The Queen's milestone: Time to look to the future

Queen Elizabeth has reached a milstone and is now the longest reigning British Head of State. Since 1952 she has also been New Zealand's Head of State.

Her reign is drawing to a close and will most likely end within the next ten years. King Charles will become our next head of state unless we are ready to make the transition to an independent New Zealand Head of State. Like his mother, Charles will be unable to do the job we need a head of state to do.

A head of state in a parliamentary democracy like New Zealand represents the continuity of the state and authority of constitutional law. The person in the role must act according to the constitutional conventions and powers given to them under New Zealand law. Theymust symbolise New Zealand both here and overseas.

The practical aspects of the role is carried out here by the Governor-General. It is not their role to participate in parliamentary politics or to assert their own view on matters to be decided by parliament or by voters. That is why it is very rare for any head of state to comment publically on any issue. They act as directed to by the government of the day. If they stray from this convention they are swiftly bought back into line.

Queen Elizabeth has veto powers in the UK and the extent to which she has used them or influenced policy behind the scenes is unknowable. The UK monarchy is shrouded in secrecy and resist attempts to make their roles more transparent.

Here in New Zealand we have had New Zealand appointed Governors-General since 1967. Sir Jerry Mateparae is our 10th. These New Zealanders have maintained the mana of the role and set the tone for all future office holders. That is why we are advocating changing to a head of state modelled on the role of Governor-General.

To make this happen will take time and it is important that we are ready to do so. New Zealand's head of state should be a New Zealander. They should be democratically selected and independent. They should act, as the Governor-General does, to safeguard our constitutional conventions but they should also be protected from any attemnpt by the Prime Minister to dismiss them. Only parliament, on behalf of the people, should have that power.

It is a straight-forward solution to the problems inherent in having a foreign head of state.


The Flag Panel's Final Four Flags

The final four flag designs to be voted on in the first referendum have been announced. Whether any of them will have enough support to become our new flag remains to be seen.

This week's Herald digi-poll showed the final result will be heavily dependent on what the alternative flag is. A quarter of voters will only tick change if they like the alternative on offer.

The flag debate so far has centred on six issues. Whether the current flag is appropriate, whether a new flag dishonours war dead, the reason for the change, the consultation process, the overall cost, and of course what counts as a good design.

The current flag is problematic. It has another country's flag on it and speaks of a time when there was no such thing as New Zealand citizenship. The fact that many New Zealanders have British heritage and that New Zealand was once a British colony is no reason to have their flag on ours. We will always have strong ties to the UK and we choosing a new flag will not diminish that.

The idea that changing the flag is disrespectful to our war dead is highly emotive but it is not a strong one. It is disappointing to see both sides of the debate using war graves to try and sway public opinion. It is an argument not worthy of the RSA.

The timing and reasons for the debate have been hotly debated. There was no full cross-party parliamentary support for the change process. It became caught up in party politics early on and there was a sense that, as a national identity issue, it was low on the list of priorities. Public support for change was not seen as high enough to warrant the cost. A smaller panel of flag and design experts was suggested instead of a 12 person 'cross-section' of New Zealanders. The use of two postal referendums was also criticised.

New Zealand Republic supports flag change if that is what Kiwi voters decide. The flag is about national identity and symbolism whereas we are focused far more on constitutional issues.  Our priority will always be achieving a New Zealand Head of State that works for all New Zealand. While this is, in part, an issue of national identity the role is primarily a constitutional and administrative office with specific powers and responsibilities.

It takes time to reform an important constiutional office like that of the Governor-General and we are advocating a calm, considered. and long-term process of change that will deliver successive worthy New Zealanders into the role.

The flag debate had to happen sooner or later and the National-led cabinet decided it was going to happen sooner.  It is important that New Zealand take the time to think about and discuss issues of national identity and constitutional reform. We are watching the debate with interest and drawing important lessons on how these types of changes unfold.

The debate now shifts toward the merits of each alternative design. We have no preference among the four designs. It is up to New Zealanders to decide whether any of them are enough of an improvement on our current flag.  

The long list of flags - from New Zealand

New Zealanders of all persuasions will be now be looking at the long list of potential flag designs to see if any designs catch their eye.  None of the flags feature the British flag although several feature either the Southern Cross or Matariki.  Several use the same red, white and blue colours of the current flag.

In an open letter to the public the flag consideration panel has stated "A potential new flag should unmistakably be from New Zealand and celebrate us as a progressive, inclusive nation that is connected to its environment, and has a sense of its past and a vision for its future".

If we apply this same ethos to the Head of State discussion it is expresses many of the central tenets of our campaign. We need a New Zealander in the role. Someone clearly from, and of, New Zealand. The role needs to be inclusive. It must carry on the traditions of the past but look to the future.

That is why we want to use the role and office Governor-General as the basis for change. That is why we want a New Zealander and only a New Zealander in the role. We want an effective and democratic Head of State. One that works for all of us.

The flag debate is part of a widening discussion around New Zealand's national identity and sense of nationhood that now includes the national anthem, the flag and New Zealand's Head of State.   For us the Head of State is the main prize but we also support a new flag if that is what New Zealanders decide. Time will tell if any of the 40 designs has what it takes to go the distance.

Momentum builds across Tasman

Bill Shorten, leader of the Australian Labor Party, has pledged his party's support for an Australian republic and an Australian Head of State within ten years. Speaking at the party's annual conference Mr Shorten said "Let us make this the first decade where our head of state is one of us". You can read more at the Sydney Morning Herald website.

The New Zealand Labour Party has already committed to holding a referendum on New Zealand's Head of State but have not committed to a timeline.

While this issue is important in both countries it is also important that it does not become associated with just one political party. Support for a New Zealand Head of State exists across the political spectrum and, as the current flag debate has demonstrated, it inhibits public debate if a constiutional or national identity issue becomes too closely associated with one party or one party's leader.

You can visit Australian Republic's website here.