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26 August 2010

A republic by evolution?  The call for an elected Governor-General

The Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand (RMANZ) has proposed that the Governor-General of New Zealand should henceforth be elected by a three quarters majority of parliament.

At present the Governor General is the British monarch's personal representative in New Zealand, appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

The post of Governor-General was established in the early colonial era because the British Crown wanted  to control the colonial administration through an official who was answerable to neither natives nor colonists.

Circumstances have changed.  Colonists and natives are still at odds with each other, but the British Crown no longer seeks to govern New  Zealand.  So the Governor-General is practically redundant.  He is retained to carry out the ceremonial duties of a head of state while serving as a permanent reminder of New Zealand's continuing association with the British crown, and creating the impression among Maori that they are not entirely subject to the democratic whims of the colonists..

The RMANZ proposal implies that the office of Governor General could, by stages, transform into the office of President of an independent republic.  It  is a gradualist approach to the establishment of a republic, "soft republicanism" to use the words of former monarchist Dr Michael Cullen, which would easily fit into the conventional New Zealand way of doing things.  No drama, no barricades and no blood in the streets.  If at some future time, it was deemed that the Governor-General-cum-President-cum-Tumuaki should be the representative of the nation, rather than the representative of the monarch, then New Zealanders could wake up one day to find that they were living in a fully fledged independent republic.

An unstated, and perhaps unintended, consequence would be to restore the status and political influence of the office of Governor-General, which has steadily waned over the past century.  For the first time in New Zealand history the Governor-General would have a claim to democratic credentials.

There would then be three officers of state elected by Parliament, namely the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister, and the Governor-General.  At present, the speaker can be elected by a simple majority, while the Prime Minister is appointed by the monarch on the basis of his assurance that he has the support of parliament, which means that he would secure election by parliament if an election was to take place.

If the Governor-General was elected on the vote of three quarters of the House of Representatives,  parliamentarians would find themselves in a dilemma.  The successful candidate would need to be acceptable to both major political parties. However if a popular Governor-General, elected by three quarters of parliament, fell out with a Prime Minister who only had the implied support of a bare majority, or even a minority, of parliamentarians, the democratic principle would then seem to favour the broadly elected Governor-General over the more narrowly "appointed" Prime Minister.  In such circumstances there might be a call to go all the way to a fully-fledged democratic republic, by abolishing the office of Prime Minister, and putting the executive in the hands of a presidential head of state elected  by the population at large.

A popular, democratically elected Governor-General, beholden to no political party, would constitute a latent threat to the parliamentary parties which are at the heart of the present system.  It is more probable that parliament would elect a Governor-General not unlike the present incumbent of the office - a person with no popular standing, no charisma, and few strongly held convictions.  An uninspiring individual who would not challenge the status quo and who would do nothing positive to set the future course of the nation, and who would do nothing, consciously or otherwise, to advance the republican cause.

There is another peculiarity of the New Zealand political system which would make parliament reluctant to entertain the idea of an elected Governor-General - even one elected by itself.  The realm of New Zealand is a democracy which feels obliged to assume the garb of autocracy, as seen in the method of appointment of the Prime Minister, the requirement that all members of parliament pledge allegiance to the monarch, and so on.  The purpose is to assert the principle of hereditary autocracy in opposition to the democratic principle which otherwise rules the political life of the country.

The fear of unfettered democracy, characteristic of most British colonies, is not unreasonable in the circumstances.  The New Zealand state was established by the British Crown whose imperial modus operandi was to maintain a delicate balance between competing ethnic groups, and a private corporation, the New Zealand Company, which explicitly set out to create a class-based social and economic order.  The founding principles of class and race were challenged in mid-twentieth century New Zealand by the  movements towards racial assimilation and social egalitarianism.  However from 1984 onwards the  privatisation of public wealth and the concurrent "Treaty of Waitangi settlement process" has breathed new life into the colonial ideals of racial separation and class distinction.  Once again New Zealand has become a nation divided by race and class.

Maori have been incorporated into the privatisation process.  This has not been done out of altruism - there is nothing altruistic about creating an economically privileged caste within Maoridom - but for purely pragmatic reasons.  If the state had excluded all Maori from the great grab for the national resources that went under the name of economic restructuring, then Maori would almost certainly have provided the heart of the resistance to "New Zealand Inc".

But even with Maori resistance effectively neutralised by the settlement process, a purely democratic state would still pose a particular threat to the stability of New Zealand society. Autocracy serves to temper the democratic principle of self-interest, and so tends to keep the dispossessed classes relatively pacified.  That is sufficient reason for the heirs and successors of the New Zealand Company to shy away from any significant, or even formal, moves away from monarchism.  At present parliamentarians like Hone Harawira and Sue Bradford must pay lip service to the sovereign authority of the British Crown, and not to the people of New Zealand whom they affect to represent.

Under a purely democratic political system Harawira and Bradford, to take just two by way of example, would be subject to no such constraints, and in the absence of a constitution which  defines the extent of and the limits to the rights of citizens, there would be even fewer reasons for either the ruling elite or the dispossessed classes to exercise civil restraint in their dealings with each other.  The monarchy, then, can fairly claims to be an instrument of social stability.

Thus there are a number of reasons, ranging from short-term self-interest to longer term concern for the stability of the regime, why Parliament will resist the RMANZ call to democratize the office of Governor-General.  It remains to be seen whether RMANZ can succeed in bringing about an independent  republic of Aotearoa through a series of incremental changes to the office of Governor-General, and it remains to be debated whether a republic that is not based on thorough going constitutional reform would be truly viable.

It remains my opinion that an independent republic will have to confront, and overcome the legacy of the New Zealand Company, and of British colonial rule in order to create a stable, harmonious and enduring social order.  To be specific, the republic will need to effectively abolish distinctions of race and class as the respective foundations of the political and economic order.