Editorial: Time to test waters again on republic

20:38, Jan 18 2010

There is marvellous irony – unconscious, perhaps – in the Government having invited an heir to the British throne to open the new Supreme Court building, given that the institution it now houses is one more step along a path to our becoming a republic. If that thought occurred to Prince William when he did the honours yesterday, he was too polite to express it, at least in his speech.

But he, his grandmother, the Queen, and his father, Prince Charles, are aware that republicanism is an ever-present subject in New Zealand, as well as in Australia, and that that step will probably be taken one day. The position of Buckingham Palace, which the young prince is officially representing – for the first time – on this visit, seems to be pragmatic: that the royal family is happy to serve New Zealand for as long as it is wanted.

But do Kiwis know what they want when it comes to changing their constitutional arrangements? Do they even care? Many people were unimpressed, for example, when titular honours, and later, the London-based Privy Council, were done away with, to be replaced by Kiwi versions of both.

That New Zealand was one of only a handful of minor Commonwealth countries that still had recourse to the Privy Council did not bother its supporters one whit. They argued – and continue to do so – that the pool in which to fish for senior and respected judges to sit on a homegrown Supreme Court is too small, considering the population of four million, and that the cost of the Privy Council itself was borne by British taxpayers.

There, they have a point: though the workload of the top court is not yet onerous, the cost of building and refurbishing the new Supreme Court complex has been high, at nearly $81 million.

Like it or not, however, the decision to abandon the Privy Council will not be reversed. So is the country ready to take the next step on the road to becoming a republic, with a president instead of the vice-regal pair? New Zealanders will soon have another opportunity to have their say.

Green list MP Keith Locke has finally had his Head of State Referenda Bill, which he has waited seven years to have pulled from the members' ballot, selected for debate by Parliament. It is to be hoped MPs will allow it to reach a select committee, so that those who feel strongly about retaining links with the British monarchy or electing a president as head of state can have their say.

Mr Locke believes strong arguments exist for change, "not least that we are now a confident, independent nation in the South Pacific. Having a head of state in Britain does not match who we are in the 21st century". Monarchists disagree. They feel respect for Prince William's granny, a woman who has dedicated her entire life to duty, unlike some of her offspring, and great affection for Charles' and Diana's elder son.

Though Parliament last considered our constitutional arrangements via a select committee inquiry only in 2005, it can do no harm to discuss it again.


The Dominion Post