The Republic Debate

Mike Moore writes in the Herald today on why NZ should become a republic, and the wider issue of having a constitution. He refers to the recent changes to the electoral laws, without bipartisan support, as an example of the status quo which he labels:

The present direction is visionless, dangerously ad hoc, short-term, and confusing. Democracy is about who runs the country. A constitution is about the limits of Government.

Constitutional change ought not to be rushed or hurried, and should only be entered into after deliberate, detailed and sober consideration, consultation and reflection.

Constitutional changes, which would inevitably include a move to a republic, would set some limits on Parliament and Government.  I am all in favour of that. Under the status quo the PM effectively appoints the Head of State (GG) unilaterally, and can sack the Head of State whenever they feel like it.

Moore concludes by saying:

New Zealand’s system is not in a desperate state of disrepute or disrepair – it’s not broken. But it could be further damaged by incremental changes.

This will be very difficult to navigate and avoid capture by entrenched interests. But we can, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “still appeal to the better angels of our nature”.

Alas, without a formal process, we risk becoming a “banana republic” – without the bananas.

Now John Armstrong says Moore has chosen the wrong time, being election year, for such a debate:

If Mike Moore wants a debate on the wisdom of New Zealand becoming a republic or having a written constitution, he has chosen about the worst possible time to try to ignite one.

While the former Labour leader may cite the ad hoc introduction of new election finance rules as reason enough for a wide-ranging constitutional debate, there will be a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of most politicians to trample in what amounts to a political “no-go” area in election year.

However the NZ Herald editorial is more supportive:

Ten years ago, there appeared no particular yearning for change. Jim Bolger, the only politician of significance to have spoken in favour of a republic, probably did the cause no good by trying to force his own personal preferences on a country that showed little inclination to believe its time had come. It remains to be seen if Mr Moore’s concern, and warning of the danger of further seemingly modest incremental change, resonate sufficiently to encourage a change of heart.

Until now, New Zealanders have been content to allow matters to evolve in a manner far more natural than one embracing constitutional conventions and the like. If Mr Moore’s initiative gains traction, it will suggest an interest in more vision-based politics. It will also confirm that people sense, currently, the bigger picture is being overlooked. Either way, Mr Moore should be commended for raising this issue, especially in an election year. He is also right to note the importance of a planned approach. The process is, as he says, almost as important as the result.

The process is incredibly important.  Nothing would be worse than people feeling they are cut of the debate, and that the “elite” are dictating as to what should happen.

The dangers of parliamentary supremacy are not insignificant.  The power of constitutional conventions have been shown to be near meaningless to a Government bent on “utu”.  Muldoon in 1984 first showed us how fragile they were.  It was only the honour of people like Jim McLay which stopped that from becoming a crisis.  And we won’t always be so lucky.

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