Hands up those for a president of Aotearoa – Keith Locke op-ed published in Dominion Post

After a seven-year wait, my Head of State Referenda Bill, designed to let New Zealanders decide who should be their head of state, has finally been pulled from the members’ ballot.

I hope to win enough support in Parliament for my private member’s bill to send it through for select committee consideration.

It is about time we made a choice. New Zealand governments (both Labour and National) have dodged the issue, waiting for the Australian Government to move first.

There are strong arguments for change, not least that we are now a confident, independent nation in the South Pacific. Having a head of state in Britain does not match who we are in the 21st century.

If Parliament passes the bill, New Zealanders can choose whether they want to keep the monarch as our head of state, or move to some form of republic.

My bill provides a choice of three options – the status quo and two republican options. The most popular republican option is probably a directly elected president (selected by single transferable vote), but I have also included as an option a president selected by 75 per cent of Parliament. I wanted all the options on the table for people to debate before a vote.

If none of the three options gains 50 per cent support, the bill provides for a runoff referendum between the two leading options.

A legitimate fear is that moving to a president would disrupt our political system. For this reason, my two republican options envisage minimal change. In each case the president would have no more constitutional power than the Queen and governor-general currently have. The new president would not be able to override Parliament. They would be like the directly elected Irish president and the parliamentary-appointed German president, both of whom stand aside from day-to-day politics. They would not be like the American and French presidents, with their extensive executive powers.

Another concern people have is how a change might affect the Treaty of Waitangi, given that the Treaty was originally signed with the British Crown.

It should be noted that New Zealand became constitutionally independent when it implemented the Statute of Westminster in 1947, and since then our government has been responsible for all treaties, including the Treaty of Waitangi.

IN HER role as Queen of New Zealand (as distinct from her role as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), the Queen must take advice exclusively from the New Zealand Government. The British Government has no role in providing any advice.

This separation of royal roles has produced an interesting constitutional dilemma for British politicians trying to change the rules of royal succession, so that they don’t give preference to male heirs. If the British Parliament made such a change, and the New Zealand Parliament did not, the king or queen of New Zealand could end up being a different person from the king or queen of Britain.

Just to reassure New Zealanders on the Treaty issue, my bill includes a clause reading: “The rights conferred and obligations imposed by the Treaty of Waitangi continue as if this act had not been passed.”

Some New Zealanders worry that we might end up with the wrong person if we elect our head of state: perhaps a celebrity who doesn’t know much about politics or, at the other end of the scale, someone too politically aligned.

My view is that we can trust the people to elect a head of state acceptable to the nation, as Ireland has in election after election. Former Irish president Mary Robinson went on to do well as the UN high commissioner on human rights.

Under MMP, it is an advantage to have a more independent head of state, particularly during a political crisis such as when a government loses its parliamentary majority.

At present the governor-general lacks some independence, because he or she is appointed by the Government, has to take advice from the Government, and can be sacked by the Government. An elected head of state would not be so constrained from acting in an impartial manner.

How would New Zealanders vote if my bill passes and we have a referendum? Present polling shows the republican option getting less than 50 per cent.

However, my observation is that many New Zealanders haven’t yet fully engaged with the issues. When they do, I believe, many would opt for change.

Having a head of state on the other side of the world is now something of an anachronism. Of course we value our British heritage, but that is now only one component of our national identity.

We are increasingly a multicultural nation linked closely to our neighbours in Australia, the South Pacific and Asia.