Bryce Edwards: Why New Zealand’s shift to a republic will be thwarted

The death of Queen Elizabeth and the ascension to the throne of King Charles has reignited the debate on whether New Zealand should become a republic. But despite strong arguments in favour of shifting to a republic, such a move is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

What will stop the republican movement from gaining ground and winning over a majority of New Zealanders to ditch the monarchy? The answer is Treaty politics.

The shift to a republic cannot be separated from this now-dominant aspect of New Zealand politics. To argue for a shift to a republic in 2022 is to enter into a debate about the role of the Treaty of Waitangi and the Māori language version, Te Tiriti O Waitangi, in our constitutional framework. These are very fraught debates, which have the potential to divide a nation.

A Republic is possible

Technically, a shift to a republic could be quite straightforward in terms of the Treaty. After all the British Crown no longer actually has Treaty responsibilities – those are now with the New Zealand Government. A move to a republic could, with a simple change of law, shift the formal Treaty partnership to the new head of state.

As Geoffrey Palmer said this week, “The fact that you get a new head of state wouldn’t affect at all the obligations in relation to the treaty… I know some people think it would, but it wouldn’t.”

There has long been a myth that the Treaty of Waitangi would be diminished by the demise of the monarchy in this country. Countless scholars show that this concern is not warranted. And surveys show that Māori are keener on becoming a republic than others.

New constitutional debates will be part of republicanism

However, constitutional debates have evolved significantly in this country, and now centre on the Treaty and indigenous rights. Witness recent governments’ incorporation of the Treaty into governing arrangements. The whole design of the Three Waters reform programme is centrally based on the role of iwi, for example.

The concept of co-governance has become an innovation that politicians are seeking to insert into more institutions. And many other proposals in the Labour Government’s He Puapua document will at some stage need to be discussed in terms of constitutional changes.

So any debate about shifting to a republic will automatically involve important consideration of how the Treaty and indigenous rights will be recognised and elevated in a new constitution. Māori aspirations will therefore reshape the republican movement – because in 2022 and onwards you can no longer deal with constitutional reform such as republicanism without a very serious debate about radical constitutional change involving tangata whenua.

Don McKinnon was reported this week as believing that “Māori would not agree to a republic without seeking concessions from the Government.” He told journalist Richard Harman, “Māori signed the treaty with the British Crown, and I would think there’d be a significant number of Māori who say, well, we’re not prepared to give up being a realm until we see far more equality within New Zealand today.” Similarly, law professor Andrew Geddis is quoted today saying a shift to a republic would require some sort of “reconceptualisation of Te Tiriti”.

The big republican debate will therefore be about placing the Treaty at the centre of the new constitution. And this could involve significant changes to the whole political system, including Parliament.

As political commentator and former MP Liz Gordon writes this week, “Māori will, if the matter arises, be asking for significantly more say in the governance of the nation. The Treaty of Waitangi, itself a kind of balance of powers, will need to be rewritten to provide shared kawanatanga and a new model of tino rangatiratanga.” And she is optimistic that this can be achieved, especially if such a model arises from Te Ao Māori itself: “if Māori can come together and propose a form of leadership that shares esteem and powers and takes us forward, such proposals would be unstoppable.”

For some in the republican movement these discussions about the role of the Treaty and Māori will be seen as a barrier to change, as debates that might once have simply been about whether New Zealand deserves to have a head of state determined by birth in aristocratic family in a far-off country, will instead be about more charged ethnicity and race issues.

Republicanism as a culture war

In this new environment, it might prove more difficult to win over support for a republic. While many New Zealanders, both Māori and pakeha, will be keen on ditching King Charles as our head of state, they might wince at the proposals for who replaces him, and what comes with that republicanism.

Although the current leaders of the Labour and National parties might profess to be republicans, they will run a mile from being associated with culture wars. Both Jacinda Ardern and Christopher Luxon will be keen to distances themselves from the fallout from what could be an ugly and divisive debate on New Zealand’s constitutional future. This isn’t simply about being cowardly and unwilling to front something they believe in, it’s more profound than that – not wanting to see the country descend into acrimonious debate with the potential to divide even their own parties and supporters.

When it comes down to it, there’s probably only a small proportion of New Zealand society who are fervent monarchists or republicans. People generally don’t feel that strongly about who our head of state is. In fact, a recent survey showed that only 18% of the public even know who occupies this position. But a much larger proportion of society cares about issues of racial injustice and radical reforms. It’s no surprise that polls show a large majority of New Zealanders don’t support the Government’s Three Waters reforms – probably largely due to the perception that they are a race-based reform giving large elements of control to unelected iwi.

Should the republican movement pursue “minimalist republicanism” or “Treaty republicanism”?

If New Zealand moves to a republic, there are many elements of a new constitution that might be easily agreed upon. The new head of state might be given a title such as Rangatira or Ariki.

But the constitutional reforms that could go along with the transition might be more radical. Therefore, the New Zealand Republican Movement has something of a dilemma in how it pursues change.

Does it adopt a “minimalist republican” reform movement, in which basic change is advocated – simply making the current office of Governor General the new head of state, with a reformed Parliamentary appointment process? Or does it look to more widespread constitutional reform, especially that which seeks to fulfill the aspirations of those demanding a more Treaty-based political system.

The former strategy might be more successful in terms of achieving a republic. The latter is more in touch with the Zeitgeist and will help get groups such as iwi leaders, Te Pati Māori and the Greens on side. But this option also threatens to open a real can of worms.

The republican debates we had in the 1980s and 1990s are long over. Back then it was about “minimalist republicanism” – just getting rid of the monarchy. It’s now about “Treaty-based republicanism”.

Most commentators haven’t caught up with this new reality. Much of the constitutional debate over the last few days has been about whether our new head of state would be a president, elected or appointed by Parliament, and how to avoid political capture of the new role.

These are all good discussions to have. But in the end, they miss the bigger questions – which will be around the Treaty, and what role a new republic would have for Māori, and how we embody a multi-ethnic society in constitutional arrangements.

There has been a sense in which New Zealand has been sleepwalking towards a republic, or that we are already a “de facto republic”. Many feel that a final shift to make a republic official is just a matter of launching a new campaign, referendum, or piece of legislation. But the recent Māori political and constitutional renaissance changes all of that. Republicans will have to grapple with demands for more than just a change of a law to replace the King with the Governor General.

For a good illustration of this change, it’s worth noting that in 2017 Te Pati Māori strongly opposed New Zealand becoming a republic but, in 2022, they are leading the charge. This year they have a new policy: “Te Pāti Māori are calling to remove the British royal family as head of state, and move Aotearoa to a Te Tiriti o Waitangi based nation.” And as part of this, they want bigger republican changes, including a Māori Parliament which would operate alongside the present one.

Will this version of republicanism be a goer? Probably not for quite a while yet.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project. This article was originally published here.