- The Debate
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This page presents the key facts about republicanism in New Zealand, and the questions we're often asked. If you have a question that isn't answered here, please contact us and we will try to include it in the future.
- What is a republic?
- What is a head of state?
- What are the different kinds of republics?
- What is a monarchy?
- What are the different types of monarchy?
- Is New Zealand a monarchy or a republic?
- Who is New Zealand's head of state?
- How is New Zealand's head of state chosen?
- What does the head of state do?
- Who is the Governor-General?
- How is New Zealand's Governor-General chosen?
- What does the Governor-General do?
- Is the Governor-General New Zealand's head of state?
- What powers does the Queen or Governor-General have?
- What are constitutional conventions?
- What are the reserve powers?
- Dismissing the Prime Minister
- Can the Queen stop the dismissal of the Governor-General?
- Can the Governor-General refuse to sign a Bill into law?
- When would the reserve powers be used?
- Why does New Zealand have a head of state if the Government makes all the decisions?
- What will happen to coins and banknotes?
- What about armed forces names and the national anthems?
- Will we have to change our flag?
- Will we have to leave the Commonwealth?
- Aren't republics unstable?
- How will it affect the Treaty of Waitangi?
- What will be the difference between a republic and a monarchy?
A republic is a country where the supreme power of the state is dependent on the consent of the citizens it governs. The word republic is derived from the Latin res publica, which means "public thing".
In a republic it is commonly said that political power operates only with the ongoing consent of the people. This is usually expressed through elections. The citizens elect representatives who are in turn responsible to the citizens who have elected them.
The majority of the world's nations are republics. Not all of them are fully democratic, although two-thirds of fully democratic countries are republics. In a republic the head of state is not a hereditary leader. The head of state is either directly elected or is appointed by an elected assembly. They are most often called the president.Top of the page
Each nation-state appoints or elects a person as its head of state, or shares the position amongst a number of people. Some share their head of state with other countries (such as Andorra). This important office represents the state's historical claim to power and legitimacy within the nation.
Heads of state are given various titles according to whether a country is a republic or a monarchy. Examples include President, Captain-Regent, King, Queen, Emperor, and Emir.
In any country, the state is made up of various legal and political institutions such as a legislative body, the executive and the judiciary. The office of head of state represents the state's ongoing existence as the nation's legitimate political authority.
In most cases one person holds the position of head of state. They are given certain political powers according to a country’s constitutional rules. Some have executive powers, such as the power to control government policy. Others have constitutional powers, such as the power to appoint and dismiss government officials. Some countries have a purely ceremonial head of state. Others have a specific constitutional role.
Some carry out the functions of running the government and work as the head of a government. It all depends on the system chosen for that country.
Each individual republic is different according to a nation's history and traditions. They can all be grouped according to the powers of the head of state and how he or she is appointed. It is important not to confuse the different types of republic. Broadly speaking there are three types of republics: parliamentary republics, presidential republics and semi-presidential republics.
A monarchy is a state where the supreme power is assigned to one individual by birthright. They hold the position for life, unless they abdicate. The monarch, as king or queen, is a member of the nation's royal family. There are rules of succession to decide who the next head of state will be. The royal family are often linked to a particular religion, sometimes an official state religion, and claim a divine right to rule.
Monarchies often have historical precedents and traditions that predate the modern nation-state and are a link to the nation prior to the development of the modern state. There are currently 44 monarchies in the world.
Monarchies can also be grouped according to the powers of their monarch, and how the monarch is chosen or appointed. Again it is important not to confuse the different types. There are three types of monarchy: constitutional, absolute and sub-national.
New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is Queen Elizabeth II who lives in Great Britain. Unless the Monarch is actually visiting New Zealand, the Governor-General, a person appointed by the Prime Minister, acts as head of state. However, due to New Zealand's constitutional arrangements government of New Zealand functions much like a parliamentary republic.
New Zealand's head of State is the Queen of New Zealand - who is also Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea and ten other Commonwealth states.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (the Queen) has been New Zealand's head of state since 1952. Under New Zealand law she is referred to as the Queen of New Zealand and is constitutionally known as "the Sovereign". The Queen is head of state of 16 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. She is separately the Head of the Commonwealth.
Under the current constitutional arrangements, to become head of state you must be a member of the British Royal family. When the Monarch dies or abdicates, a successor is appointed according to law. Under the Act of Settlement 1701 the Monarch's oldest son, provided he is not a Roman Catholic, becomes the new Monarch. If there is no son then the oldest daughter is chosen. The Monarch must always be a member of the Church of England.
In 1947, New Zealand's Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act making New Zealand legally independent. The British Monarch remained New Zealand's head of state. The Queen is legally the "Queen of New Zealand" independent of her role as Queen of Great Britain.
Under the Constitution Act 1986, New Zealand's head of state is defined as the "Sovereign in right of New Zealand", and the "Governor-General appointed by the Sovereign is the Sovereign's representative in New Zealand".
As head of state, the Queen has a constitutional, ceremonial and community role. The Queen has visited New Zealand ten times in the last 56 years and has spent a total of twenty weeks in New Zealand during her lifetime. When the Queen or a member of the Royal family is in New Zealand, he or she performs a number of public duties. Members of the Royal family are patrons to several charities and organisations. As the Queen is rarely in New Zealand, the Governor-General carries out the role of head of state in the Queen's absence.
Former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright gives a speech. The Governor-General is not New Zealand's head of state - the Queen is.
Sir Jerry Mateparae is New Zealand’s current Governor-General. He was appointed in 2011. His term is due to end, by convention, in 2016. Sir Jerry is Governor-General of the Realm of New Zealand, which is defined as New Zealand together with its territories and associated states the Ross Dependency, the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue.
The Governor-General is appointed by the Monarch on the exclusive advice of the Prime Minister of the day. While the Prime Minister chooses the Governor-General, there is usually some consultation amongst Cabinet members, and "consultation" with the Leader of the Opposition. There have been a number of instances where the Leader of the Opposition was not informed until after the decision was made.
In the past, Governors-General were usually members of the British aristocracy. From 1967, the Governor-General has been a New Zealander. The Governor-General’s term in office is undefined, but usually lasts for six years.
The Governor-General performs all the duties of a head of state - here Dame Silvia Cartwright signs a Bill into law.
The Governor-General carries out all of the Queen’s constitutional and ceremonial functions as head of state in New Zealand and abroad. He or she is regarded as having all the same powers as the Sovereign. As such, the Governor-General is an acting or de-facto head of state. Along with the specific constitutional duties, as set out below, the Governor-General performs all the normal functions of the head of state. They represent New Zealand overseas, open New Zealand's embassies, greet foreign dignitaries and hand out awards.
The Governor-General and members of the House of Representatives make up Parliament. The Governor-General oversees meetings of the Executive Council. This is the formal meeting of Cabinet, where Government Ministers present regulations and appointments for approval and signature. At the direction of Ministers, the Governor-General appoints members of the judiciary (Judges), Justices of the Peace and other public officers. The Governor-General also signs the warrants for Royal Commissions of Inquiry and may exercise the Royal prerogative of mercy.
The Governor-General is not New Zealand’s head of state, yet they act as New Zealand’s head of state. When the Governor-General represents New Zealand overseas, as they are increasingly being asked to do, they are treated in a manner similar to a head of state. Because of this, some argue that New Zealand is already a "de facto republic", with the Governor-General as the de facto head of state.
The Governor-General has a specific role and, by convention, acts on the advice of Government ministers. In effect, the actual legal powers of the Monarch or the Governor-General are vague. Governors-General are rarely informed of the Government's actions unless it involves them. Almost all Governors-General have complained of not being informed of decisions made by Governments. During the term of David Lange's Labour Government, Sir Paul Reeves wrote letters to the Queen complaining about the lack of information from the Government. However, Sir Paul did not get any direct responses from the Queen. As a result of Governors-General not being informed by Governments, there have been public statements made which contradict Government policies.
Under the Constitution Act 1986 the Governor-General has all the "powers conferred" on them by law. The Constitution Act refers to the Letters Patent 1983, a law issued as a Royal decree (rather than coming from Parliament) that creates the office of the Governor-General and the Executive Council of Ministers that advises them. The Letters Patent is officially from the Monarch, but they are actually written by the Prime Minister and Executive Council, for the Monarch to sign.
The Letters Patent do not spell out the powers of the head of state either. Their powers are defined by constitutional conventions, most of which are found in the Cabinet Manual. The Cabinet Manual is a manual published by the Cabinet Office that records the constitutional conventions, procedures, and rules of Cabinet.
Constitutional conventions are informal procedures and protocols that guide politicians in how they should exercise power. The most important constitutional convention is the convention of responsible government: "the Queen reigns, but the government rules, so long as they have the support of Parliament".
The Queen reigns, but the government rules...
Government business is conducted in the name of the Sovereign, because executive power is vested in them. However, the Cabinet rules because the head of state always does what they are ‘advised’ to do. The Prime Minister and their Cabinet "advises" the Governor-General to make regulations, fire ministers, or call elections. In practice this means the Sovereign or Governor-General almost always does what the politicians want.
...so long as they have the support of Parliament
To become Prime Minister an MP needs the support of Parliament to form a government. They need to lead the party or coalition of parties that has a majority of seats in Parliament. This usually happens after a general election. Following a general election, Parliament holds a vote of confidence in the government. If there is a successful vote of no confidence, the convention requires the government and Prime Minister to resign. The Governor-General only has to listen to the Prime Minister when the Prime Minister has the support of the Parliament. Otherwise, it is up to the Governor-General’s discretion. When the Governor-General acts on this discretion, they use what are called "reserve powers".
Usually Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister, carries out the day-to-day business of government. The Governor-General does what they are told to do by the Cabinet and Prime Minister. In rare circumstances the Governor-General may act without (or even against) the advice of the Prime Minister. As we saw above, this only happens when the Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence — that is, they lose the right to lead the government and give advice to the Governor-General.
The Governor-General's reserve powers include the powers to:
- Dissolve or postpone Parliament and call an early election;
- Dismiss the Prime Minister and their Cabinet and appoint someone else (who may command the support of the House and form an alternative government); and
- Refuse to grant the Royal assent to a Bill of Parliament.
The use of each of these powers is covered below. There may also be other circumstances when the Governor-General acts even when the Prime Minister still has the confidence of Parliament. This was evident in Australia in 1975, as outlined below. The circumstances where such actions are taken are very rare and very controversial.
The use of the reserve powers cannot be challenged in the courts, and are said to be "non-justiciable". In a republic executive actions can usually be challenged in court.
In rare circumstances, the Governor-General can dismiss the Prime Minister. The Governor-General may dismiss the Prime Minister if they do not have the support of Parliament, or if they are about to lose it. Dismissal is not an issue most of the time, but when it comes to constitutional crises it can be controversial. If the end result is that the Governor-General cannot act as a proper check on the power of the Prime Minister, their only recourse is to fire the Prime Minister, or risk getting fired or forced to resign themselves.
In Australia, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed in 1975 under very unusual circumstances. It occurred when a dispute arose between the upper and lower houses of the Australian Parliament. The issue in Australia was whether the Government of the day had the ability to govern, with the possibility that the Australian Senate (the upper house) would block the federal budget. At that stage the Senate was controlled by the Opposition. Whitlam wanted to call a half-senate election so his party could gain a majority in the Senate.
Whitlam pointed out to the Governor-General Sir John Kerr that he could dismiss him as Governor-General if he did not do what he wanted. In response Kerr sacked Whitlam and appointed the Opposition leader as Prime Minister, who promptly advised the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Kerr took the most extreme course of action: he dismissed a majority government that had not actually lost a vote of confidence.
It has been suggested that the Queen would refuse to remove the Governor-General should a Prime Minister attempt to have them dismissed. This is highly unlikely, as the Queen knows that any political intervention, particularly in the democratic process, exposes the Monarchy to controversy. For this reason, there have been almost no interventions by the Queen in the politics of her Commonwealth realms.
Secondly, should the Prime Minister advise the Queen to dismiss the Governor-General immediately, the Sovereign would be forced to act, as the Queen is bound by constitutional convention. If the Queen did intervene, it would contradict the primary argument made for the Monarchy, which it is that the Sovereign and Governor-General are "above politics".
Within the Commonwealth, there are precedents where the Prime Minister has cut the Governor-General's term short — as happened in Papua New Guinea and the Irish Free State.
The extent of this reserve power is a contentious subject for constitutional lawyers. Many – such as former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer — argue that the Governor-General has no power to refuse the Royal assent to legislation (that is, they cannot refuse to sign an act of Parliament into law, that would cause a political crisis). Others say leeway exists for the Governor-General to say no where democracy is under threat. British constitutional writer Walter Bagehot famously said that if the Monarch were advised to sign his or her own death warrant, they would be "constitutionally obliged to do so". No British Monarch has refused Royal assent in 300 years – since the time of Queen Anne. No Governor-General in New Zealand has ever refused to sign a bill into law.
In other Commonwealth realms such as Canada and Australia, Royal assent has been withdrawn after the fact. In Australia, this was due to a procedural error. In Canada, the Bill was ruled unconstitutional by the Canadian Supreme Court.
There is much academic debate over when the reserve powers would be used. While the Governor-General appears to have immense powers to make and unmake Governments, they cannot really use them. This is because so long as they have a majority in the House, the Prime Minister can dismiss and replace the Governor-General at any time. The Prime Minister has the sole right to advise the Queen on appointments to the office.
Because the Governor-General has no defined term in office, and "...shall hold office during Our [the Queen's] pleasure", the Prime Minister can cut short the Governor-General's term in office. This happened in the Irish Free State in 1932 and Papua New Guinea in 1991, but has never happened in New Zealand. In all of these examples, the Governors-General in question resigned instead of being removed from office.
The British Monarchy is the remnant of an absolute monarchy: a system of authority the British Parliament gradually replaced. Great Britain was once an absolute monarchy, where the head of state also had executive power. But over hundreds of years, power has slowly been taken away from the Monarch, and handed to Parliament. In turn, the position of head of government (known as the Prime Minister) has evolved from the leader of the elected legislature.
Today, the position of head of state represents the continuity of the state over and above any changes in the Government. In a parliamentary system keeping the roles of head of state and head of government separate is important. In a parliamentary republic they would be carried out by an elected head of state. This elected head of state would be accountable to the public in a way that the Governor-General is not.
At present New Zealand has an absentee head of state. The Monarch’s representative, the Governor-General, does everything New Zealanders would expect the Monarch do if she or he were actually living in New Zealand. The Prime Minister, however, appoints, and can dismiss, the Governor-General, making them useless in the event of any constitutional crises. These points form the basis of the arguments against the monarchy, and in favour of becoming a republic.
An old New Zealand coin featuring King Emperor George VI. When the monarch changes, our coins need to - this would be no different in a move to a republic.
Only the $20 note in New Zealand has a portrait of the Queen on it (although, in December 2000 the Reserve Bank held a survey, where 52% of respondents said the Queen's picture should be replaced with a New Zealander - New Zealand Herald). The $5, $10, $50 and $100 notes already have pictures of prominent and high achieving New Zealanders. When we become a republic the $20 note can also honour the contribution of New Zealanders to their country. Because banknotes are less hard wearing than coins this transition will be achieved more quickly than for coins.
At present the armed forces in New Zealand swear allegiance to the Queen as part of their commitment to defend New Zealand. If New Zealand becomes a republic the armed forces commitment to defend New Zealand will remain, however sworn allegiance to the Queen will be removed. There is no evidence that such allegiance prevents instability.
The names of some of the branches of New Zealand's military may have to change, but that is a matter for the military.
New Zealand's current flag.
It is not necessary for New Zealand to change its flag when it becomes a republic. Hawaii still has its colonial era flag, which includes the British Union flag, despite being a state of the US. The New Zealand flag is defined in legislation by the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Amendment Act 1981, in order to change the flag that statute would have to be amended.
Flag of the Commonwealth of Nations
No. The majority of members of the Commonwealth (30 of 51) are republics. Fifteen have Governor-Generals, like New Zealand. The remaining seven have their own local monarchies, including the United Kingdom.
India was the first republic to become a member of the Commonwealth. Following independence in 1947, India became a republic in 1949. The Irish Free State became the Republic of Ireland in that year as well, however because the Commonwealth rules at the time said republics could not join, Ireland was excluded. Later that year the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth agreed to allow republican members of the Commonwealth, provided that they accepted the King of the United Kingdom as the Head of the Commonwealth.
The Queen is recognised as the Head of the Commonwealth. This position, however, is completely symbolic and has absolutely no domestic constitutional significance. Because of this, there is no inconsistency between New Zealand seeking to have its own head of State as a republic whilst recognising the Queen as symbolic Head of the Commonwealth.
New Zealand would still participate in the Commonwealth Games.
See our issue page on Commonwealth membership for more information.
The political stability of a country is not dependent on whether it is a republic or monarchy. Social and economic conditions, and the depth of commitment to democracy are much more important in maintaining political stability. Examples of political stability or instability can be found in republics and monarchies.
Thailand is a monarchy, but has a history of tenuous democratically elected governments and military coups. Japan is a monarchy, and has been very politically stable since instituting democratic government in the 1950s. The constitutional monarchy in Italy could not prevent Mussolini coming to power in the 1920s, or dictators in Greece in the 1970s.
The United States is a republic which has been stable and democratic for centuries. Germany is a republic which, like Japan, has been politically stable since re-adopting democratic government in the 1950s.
New Zealand has a proud democratic tradition stretching back to the middle of the nineteenth century. We had universal male suffrage in the 1860s, and were the first country in the world to give the vote to women, in 1893. Our long-standing democracy means a New Zealand republic will not be politically unstable.
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Queen Victoria and representatives of Maori iwi. However, the effective decisions were made by Governors and ministers. Since 1840 the monarch has treated Maori representations about the Treaty of Waitangi with, at best, polite ignorance, and, at worst, contempt.
The legal obligations of the Crown under the Treaty of Waitangi have already been transferred from the Queen of the United Kingdom to the Queen of New Zealand, who are legally separate persons. When New Zealand becomes a republic the legal obligations of the Crown can be transferred from the legal Queen of New Zealand to the government of New Zealand.