Change NZ's head of state not our succession laws

19:50, Dec 05 2012

The birth of a first child is an exciting and stressful time for any couple. For Prince William and Kate's first born, there's another dimension, a dimension no New Zealand couple would ever have to worry about. Unlike the 60,000 babies born in New Zealand this year, William and Kate's child will be in the line of succession for our next head of state. The birth of their child has a constitutional dimension that is itself changing - during Kate's pregnancy we could very well see major changes to how the line of succession to the throne works. This change could dislodge the royals in the states they still hold nominal office as head of state.

There's no denying the royals are popular and the subject of much media hype and attention. But beyond the hype and behind the scenes, a plan has been hatched to remove some of the unpopular and discriminatory aspects of the monarchy. This plan will impact on the constitutional life of William and Kate's child. In Perth, at the end of October 2011, the 16 states where the Queen is still head of state (now a minority of the Commonwealth's 52 member states where the majority are republics) agreed in principle to remove the sexist rule putting males before females in the succession, and the anti-Catholic rule banning the monarch's spouse from being Catholic. The rule banning Catholics from the throne is to remain.

Despite protests that the rule change will be retrospective for the birth of William and Kate's first child, the agreement still requires legislation amending the succession rules to be passed in 14 of the 16 constitutions involved (Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu do not need to amend their constitutions). This means the rule changes have some major hurdles to overcome just to be put in place in time for the birth of the next heir to the throne.

The Constitution of Canada, for example, specifically requires the unanimous consent of both federal and provincial parliaments to amend the succession rules. While no-one can argue against removing the sexist and discriminatory rules, there is the strong chance that the French-speaking province of Quebec could upset the apple cart. In Australia, there's the question of whether states that make up the Australian federation will agree to the changes. This is without looking at the checkered path of legislation other countries may follow. In the end, it might be too little, too late.

In December 2011, Jamaica elected a prime minister whose policy was the transition to a republic. Jamaica has now put in motion the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council and is due soon to introduce legislation to replace the Queen and governor-general with an independent Jamaican head of state. This election came just a month after the agreement to amend succession for future royal heirs was inked. Jamaica is the most populous Commonwealth member in the Caribbean and most influential. It is highly likely that republican-leaning politicians in the other nine Caribbean realms are watching the transition closely. The process of ending appeals to the Privy Council is almost complete. For Jamaica, the next logical step will be to break from the monarchy and have their own head of state.

Jamaica will be spared having to change its constitution for the sake of William and Kate's first born, but they won't miss out on royal tours. It's the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year and the British royals have been all over the Commonwealth touring a number of member states, both monarchies and republics. In September this year, William and Kate toured Southeast Asia. They visited Singapore, a member of the Commonwealth and a republic since 1965. Like his father Charles in New Zealand, William shook hands, complemented his hosts, discussed trade links and acknowledged the fallen. In Malaysia, an independent monarchy in the Commonwealth, he visited conservation projects and local industries.

The transition to a head of state chosen by New Zealand will not change our fascination with or the popularity of the royals. It means any child born in New Zealand could aspire to being our head of state. Regardless of succession rule changes, the important issue remains as to who New Zealand's next head of state is, and how they attain that office. The head of state's office is too important to be chosen in any way other than democratically. The way to resolve this issue is through referendums, asking the public if they want a New Zealander as head of state and how they should be chosen. The birth of the next heir or changes to the succession rules will not resolve this issue - only democratic process can do that.

Lewis Holden is chairman of the Republican Movement.


The Dominion Post