Editorial: A post-royal NZ brings hard calls

Last updated 12:34 08/04/2014

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OPINION: They seem a nice family, William, Kate and George, and it's good of them to drop in.

Arriving in Wellington yesterday the young royals showed the easy charm that has given the British monarchy renewed popularity.

But whereas previous royal tours have evoked forelock tugging, there is the sense the Cambridges are now closer to entertainment celebrities, albeit ones whose stage is a procession of tourist stops, hand-waving and walkabouts.

They will undoubtedly be feted, and their personal appeal may further delay New Zealand's move to a republic that is seen as inevitable by most politicians and commentators.

There is also an "if it aint broke, why fix it?" element to the issue, but really there is no reason to have our head of state living in a palace on the other side of the world.

Prime Minister John Key has kicked off the preliminary discussion by proposing a cross-parliamentary group to work on a referendum on changing the flag after the election. Inevitably, that will lead to a wider discussion on republicanism.

Former Commonwealth secretary-general and deputy prime minister Sir Don McKinnon says it's inevitable we will become a republic; it's just a question of when.

If the flag debate does not catch the republic imagination beforehand, a new king could be the catalyst for change.

Key was wise to kick the flag issue into touch before the election because it and the wider constitutional issues deserve to be fully examined before they are subject to the campaign trail politics.

The crucial part of the debate we are yet to have is how we replace the monarchy. There are two main schools of thought. "Soft" republicanism would see the Governor-General's role transferred to a president who would be appointed by the Prime Minister. As head of state the president would also carry out the constitutional functions - such as signing bills into law - and ceremonial duties.

As now, they would be non-partisan and stay out of the business of Government.

A full republican option could see a completely new constitution, potentially with an elected president, though how those powers would stand alongside Parliament would be complex and controversial.

A third possibility is to have no head of state. It has the advantage of saving the Governor-General's $318,775 salary. But constitutional lawyers argue that while the role is largely symbolic, it's important to have such a symbol of national unity that transcends the government of the day.

The other deeply tangled fishhook in the debate is the Maori view of replacing its treaty partnership with the Crown.

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The transfer of powers from the Governor-General to a similarly appointed president seems the most straightforward option, but the answers will not be easy, or quick.

- Nelson

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