Sunday, October 18, 2009

Who will rule them all?

Last week a bill was drawn from the members’ ballot that may end up having far-reaching implications—if the government doesn’t kill it off, of course. If the Government does permit it to go forward, the bill could lead to New Zealand becoming a republic.

First, it’s necessary to explain a bit of how the legislative process works in New Zealand: The government of the day drafts bills for Parliament to consider, and determines the order in which they’ll be taken up. Most of these are certain to be passed by Parliament and become law, because the government and its coalition partners have more MPs than the Opposition and other parties combined.

Members of Parliament who are not Government Ministers can put forward bills, called Members’ Bills (or “Private Members’ Bills”). There are always more of these bills proposed than can be considered by Parliament, so a ballot is held to draw a bill Parliament will consider.

A Members’ Bills seldom become law unless the Government backs it or if they allow it to be voted on through a conscience vote (which means individual MPs are permitted to vote however they want, regardless of the official position of the Party Caucus of the main party of Government. It’s important to understand this because the odds against any Members’ Bill are long.

This past Wednesday, Green Party MP Keith Locke’s Head of State Referenda Bill (92-1) was drawn on the ballot. Locke has had this on the ballot since at least 2001. The bill proposes that two referenda be held asking voters about what they want for the Head of State of New Zealand. In the first referendum, voters would select one of three options:

1. I vote for the sovereign to continue as New Zealand's Head of State.
2. I vote for a Head of State to be appointed by a vote of at least 75% of the House of Representatives.
3. I vote for a Head of State to be directly elected by the people.

If one of the options received a majority of votes, it would win. However, if no option received a majority, the two options receiving the highest votes would go to a final binding referendum. In that case, the final options would probably be number one and either 2 or 3—but my bet is that this won’t happen.

The most likely scenario is that the Government will say there are far too many important issues to be dealt with before such fundamental constitutional change is considered, especially as the Government plans to hold a referendum on New Zealand’s way of electing Parliament and allocating Members. The Government will most likely kill the bill quickly.

Which is a shame: While many New Zealanders want the country to be a republic, plenty of others don’t. Both sides are guessing about what New Zealanders want, and it might be nice to find out what it is that voters really want. Asking the people of New Zealand what they want, rather than deciding for them—what an amazingly novel idea! (yes, I'm being sarcastic…)

I believe that a republic for New Zealand is inevitable. I just don’t think it’s likely that this will be the time it’ll happen.


Reed said...

I'm surprised to find myself thinking the Queen should remain head of state. (I wouldn't have 2 1/2 yrs ago when I first arrived in NZ, seemed quaint, and is even.)

It's probably a reaction against how divisive the president and selection process is in the US (still even now that we have a non-insane one). But here in NZ it seems that since we don't have to deal with picking a head of state that there's political / social energy to spend on things that really matter.

Arthur Schenck said...

As a confirmed republican (lowercase "r", thank you), I don't like the very idea of a hereditary head of state. But there's also no reason the NZ Head of State would have to be anything like a US president.

NZ's system of government places all power in Parliament, which technically derives its authority from the sovereign. Since the monarch is a figurehead, option 2 in the first referendum question kind of keeps things as they are (since Parliament chooses the figurehead's representative, the Governor General). Since no term of office is listed, the HoS could even be a lifetime appointment—so it could even be an elected monarch, like the Holy Roman Empire or—gasp!—the Vatican

The point is, becoming a republic doesn't require abandoning our Westminster-style government—it need only mean replacing a foreign monarch with a New Zealander.

Still, it's nothing I'm gonna go to the barricades over!!