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Dominion: The First Step
2007 marked one hundred years since New Zealand took the first step towards becoming a republic, by declaring itself a dominion within the British Empire.
There are obvious parallels between gaining Dominion status and becoming a republic. A republic is a simple but important change like the Dominion was. For this reason, the Republican Movement will make the Dominion a theme for 2007 and beyond.
Cartoon by Trevor Lloyd, 1907, featuring Sir Joseph Ward; "I think I would look better without it." Click for larger image.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Reference No: C-109-023
Reference No: C-109-023
Dominion status meant that New Zealand's Governor (later renamed Governor-General in 1917) was to follow the advice of the New Zealand Government, rather than the Colonial Office in London. An Imperial Conference confirmed this in 1926. However, it wasn't until sixty years later that we had a New Zealander as representative of our Head of state in the office of Governor-General. In 1947 we continued the process by adopting the Statute of Westminster, and became a realm in our own right. Like the move to a republic, the move to Dominion status and later realm changed in a subtle way New Zealand's constitutional framework.
The Prime Minister at the time, Sir Joseph Ward, was lampooned by the media for what they saw as an attempt to break New Zealand's links with the British Empire, but he correctly said that the declaration would '... have no other effect than that of doing the country good'. Links to the Empire remained strong, and Dominion Day - 26 September - became a focal point for New Zealanders to celebrate the maturity of our nation.
The Dominion debate
IN JULY 1907 the dominion debate was raging in our parliament. The Prime Minister squared off with the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Massey. There are a number of parallels between the arguments used by supporters of dominion status and supporters of a republic, and vice versa for the opponents of dominion status and opponents of a republic.
Sir Joseph Ward argued that dominion status would raise our profile within the British Empire - just as the Republican Movement has argued that New Zealand needs to express its nationhood to the world. A number of events had shaped this view - most importantly, Australia had become a federation, leaving New Zealand as a colony. The parallel with our contemporary context is that our economic links to Britain have greatly decreased since the early 1970s, and New Zealand has been forced to seek alternative markets, mainly in Asia.
Ward's second claim was that Dominion status would lift New Zealand out of a "groove". This is much the same as the Republican Movement's view that a republic will signal New Zealand's independence and maturity to the world. Ward was right - a great number of New Zealand businesses and organisations quickly took up the name "Dominion" - famously, The Dominion newspaper and Dominion Breweries (DB) - and for its first five years, "Dominion Day" was a popular source of national mythology. The use of Dominion Day as a touch point for this mythology only died off when Massey became Prime Minister, and chose to emphasise ANZAC Day instead.
Bill Massey's opening gambit in the dominion debate was that the issue wasn't worth his time to consider. This is a self-interested argument: if you oppose something, it's very easy to say it's not an issue worth debating - supporters of the current status quo do it all the time - while giving no justification other than "there's nothing in it". Certainly, the move to a republic is a bigger - and arguably more important - change than the move to Dominion was. However, the parallel is clear: claiming nothing will change implies that the issue isn't worth the time to debate. And then, without any sense of irony, supporters of the status quo state that the sky will fall in should any change be made. This is a inherently silly position - any arguments for change by supporters of the status quo (such as "the Governor-General's role needs an update") is painted into a corner. The real issue is over the benefits of change, not the extent of change - and that is what should be debated.
Opponents of a dominion stated that the change in status would cost New Zealand greatly, and made erroneous comparisons between the Dominion of Canada and New Zealand. This is almost exactly the same as comparisons made by the Monarchist League - who claim "a republic is more expensive" by comparing the cost of the Presidency of the United States to New Zealand. This is a pointless and erroneous comparison.
Massey's final attack on Ward speaks volumes: "I have no doubt he would prefer to be the Prime Minister of the Dominion of New Zealand instead of the Premier of the Colony of New Zealand, and it seems to me that that is all there is in it." This is much like the "We don't want President Clark!" argument: attack a protagonist of change as self-interested and power-seeking, and tag on popular antipathy for the political process and politicians.
Massey's implication - particularly on the fact that under a Dominion the office of Governor was downgraded to that of Governor-General (which under the Letters Patent 1917 was much less powerful than the Governor was - even though most of these powers would never have been used) - was that the Prime Minister would be all-powerful. New Zealand republicans have all seen this argument before. And yet one of the benefits of a republic is the restricting of the parliamentary executive - as it is in every other parliamentary republic - in a subtle but effective way.
- follow the links to key information below to find out more;
- join the Republican Movement;
- send a letter to the editor or call talkback to push the issue (refer to the Republican Movement to help us spread the message).
- MEDIA RELEASE: One hundred years since first step to a republic
- MEDIA RELEASE: Debate to mark dominion centenary