New Zealand has a strong habit of changing itself.
Unlike countries with prescriptive written rules of play, the tangle of norms, documents and legislation that make up our “constitution” can adapt to a changing world, or the demands of citizens.
Upset that first past the post elections produced unresponsive governments with absolute power, New Zealanders completely upended the electoral system in 1993, adopting a pluralistic system imported from West Germany. Sick of an upper house which wasn’t up to much, we abolished it in the early 1950s.
And way back in 1893, ahead of the rest of the world, a well-organised suffragist movement won all adult women the right to vote.
The New Zealand republican movement is now hoping that with the death of Queen Elizabeth II this reforming zeal can be aimed at the very heart of all sovereign power in New Zealand – the monarchy. The lobby group are purposefully keeping their powder dry for now, putting out a statement of condolence and promising not to make any further comment until after the funeral. Yet it is clear they see this shift from a beloved Queen we all grew up with to her son as their best chance in years.
I don’t think they will have much luck.
New Zealand does not share neighbouring Australia’s republican streak, probably because we’ve never seen a governor-general dismiss a government. There has been no referendum – as there was in Australia in 1999 – and as there could be after their next election. There is no assistant minister for the republic, as new Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese has appointed.
Polls are sporadic and inconclusive, unlike in Australia where most recent surveys favour a republic. New Zealanders seem to like the idea of an Aotearoa-born head of state, but not the rejection of the royals that this would require.
Back when he was still a prince, Charles enjoyed far less popularity than the Queen – but a 2012 poll still found a narrow majority wanted him as King once she passed.
More key than what Kiwis think about the issue is just how little they think of it at all. It’s easy to find polls showing a wide variety of people saying they support various political positions – most of us want action on climate change, for example. Yet for the vast majority of New Zealanders, and consequently the country’s political class, the question of who technically reigns is just not that important. Online petitions are silly playthings – but the fact a recent republican one has gathered fewer than 500 signatures tells us something. Many see the idea of a hereditary monarchy thousands of miles away technically holding all sovereign power in this country as absurd, but the “technically” keeps them from doing anything at all about it.
You could see a taste of this in John Key’s failed attempt to change our flag. The referendum cost a piddly $26m – a rounding error on government spending in the tens of billions – but aroused uproar as it was seen as a colossal waste of time and money. The flag referendum was one of Key’s most serious political missteps, and it sprung from a similar desire to modernise the country and remove a reminder of empire.
Transitioning to a republic would probably cost far more. Outgoing speaker Trevor Mallard recently estimated some hundreds of millions of dollars – still not that much in the scale of government spending, but enough to make a lot of people angry.
There is also the knotty issue of the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed between Māori and the crown. Elizabeth II understood the significance of the document her great-great-grandmother’s representatives had signed, personally apologising to Māori over the way the treaty had been ignored by her governments and signing the first treaty settlement. This does not mean that Māori monolithically support a crown that has trampled over its treaty obligations for years, but it does make the issue a complex one.
The early noises from the government, with Jacinda Ardern saying on Monday that she does not see a republic “on the agenda any time soon”, certainly do not suggest any rush to hold a referendum – which is probably the only way it could be forced on to the table as an issue. Australia’s moves could end up spurring us to “catch up” – we do like reform! But those moves to change our electoral system over the years all promised concrete benefits at the end of the road. If republicans want to succeed, they will need to offer New Zealanders something they can gain from a republic, not just something they will lose.
Henry Cooke is former chief political reporter for New Zealand news organisation Stuff