country, the state is made up of various legal and political institutions such as a legislative body, the executive and the judiciary. The office of head of state represents the state’s ongoing existence as the nation’s legitimate political authority.

In most cases one person holds the position of head of state. They are given certain political powers according to a country’s constitutional rules. Some have executive powers, such as the power to control government policy. Others have constitutional powers, such as the power to appoint and dismiss government officials. Some countries have a purely ceremonial head of state. Others have a specific constitutional role. Some carry out the functions of running the government and work as the head of a government. It all depends on the system chosen for that country.

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What is a monarchy?

A monarchy is a state where the supreme power is assigned to one individual by birthright. They hold the position for life, unless they abdicate. The monarch, as king or queen, is a member of the nation’s royal family. There are rules of succession to decide who the next head of state will be. The royal family are often linked to a particular religion, sometimes an official state religion, and claim a divine right to rule.

Monarchies often have historical precedents and traditions that predate the modern nation-state and are a link to the nation prior to the development of the modern state. There are currently 44 monarchies in the world.

Monarchies can also be grouped according to the powers of their monarch, and how the monarch is chosen or appointed. Again it is important not to confuse the different types. There are three types of monarchy: constitutional, absolute and sub-national.

Constitutional monarchy

The monarch is largely a ceremonial figurehead and their role is governed by a written constitution and/or by a set of constitutional conventions. He or she has limited constitutional powers, and these are constituted by tradition, popular opinion, and by the country’s legal traditions. The monarch represents the state and serves as a symbol of its continuity. Political power still rests with voters (the electorate), who are represented by the parliament or other legislature. Executive power often rests with an elected parliament, who appoint the government.

Constitutional monarchs often retain certain privileges and powers (for example, to grant pardons or assign honours and titles). Some monarchs retain reserve powers, such as the power to dismiss the prime minister or to dissolve parliament. Examples include Great Britain, the Netherlands and Spain.

Absolute monarchy

An absolute monarch holds complete power and rules the nation-state according to the traditions of their culture, religion or family traditions. As with constitutional monarchs they can either be elected or appointed. Pope Benedict of The Vatican is an elected absolute monarch. Other examples include Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Lesotho.

Sub-national monarchy

There are some monarchies that exist within a nation-state that do not possess any constitutional power. Generally, they are the result of a smaller nation being subsumed into a larger nation state. The Kīngitanga (also known as the Māori King Movement) in New Zealand is an example of this. King Tuheitia Pāki, head of the Kīngitanga is a descendant of the first Maori King, Pōtatau Te Wherewhero. The Kīngitanga has no constitutional role in New Zealand but has a role providing Māori leadership. The Māori King is a symbol of the status of the Māori iwi who support the Kīngitanga.

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“I would go as far as to say that we are already a de facto republic, as is Australia. We have, to all intents and purposes the nominal head of state in our Governor-General”
— Former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Is New Zealand a republic or a monarchy?

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is an unelected monarch who lives in Great Britain. Unless the Monarch is actually visiting New Zealand, the Governor-General, a person appointed by the Prime Minister to represent the Queen, acts as head of state.

The New Zealand government functions much like a parliamentary republic.

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“I think most New Zealanders don’t easily accept unearned privilege. I think we accept, right down deep in our guts, that we’re pretty much as good as the next person.”
— Footrot Flats creator, Murray Ball.

Who is New Zealand’s head of state? How are they chosen?

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (the Queen) has been New Zealand’s head of state since 1952. Under New Zealand law she is referred to as the “Queen of New Zealand” and is constitutionally known as “the Sovereign”.

The Queen is head of state of 16 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. She is separately the Head of the Commonwealth.

Under the current constitutional arrangements, to become head of state you must be a member of the British Royal family. When the Monarch dies or abdicates, a successor is appointed according to law. Under the Act of Settlement 1701 the Monarch’s eldest child, provided he or she is not a Roman Catholic, becomes the new Monarch. The Monarch must always be a member of the Church of England.

In 1947, New Zealand’s Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act making New Zealand legally independent. The British Monarch remained New Zealand’s head of state. The Queen is legally the “Queen of New Zealand” independent of her role as Queen of Great Britain.

Under the Constitution Act 1986, New Zealand’s head of state is defined as the “Sovereign in right of New Zealand”, and the “Governor-General appointed by the Sovereign is the Sovereign’s representative in New Zealand”.

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What does the head of state do?

As head of state, the Queen has a constitutional, ceremonial and community role. The Queen has visited New Zealand ten times in the last 56 years and has spent a total of twenty weeks in New Zealand during her lifetime. When the Queen or a member of the Royal family is in New Zealand, he or she performs a number of public duties. Members of the Royal family are patrons to several charities and organisations. As the Queen is rarely in New Zealand, the Governor-General carries out the role of head of state in the Queen’s absence.

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“Well, Mr Prime Minister, I understand that the Constitutional Rule is that you will nominate somebody and that I have no choice in the matter.”
— The Queen, to Sir Robert Menzies, former Australian PM .

Who is the Governor-General? How are they chosen?

Dame Patsy Reddy is New Zealand’s current Governor-General. Dame Patsy is Governor-General of the Realm of New Zealand, which is defined as New Zealand together with its territories and associated states — the Ross Dependency, the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue.

The Governor-General is appointed by the Monarch on the exclusive advice of the Prime Minister of the day. While the Prime Minister chooses the Governor-General, there is usually some consultation amongst Cabinet members, and ‘consultation’ with the Leader of the Opposition. There have been a number of instances where the Leader of the Opposition was not informed until after the decision was made.

In the past, Governors-General were usually members of the British aristocracy. Since 1967, the Governor-General has been a New Zealander. The Governor-General’s term in office is undefined, but usually lasts for five to six years.

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“The Governor-General’s role is often described as the 3 Cs – constitutional, ceremonial and community. These three roles are seen as overlapping.”
— Dame Silvia Cartwright, former Governor-General.

What does the Governor-General do? Are they our head of State?

The Governor-General carries out all of the Queen’s constitutional and ceremonial functions as head of state in New Zealand and abroad. He or she is regarded as having all the same powers as the Sovereign. As such, the Governor-General is an acting or de-facto head of state. Along with the specific constitutional duties, as set out below, the Governor-General performs all the normal functions of the head of state. They represent New Zealand overseas, open New Zealand’s embassies, greet foreign dignitaries and hand out awards.

The Governor-General and members of the House of Representatives make up Parliament. The Governor-General oversees meetings of the Executive Council. This is the formal meeting of Cabinet, where Government Ministers present regulations and appointments for approval and signature. At the direction of Ministers, the Governor-General appoints members of the judiciary (Judges), Justices of the Peace and other public officers. The Governor-General also signs the warrants for Royal Commissions of Inquiry and may exercise the Royal prerogative of mercy.

The Governor-General is not New Zealand’s head of state, yet they act as New Zealand’s head of state. When the Governor-General represents New Zealand overseas, as they are increasingly being asked to do, they are treated in a manner similar to a head of state. Because of this, some argue that New Zealand is already a “de facto republic”, with the Governor-General as the de facto head of state.

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What powers does the Queen or Governor-General have?

The Governor-General has a specific role and, by convention, acts on the advice of Government ministers. In effect, the actual legal powers of the Monarch or the Governor-General are vague. Governors-General are rarely informed of the Government’s actions unless it involves them. Almost all Governors-General have complained of not being informed of decisions made by Governments. During the term of David Lange’s Labour Government, Sir Paul Reeves wrote letters to the Queen complaining about the lack of information from the Government. However, Sir Paul did not get any direct responses from the Queen. As a result of Governors-General not being informed by Governments, there have been public statements made which contradict Government policies.

Under the Constitution Act 1986 the Governor-General has all the “powers conferred” on them by law. The Constitution Act refers to the Letters Patent 1983, a law issued as a Royal decree (rather than coming from Parliament) that creates the office of the Governor-General and the Executive Council of Ministers that advises them. The Letters Patent is officially from the Monarch, but they are actually written by the Prime Minister and Executive Council, for the Monarch to sign.

The Letters Patent do not spell out the powers of the head of state either. Their powers are defined by constitutional conventions, most of which are found in the Cabinet Manual. The Cabinet Manual is a manual published by the Cabinet Office that records the constitutional conventions, procedures, and rules of Cabinet.

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What are constitutional conventions?

Constitutional conventions are informal procedures and protocols that guide politicians in how they should exercise power. The most important constitutional convention is the convention of responsible government: “the Queen reigns, but the government rules, so long as they have the support of Parliament”.

The Queen reigns, but the government rules...

Government business is conducted in the name of the Sovereign, because executive power is vested in them. However, the Cabinet rules because the head of state always does what they are ‘advised’ to do. The Prime Minister and their Cabinet ‘advises’ the Governor-General to make regulations, fire ministers, or call elections. In practice this means the Sovereign or Governor-General almost always does what the politicians want.

...so long as they have the support of Parliament

To become Prime Minister an MP needs the support of Parliament to form a government. They need to lead the party or coalition of parties that has a majority of seats in Parliament. This usually happens after a general election. Following a general election, Parliament holds a vote of confidence in the government. If there is a successful vote of no confidence, the convention requires the government and Prime Minister to resign. The Governor-General only has to listen to the Prime Minister when the Prime Minister has the support of the Parliament. Otherwise, it is up to the Governor-General’s discretion. When the Governor-General acts on this discretion, they use what are called “reserve powers”.

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“People tend to think the office of the Governor-General is of little significance, which is wrong, or that it represents a substantial check on the excesses of executive government, which is also wrong.”
— Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer

What are the reserve powers?

Usually Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister, carries out the day-to-day business of government. The Governor-General does what they are told to do by the Cabinet and Prime Minister. In rare circumstances the Governor-General may act without (or even against) the advice of the Prime Minister. As we saw above, this only happens when the Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence — that is, they lose the right to lead the government and give advice to the Governor-General.

The Governor-General’s reserve powers include the powers to:
  • Dissolve or postpone Parliament and call an early election;
  • Dismiss the Prime Minister and their Cabinet and appoint someone else (who may command the support of the House and form an alternative government); and
  • Refuse to grant the Royal assent to a Bill of Parliament.

The use of each of these powers is covered below. There may also be other circumstances when the Governor-General acts even when the Prime Minister still has the confidence of Parliament. This was evident in Australia in 1975, as outlined below. The circumstances where such actions are taken are very rare and very controversial.

The use of the reserve powers cannot be challenged in the courts, and are said to be “non-justiciable”. In a republic executive actions can usually be challenged in court.

Dismissing the Prime Minister

In rare circumstances, the Governor-General can dismiss the Prime Minister. The Governor-General may dismiss the Prime Minister if they do not have the support of Parliament, or if they are about to lose it. Dismissal is not an issue most of the time, but when it comes to constitutional crises it can be controversial. If the end result is that the Governor-General cannot act as a proper check on the power of the Prime Minister, their only recourse is to fire the Prime Minister, or risk getting fired or forced to resign themselves.

In Australia, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed in 1975 under very unusual circumstances. It occurred when a dispute arose between the upper and lower houses of the Australian Parliament. The issue in Australia was whether the Government of the day had the ability to govern, with the possibility that the Australian Senate (the upper house) would block the federal budget. At that stage the Senate was controlled by the Opposition. Whitlam wanted to call a half-senate election so his party could gain a majority in the Senate.

Whitlam pointed out to the Governor-General Sir John Kerr that he could dismiss him as Governor-General if he did not do what he wanted. In response Kerr sacked Whitlam and appointed the Opposition leader as Prime Minister, who promptly advised the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Kerr took the most extreme course of action: he dismissed a majority government that had not actually lost a vote of confidence.

Can the Queen stop the dismissal of a Governor-General?

It has been suggested that the Queen would refuse to remove the Governor-General should a Prime Minister attempt to have them dismissed. This is highly unlikely, as the Queen knows that any political intervention, particularly in the democratic process, exposes the Monarchy to controversy. For this reason, there have been almost no interventions by the Queen in the politics of her Commonwealth realms.

Secondly, should the Prime Minister advise the Queen to dismiss the Governor-General immediately, the Sovereign would be forced to act, as the Queen is bound by constitutional convention. If the Queen did intervene, it would contradict the primary argument made for the Monarchy, which it is that the Sovereign and Governor-General are “above politics”.

Within the Commonwealth, there are precedents where the Prime Minister has cut the Governor-General’s term short — as happened in Papua New Guinea and the Irish Free State.

Can the Governor-General refuse to sign a bill into law?

The extent of this reserve power is a contentious subject for constitutional lawyers. Many – such as former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer — argue that the Governor-General has no power to refuse the Royal assent to legislation (that is, they cannot refuse to sign an act of Parliament into law, that would cause a political crisis). Others say leeway exists for the Governor-General to say no where democracy is under threat.[25] British constitutional writer Walter Bagehot famously said that if the Monarch were advised to sign his or her own death warrant, they would be “constitutionally obliged to do so”. No British Monarch has refused Royal assent in 300 years – since the time of Queen Anne. No Governor-General in New Zealand has ever refused to sign a bill into law.

In other Commonwealth realms such as Canada and Australia, Royal assent has been withdrawn after the fact. In Australia, this was due to a procedural error. In Canada, the Bill was ruled unconstitutional by the Canadian Supreme Court.

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When would the reserve powers be used?

There is much academic debate over when the reserve powers would be used. While the Governor-General appears to have immense powers to make and unmake Governments, they cannot really use them. This is because so long as they have a majority in the House, the Prime Minister can dismiss and replace the Governor-General at any time. The Prime Minister has the sole right to advise the Queen on appointments to the office.

Because the Governor-General has no defined term in office, and “…shall hold office during Our [the Queen’s] pleasure”, the Prime Minister can cut short the Governor-General’s term in office. This happened in the Irish Free State in 1932 and Papua New Guinea in 1991, but has never happened in New Zealand. In all of these examples, the Governors-General in question resigned instead of being removed from office.

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Why should New Zealand have its own head of state?

We've set out our reasons for why we beleive New Zealand should have our own head of state here "What we stand for".

Today, the position of head of state represents the continuity of the state over and above any changes in the Government. In a parliamentary system keeping the roles of head of state and head of government separate is important. In a parliamentary republic they would be carried out by an elected head of state. This elected head of state would be accountable to the public in a way that the Governor-General is not.

At present New Zealand has an absentee head of state. The Monarch’s representative, the Governor-General, does everything New Zealanders would expect the Monarch do if she or he were actually living in New Zealand. The Prime Minister, however, appoints, and can dismiss, the Governor-General, making them useless in the event of any constitutional crises. These points form the basis of the arguments against the monarchy, and in favour of becoming a republic.

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What happens with the Crown or Te Tiriti o Waitangi - The Treaty of Waitangi

This is a key issue and one that requires consultation with Māori. The Crown is a shorthand description of the New Zealand Government.

Our position is that while the transition to an independent head of state won't change the status of the Treaty (and legal academics agree), an additional clause clarifying this and stating that the Crown is the "Government and People of New Zealand" should be in any legislation establishing a republic; further protecting the Māori-Government relationship. We beleive that this transition represents a huge opportunity to clarify the future partnership between Māori and the Government.

We have set out more details for what New Zealand Republic's policy is here: "Te Tiriti o Waitangi - The Treaty of Waitangi".

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