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The Head of State Referenda Bill
The Head of State Referenda Bill was a members' Bill drawn from the parliamentary ballot of members Bills on 14 October 2009, and voted down by parliament 68 - 53 on 21 April 2010. If passed it would've enabled two referendums on the republic issue. The Bill itself presented two republican options - a directly elected head of state or an indirectly head of state; under both New Zealand would become a Parliamentary republic.
What this Bill did
Keith Locke MP, the sponsor of the Head of State Bill, has been a long-time advocate of a New Zealand head of state.
The Head of State Referenda Bill was a members' Bill, sponsored by Keith Locke MP. The Bill was not a Green Party Bill. The Bill brings together the two questions of a referendum on a republic - whether we should commit to becoming a republic, and what sort of model such a republic should follow.
The Bill proposes a referendum with three options:-
- The status quo - a monarchy with an absentee British head of state selected by birth and a Governor-General appointed by the binding advice of the Prime Minister;
- Parliamentary election - a republic with a head of state nominated by the people of New Zealand and elected by a three-quarters (75%) majority of parliament; (the German model) or
- Direct election - a republic with a head of state nominated by the people of New Zealand and elected by popular vote, using STV (the Irish model).
If either of the last two options were chosen by a majority of 50% or more votes, the legislation will amend section two of the Constitution Act 1986 and create a New Zealand head of state, replacing the monarchy. If no option gains over 50% of votes, a second run-off referendum will be held between the two strongest options. If the status quo achieves 50% or more of the vote, there will be no further referendum.
The advantages and disadvantages of each republic option are explained and explored below. Obviously the first option, to keep the status quo, will not be discussed here. Perhaps most importantly, the Bill will stimulate the republican debate and hopefully clear up a lot of the misconceptions and misinformation surrounding the debate at present.
There has always been the risk that the republic debate will be swamped, as it often is, by wider constitutional reform issues, but this Bill focuses on the issue of whether New Zealand should have a New Zealander as its Head of state. Should it be passed and the New Zealand public support a republic option at a referendum, New Zealand will be the second republic (along with the State of Israel) without a written constitution.
Simple, important changes
The Bill takes a minimalist approach to change. Minimal change to New Zealand's constitution is achieved by stating references to the Sovereign (the Queen) in statutes are to be read as referring to the head of state. This approach is sensible because it will not cost as much, as there will not be the need for redrafting our statutes.
Head of State's powers
The Bill keeps the head of state separate from the head of government (the Prime Minister) separate, in essence creating a Parliamentary republic (a republic where executive power comes from Parliament, not the head of state). Clause 34 (3) of the Bill states:
A head of state appointed or elected under this Act may exercise all the powers and functions which were exercised by the Sovereign prior to the coming into force of his Act, in accordance with the constitutional conventions which applied to the exercise of those powers and functions.
In other words, the head of state created by the Bill will have exactly the same powers as the Governor-General.
There are a number of republics around the world that follow this model, including:
Ireland (a directly elected president); Germany (a indirectly elected president); Malta (a indirectly elected president); India (a indirectly elected president); Trinidad and Tobago (a indirectly elected president); Iceland (a directly elected president);
In this way the approach is a sensible one - the head of state would not be involved in the day to day running of the government as they are, for example, in the United States or France. New Zealand would therefore retain the advantage of having a non-partisan, ceremonial head of state with limited constitutional powers.
The Bill makes it clear that the head of state will still have to act most of the time (as the current Governor-General has to) according to the Prime Minister's advice. However, in instances when the reserve powers come into play, the head of state will be able to act where the Governor-General otherwise cannot, because they won't have the Prime Minister holding the "Sword of Damocles" over their head.
The Treaty of Waitangi upheld
The Bill contains special provision for the Treaty of Waitangi. While a republic will not affect the Treaty in any case, Part 6 (Section 67) of the Bill states that the Treaty in its application will continue as it did prior to the Bill passing into law. This removes the confusion and uncertainty that currently surrounds the status of the Treaty if New Zealand were to become a republic.
See our issue page on the Treaty of Waitangi and a republic
The republic options
The bill sets out two different republican models. It is Republican Movement policy that the make-up of a New Zealand republic should be decided by the people of New Zealand.
- Direct election of the head of state would affirm the fundamental principle of republican democracy: rule of the people by the people for the people. A number of other Parliamentary republics have a directly elected head of state, who is non-partisan. The President of the Republic of Ireland - despite being from a particular political party - is a non-partisan office much like the Governor-General is today.
- Parliamentary election of the head of state by a three-quarters (75%) majority of MPs is the Bill's second republican option. This requirement ensures the governing party does not just select someone who has links to them (in contrast with the appointment of the Governor-General) and creates the need for consensus and co-operation in Parliament over the election of the Head of state. The Bill's process of elimination votes, while time-consuming, overcomes the problem of stalemates in votes - MPs probably will not want to be stuck in Parliament in perpetuity! On the up side, the option may create more consensuses in politics, and the process is cheaper than direct election. Such a system eliminates party politics.
The option allows public input, under section 33(2)(a), at least 500 members of the general public to will nominate someone to an MP for the Head of state. This is particularly useful in creating a non-partisan head of state, as it means nominations will come from the people of New Zealand. The head of state elected under this option will serve for five years, and then the New Zealand public will nominate candidates for a new head of state.
Under the Bill, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system would be used to elect the Head of state. This electoral system is already used in local authority elections across New Zealand, so New Zealanders are already familiar with it - we simply rank candidates with numbers. The common argument against this system is that it favours candidates with high name recognition. Since such elections would more than likely be for a prominent New Zealander (a Kenneth Keith or Cath Tizard), this would not be a bad thing for electing the head of state. The head of state elected under this option will serve for five years, and then the New Zealand public will nominate candidates for a new Head of state, and another election will be held.
With neither side holding a 75% majority of seats, Members of Parliament will have to elect a non-partisan figure.
A safe, democratic and practical Bill
The Bill brings together the two questions of a republic referendum. As we have seen, this approach to referendums with three options - to keep the status quo, to have a head of state elected by parliament or a head of state elected by popular vote. As we have seen, his approach has many advantages, and is a safe and practical way to amend our constitution. The advantages and disadvantages of each republican option have been explored, but in the end the Bill rightfully leaves the decision up to the people of New Zealand. Much unlike the status quo, this Bill will put the New Zealand public in the hot seat on deciding what sort of head of state they want to have in New Zealand, and, should the Bill pass, allow us all to keep having a say every five years.
What you can do
- Endorse the head of state bill here
- Write to your MP, local newspaper or call talk back about the Bill.
- Visit your local MP and urge them to support the Bill.
- Full text of the Bill (99Kb)
- One page Head of State Bill fact sheet (51Kb)
- Why Prince Charles should not be King - Opinion by Keith Locke on the Bill
- Blog posts on the Head of State Bill