Head of State Referenda Bill First Reading – Keith’s speeches

KEITH LOCKE (Green): I move, That the Head of State Referenda Bill be now read a first time. At the appropriate time I intend to move that the bill be considered by the Justice and Electoral Committee. This is an important moment in our constitutional history. It is the first time that Parliament has had before it a bill that would enable the people of New Zealand to decide whether to continue having a member of the British Royal family as a head of State or move to having a New Zealand head of State selected by democratic process.

The bill provides for a referenda process where in the first ballot New Zealanders would choose between three options: the present system, with the monarch remaining as our head of State; a New Zealand head of State determined by a 75 percent majority vote in Parliament; or a New Zealand head of State directly elected by the people via single transferable vote preferential system, where the successful candidate would be the first to reach 50 percent of the votes as the preferences are distributed. I have put all three options in the first ballot, so that New Zealanders can have a full discussion of them and make an informed choice. If none of the three options gets 50 percent in the first referendum, there would be a run-off referendum between the two leading options.

The two alternatives to the monarchy in my bill are the two main types of non-executive President we see around the world. The German President, for example, is selected by a committee from the Houses of Parliament, whereas the Irish President is directly elected. I want to make it clear that a change from the monarchy would not under my bill result in a change in the technical powers of our head of State. That said, a head of State selected by a democratic process might feel that little bit more independent of the Government of the day than the Governor-General, who is both appointed by the incumbent Government and can in effect be sacked by that very same Government.

One could call my bill a minimal change bill. We would not end up with an executive President like the American President. Some people have said “Well, why bother?” if any change from the monarch would be minimal in its constitutional input. The answer is that I am responding to a significant body of New Zealand opinion, particularly among those favouring a republic, and who want us to get on with a referenda process. They do not want us to simply tail the Aussies and wait until they have had another referendum. The main argument for a republic in both New Zealand and Australia is one of national identity. The question many New Zealanders ask is why should we have a head of State living on the other side of the world who is not a citizen of our country?

There is also concern about whether our head of State should remain a monarch, that is, somebody who inherits the job, rather than gets it through a democratic process. The rules of inheritance for the monarch in Britain are also controversial. At present, the succession rules discriminate against female heirs and Catholics in a way that is contrary to New Zealand’s human rights legislation. At present, no one can ascend to the throne and become queen or king of New Zealand if they are Catholic or even married to a Catholic. I stress that this debate is not about whether we like or dislike the Queen or any member of the Royal family. The present Queen has been competent in the performance of her duties, and she turns 84 this very day. I wish her a happy birthday.

However, the Queen is in a difficult position as head of New Zealand. Firstly, there is an inherent conflict of interest in the Queen being the head of State of two independent countries, Britain and New Zealand, who do not share the same foreign policy. For example, when Britain sent troops into Iraq, the Queen, as Queen of Great Britain, went down to the barracks in military dress to support the soldiers. That was in conflict with her role as Queen of New Zealand, a country that opposed that same war.

Secondly, it is very difficult for the Queen to keep tabs on developments in a country on the other side of the world that she is not able to visit very often. Sure, her representative, the Governor-General, lives here and is more hands on. But the Governor-General is not full independent, because he or she is appointed by the Government of the day and can be sacked by that same Government via a Governmental recommendation to that effect, which the Queen is in no position to refuse. Governors-General taking the Government’s side can be a problem, as in Canada 2 years ago when the Governor-General suspended Parliament for a time when the conservative Government was facing a no-confidence motion. Having a head of State who can operate with true independence is particularly important in our multiparty MMP system, with its constitutional complexities.

There is nervousness among some New Zealanders about changing from the present system. That is natural, but let me allay some of the fears. The first fear is that a change might affect our commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi. I do not believe that is the case. Long ago the responsibility for upholding the Crown commitments to the Treaty was devolved to the Parliament and Government of New Zealand. The king of queen of New Zealand is part of the mix but since 1947 that position has been constitutionally independent from the position of king of queen of Great Britain. The Queen, as Queen of New Zealand, takes advice solely from the Government of New Zealand. The agency that signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the British Crown, no longer constitutionally has any influence whatsoever on the domestic affairs of New Zealand, including commitments to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Another fear that people sometimes have is that if our head of State is the subject of direct election, we might end up with a pop star, a celebrity, or a political hack. I believe we should trust Kiwis to vote responsibly for such an important position. This is what happens overseas: Ireland has a directly elected President with minimal powers like those proposed in my bill. And the Irish people have elected appropriate heads of State, like the internationally renowned Mary Robinson, who went on to become the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.

Members may have noticed that the Attorney-General has issued a report that my bill offends the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act in one respect: by keeping the same electoral role for the first head of State referendum and the run-off referendum, my bill discriminates against those people who might turn 18 in the 6 months between the two referenda. I will propose to the select committee an amendment to correct that infringement.

I appeal to those MPs who are not sure right now whether they support such a referenda process to at least allow consideration of it by the Justice and Electoral Committee. Even though it is a conscience vote in the Green caucus, and we do not all see the issues the same way, all of the Green MPs will support this bill to the select committee to allow both MPs and the public to fully debate the important constitutional issues embodied in the bill. I do not see this as a left or right issue. People across the political spectrum and across the community have formerly endorsed my bill. They include Sir Robert Jones, Dr Ranginui Walker, Pita Mathias, C K Stead, Rod Hamill, and Terence O’Brien.

Whatever the fate of the bill tonight, the issues we are debating will not go away. The momentum for change and the momentum for a referendum on our head of State are building every year. It would be a tribute to this House if it faced up to the reality now and allowed this bill to go through to the Justice and Electoral Committee. Finally, I pay tribute to the many in the community who are keeping this debate alive, from the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand to Monarchy New Zealand, to many concerned citizens and legal experts. I will continue to work with them on these issues, whatever the result of the vote tonight. Thank you.

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In the House


KEITH LOCKE (Green): This has been a good discussion. I think that people have dealt with the issues in a range of ways, which shows that a debate on this question around my bill, particularly if it went to the select committee, would not be divisive. People have been listening to each other, and expressing a wide range of views.

There are different sections of society with regard to this issue. There is the 30 or 40 percent who regularly in the polls support a republic; the number goes up and down a bit. Then there is the category that Simon Bridges represents. He described himself as an agnostic who is not quite satisfied with the present situation. He said that it is a bit of an anachronism that the head of State should be there because of who his or her parents are. Those two blocks together, the agnostic dissatisfied people and the republicans, make up the majority of our community. The people who are monarchists are a very small proportion of society. If we are not satisfied with the present situation, as most people in this House are not, why not have discussion on my bill in a select committee?

As for the idea that somehow it is a distraction, we have a range of bills discussed in this House, and we do not get people standing up and saying this bill or that bill is a distraction. We discuss the bill on its merits and go forward. As for whether it is “minor” or not so important, well, this afternoon in this House we had a bill, which we all supported to select committee, on whether there should be secret ballots for unions engaging in industrial action. The unions said they already do that. Was that a minor bill or a major bill? We could say that it was quite minor if nobody could see much reason for it, but we supported its referral to the select committee and to have a discussion. Why not this bill here?

The question of the Treaty of Waitangi is a sort of a contradiction. Simon Bridges said he did not want this bill to go through to a select committee because it might bring up issues related to the Treaty of Waitangi. I understand that the National Party and the Māori Party are setting a body to discuss the constitutional nature of the Treaty of Waitangi. That will happen fairly soon. I ask why not this bill? What is the Māori Party scared of? I ask how this bill will undermine the Treaty of Waitangi, and why the Māori Party will not answer my point, which I have made very directly, that since 1947 there has been zero—and I repeat the word, zero—constitutional relationship between the Queen or King of Great Britain and the Treaty of Waitangi. That was severed in 1947, so how can discussing this issue undermine a relationship with the Treaty? Yes, the Crown is important, but the Crown is in this room. The Parliament and the Government are the Crown, and that is the relationship between Māori and the Crown. It is a relationship between Māori and what is represented in this room, which is Parliament and the Government. If the Māori Party refuses to accept that, and it seems the Māori Party is, strangely, refusing to accept that reality, it is actually undermining the Treaty, because it is not directing its relationship at the people responsible. The Queen of New Zealand is completely separate, constitutionally, from the Queen of Great Britain. It is totally separate. The Queen of New Zealand has to obey the advice of the Government of New Zealand; the Queen of Great Britain has absolutely no relationship to that constitutional relationship. The Māori Party is misleading Parliament by saying that the Treaty is in any way in danger. In fact, it is misdirecting people over the nature of the relationship.

As for the Simon Bridges fear that the new head of state might be more of an executive president, that is a pretty weak one, really. Clearly, although there might be slightly more independence of an independently elected, New Zealand-based president, the powers in my bill do not allow that person to override Parliament whatsoever. The real question is one of national identity. We are an independent, bicultural, multicultural nation in the South Pacific, not off the shores of Great Britain. We need an independent, New Zealand-based head of State selected by a democratic process. It is tragic that so many MPs in this House are not accepting that, and it is tragic that parties like the National Party, the Māori Party, and the ACT Party, in spite of the fact that all of them have in their ranks people who support this bill, have whipped those people to oppose it. There is a majority for my bill in this House. It has been denied by the party whips and by a fear to really face up to the issue. I think that is quite disgraceful.

The Head of State Referenda Bill was defeated 68-53.