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The mood for a NZ republic is growing. Let’s do this better than the flag scrap

A new poll suggests appetite for a divorce from the monarchy is on the rise. But before we move to a referendum, there are a few things to get in place first, write Lewis Holden.

Two months ago the result of Britain’s EU referendum was fresh and I wrote that despite Britain’s apparent move away from Europe, the sentiment behind having a New Zealander as head of state hasn’t gone away.

It turns out I was wrong – in fact, Brexit and the failure of the flag referendum seem to have lit the fire. The latest poll by David Farrar’s Curia Market Research for New Zealand Republic has found that when asked what their preference was for New Zealand’s next head of state, only 34% of the 1,000 respondents wanted the next British monarch. It found 44% wanted a directly elected head of state and 15% wanted a New Zealander chosen by a two-thirds majority in parliament.

NZ's next head of state and some flowers. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

NZ’s next head of state and some flowers. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In total 59% of respondents support change. This is a 12% increase since last year’s poll asking the same question. Since then we have seen two royal visits, the Queen’s 90th, the Brexit vote, the flag debate, the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics. In the past fortnight outgoing Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae made it clear that he too thought it was inevitable that New Zealand will become a republic.

Of course it’s too early to say there’s a trend of majority support for change. This may be a rogue poll. But the numbers do seem to be heading that way. The Queen’s 90th has also reminded us that the popular monarch isn’t going to be on the throne forever. And that means we’re heading towards another referendum campaign. Think of the twists and turns of the flag referendum with all the criticisms of the process. But worse.

And if the Australian republic referendum and our own flag debate are anything to go by, without an absolutely overwhelming majority for an alternative, change won’t succeed. We should get used to singing God Save the King to Charles III and Queen Camilla. A bleak analysis, but looking deeper into the numbers it’s possible.

While direct election of a titular head of state works for fellow Westminster systems such as the Republic of Ireland, for it to succeed at a referendum New Zealanders will have to get past their dislike of politicians. The President of Ireland is more often than not a former politician. Beloved, sure – and arguably just like our Governor-General. Yet one of the great ironies of the Australian republic referendum was that while the public rejected a head of state chosen by parliament, voters clearly didn’t want a politician as head of state, which is a likely outcome from directly electing the role.

So, much like the flag debate, we have to get the process right to begin with and set the framework from the get go. If we want to go down the parliamentary election path, we could simply start choosing the Governor-General by a two-thirds majority. That would put in place a process to choose our actual head of State in future and mean any future referendum would simply carry that process over. If we wanted to go down the direct election path, that could be achieved at a later date, probably if we adopted an entrenched constitution (interestingly, this is pretty much what Ireland did).

Or, if we are committed to direct election, we clarify the powers of the Governor-General in law. This will involve a lot of legal wrangling, but is necessary if we have someone who potentially could claim their popular mandate overrides established constitutional conventions. We could also do as many other countries have done and ban sitting members of parliament, or even former members of parliament, from being head of state. That would have the advantage of preventing another Keith Holyoake type scenario, where a sitting Cabinet minister was promoted to Government House.

These sorts of minor changes become imperative as the head of state debate heats up. As we all learned from the flag debate, even if you’re not in favour of change, it’s more important that we do it right the first time rather than having to repeat the process ad nausea.

Lewis Holden is a former National candidate for Rimutaka, a former chair of New Zealand Republic, and current chair of Change the NZ Flag.

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